Intersectionality and class

By BRONWEN BEECHEY

This was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The concept of intersectionality originates from a 1989 article by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law studies professor and one of the founders of Critical Race Theory. While Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become one of the latest spectres haunting the right-wing in the US, it originated in the 1980s and 90s among a group of legal scholars, including Crenshaw, who took issue with the liberal consensus that discrimination and racism in the law were irrational and “that once the irrational distortions of bias were removed, the underlying legal and socioeconomic order would revert to a neutral, benign state of impersonally apportioned justice.” Crenshaw and other CRT founders argued that racism was not an aberration that could be legislated out of existence, highlighting the continuing economic inequality between whites and minorities, and the lack of minority representation in supposedly “colour-blind” institutions such as universities. Instead, Crenshaw wrote, discrimination continued due to the “stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance” – in other words, the American legal and political system was inherently racist.

The concept of intersectionality came from the ideas debated in CRT. Crenshaw’s 1989 article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum, centred on three legal cases that dealt with issues of both racial and sex discrimination. Each case, Crenshaw argued, demonstrated the limitations of a single-issue analysis of how the law considers racism and sexism.

For example, DeGraffenreid v General Motors was a 1976 case where five black women sued General Motors over its seniority policy. General Motors never hired black women until 1964, and so when seniority-based layoffs occurred after a recession in the early 1970s, all of the black women were laid off. The women argued that General Motors seniority policy was discriminatory on both racial and gender grounds. However, the court refused to consider the two categories together, stating in the words of the judge that “black women” could not be considered as a separate, protected class, as to do so would open up a “Pandora’s box” of minorities who would demand protection by the law.

Crenshaw argued that the 1976 case and others ignored the specific challenges facing black women as a group. She wrote:

The point is that Black women can experience discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradiction arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional. Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.

In a 2017 interview, Crenshaw said that “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

Intersectionality is also linked with the development of identity politics, a concept that was first articulated in a public statement by a black feminist social work, the Combahee River Collective. The statement highlighted the need to “develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of black men.” It concluded:

Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.

Identity politics was criticised by many on the left, on the basis that it encouraged an inward-looking focus that elevated differences between activists and emphasised the importance of lived experience over the development of solidarity between different groups. It was also criticised for creating “hierarchies of oppression” where the more types of oppression an individual suffered from, the higher their status. Others pointed out that identity politics was co-opted by the mainstream political parties, allowing them to present progressive legislation on women’s rights and LGBT+ issues while continuing their austerity policies toward workers and the poor. Intersectionality can be seen, at least in part, as a response to the limitations of identity politics, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

The concept of intersectionality was quickly picked up by other academics, who applied it to queer theory, feminist legal theory and numerous studies on race, gender and sexuality. Over time, it began to appear outside academia. In 2015, “intersectionality” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and shortly after the term became widely, though not always accurately, used in mainstream media. It quickly became associated with North American feminist campaigns such as Me Too and the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. As a result, “intersectionality” was added to the vocabulary of right-wingers as a term of abuse, along with “political correctness”, “cancel culture” and “privilege checking”. It was variously described as “a new caste system”, “a conspiracy theory of victimisation”, and representing a form of feminism that “puts a label on you. It tells you how oppressed you are. It tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.”

Interestingly, a number of conservative commentators have acknowledged that intersectionality as an idea or legal concept is valid. Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, who has described intersectionality as “really dangerous,” told Vox that “the original articulation of the idea by Crenshaw is accurate and not a problem” The issue for conservatives is the application of intersectionality beyond the academic sphere, where it is perceived as an attempt to invert an existing hierarchy of oppression so that white, straight, cisgender men are on the bottom. In response, Crenshaw points out that her aim is not to replicate existing power dynamics but to remove those power dynamics altogether. She adds that “There have always been people, from the very beginning of the civil rights movement, who had denounced the creation of equality rights on the grounds that it takes something away from them.”

Less predictably, intersectionality has also been criticised by left-wing and Marxist commentators. These critiques are focused on the role of class, which is recognised in intersectional theory as a form of oppression, but not given any more importance than other forms such as race, gender or sexuality; whereas Marxism traditionally views class as the primary form of oppression. Some of these arguments have been crudely reductionist, arguing that any discussion of race, gender and sexuality is a diversion from the class struggle. These arguments seem to assume that the working class is composed primarily of white men, a situation that has not existed for at least the past 30 years, if ever.

Other Marxist scholars, such as Barbara Foley, Eve Mitchell and Asad Haider, recognise the importance of anti-racist, feminist and queer issues, but argue that these “identities” are largely a product of capitalist social relations. According to Foley:

…the ways in which “race” and gender—as modes of oppression–have historically been shaped by the division of labor can and should be understood within the explanatory framework supplied by class analysis, which foregrounds the issue of exploitation, that is, of the profits gained from the extraction of what Marx called “surplus value” from the labor of those who produce the things that society needs.

Eve Mitchell describes intersectional theory as in part, a response to the marginalisation of women of colour in the 1960s and 1970s feminist, Black Power, and other anti-racist organisations. She states:

It is important to note that identity politics and intersectionality theorists are not wrong, but they are incomplete. Patriarchal and racialized social relations are material, concrete and real. So are the contradictions between the particular and universal, and the appearance and essence. The solution must build upon these contradictions and push on them…Embracing womanhood, organizing on the basis of blackness, and building a specifically queer politics is an essential aspect of our liberation. It is the material starting point of struggle.

However, both Mitchell and Haider argue, the essential next step is to move beyond organising around identity and towards an understanding that solidarity between all those oppressed by capitalism is the only way to defeat it.

Other Marxist commentators argue that there is no incompatibility between intersectionality and Marxism. Sofa Saio Gradin, a queer non-binary Marxist, writes:

Radical queerness and anti-racism are not forms of identity politics; and class struggle is not free from questions of identity. All forms of social life are already coded by class, race, gender and disability, so there are no forms of politics or struggle that exist outside these structures of social power. The claim that intersectional critiques distract from the ‘real struggle’ or are divisive is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both intersectionality and socialism: the question is not whether the two can be integrated, but how.

In her 2020 book, Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism, Ashley Bohrer also argues that “a thorough analysis of capitalism requires insights and tools from both Marxist and intersectional traditions.” She adds, in a recent interview:

We can’t understand race (in its gendered, sexualised, ability-laden senses) without understanding that the modern notion of race was invented in a capitalist world, that we all experience race in a capitalist world. There is no separating any of these categories from capitalism and there is no separating capitalism from race, gender, sexuality, ability or nationality.

The role of intersectionality in Aotearoa New Zealand is particularly relevant in a nation that Marxists describe as a colonial-settler state. Like Australia, Canada and the United States, Aotearoa New Zealand was settled by Europeans as part of an imperialist project, where the colonising nation (England) displaced and often physically extinguished the indigenous population with the aim of seizing its resources. Later waves of migration brought other nationalities in, particularly Pacific Islanders who were used as a cheap labour force following the post-Second World War boom. As a result, a large percentage of the working class in New Zealand (if not the majority) are Māori, Pasefika or other ethnicities such as Chinese or Indian. This has given class struggle an intersectional dimension. To give one example, the support of unions for the occupation of Takaparawhau/Bastion Point in the 1970s was instrumental in ensuring that, even after the occupation was violently ended by police and army, construction was not able to proceed.

The effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa NZ also can be seen through an intersectional lens. The most affected community in the wave of the delta strain has been the Pasefika community. This is due to several factors. Firstly, many of the “essential workers” who have been working through the lockdowns – medical staff, retail workers, supply chain and transport workers – are Pasefika or Māori and therefore at greater risk. These workers are low paid and generally live in substandard, overcrowded housing. It is also customary in Pasefika and Māori cultures for elderly family members to be cared for at home by relatives, meaning that COVID-19 (particularly the Delta variant) spreads rapidly and affects both the old and the very young.

The importance of the church to the majority of Pasefika families has resulted in super-spreader events at large church services, and some churches have shared anti-vax conspiracy theories among their followers. Historical memories of the Dawn Raids and racism has created an understandable distrust of government; and there are many in the community who have overstayed work visas and are reluctant to go to vaccination or testing centres (although there is no restriction on eligibility due to immigration status).

Added to this is the chronic underfunding of health services, particularly in South Auckland where the majority of Pacific peoples live.

The low vaccination rate among Māori can also be explained by the legacy of colonialism, where Māori were dispossessed of their land and food sources, had their language and culture suppressed and lost thousands to diseases introduced by the settlers. Māori in rural areas have limited access to health services and transport. Disinformation about vaccines has also had an impact, feeding into general distrust of government and health policies that have disadvantaged and discriminated against Māori in the past.

Taking an intersectional approach means supporting efforts by Māori and Pasefika communities to organise vaccination and testing at marae, churches and other sites where community members feel comfortable, and to develop resources in their own languages to encourage vaccination and counter disinformation. It means supporting efforts by Māori and Pasefika to counter food insecurity. It means calling on the government to increase benefits and wages and build more public housing. And it means supporting the fight against climate change, which in many areas is already being led by Pasefika and Māori youth.

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us that capitalism is prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to keep its profits coming. The majority of those lives are those of the poor and people of colour. At the same time, there have been countless examples of solidarity in responding to the pandemic. This solidarity can be built upon a basis of understanding that different people experience oppression in different ways, as well as understanding the common cause of that oppression – a system that considers certain lives to be expendable so that the rich can survive.

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