Oppression can be fragmented but it usually acts in a multilevel of power dynamics.
Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, sizeism; these are some forms of oppression that people experience in our culture everyday. We can be easily aware of all these separately, but sometimes these individual forms of oppression can be combined with others and create something more than the sum of their parts:
“Intersectionality refers to the interaction between gender, race, and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these interactions in terms of power” (Davis, 2008).
That is, the different characteristics of one’s identity are combined together to form something bigger and in some cases completely different than a single dimension of an identity on its own (McCall, 2005). Intersectionality takes into account that people’s lives are constructed under a lot of identity dimensions and in some cases their importance to a specific social discourse vary, with one or some to be more prominent than the others.
The everyday lives of people all around the globe are impacted in various and unique ways because of the intersections of their different, consious or unconsious, chosen or not chosen, identities with which are embodied. One good example is the research of Alfrey and Twine (2017), which provides findings showing how race, sexuality and gender interact to reproduce structural inequalities in the new economy. The research shows that the occupational inequality is based not only in the gender identity itself (cis/trans), but also in the perfomativity of this very gender identity. By cultivating a style of communication and dress that made the women participating in the study indistinguishable from their male peers, it was resulted that women who identified as gender fluid, achieved a significant degree of acceptance by their male peers. The same though couldn’t be applied for the Black women participants.
In this discussion, the performativity and queer theory by Judith Butler can also be shortly discussed, since it shares the same questioning and refection upon identities but from a different point of view:
“One consequence of Butler’s theoretical position is that political action is to be directed at destabilizing the binary gendered and sexual categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, … the very idea of a ‘natural’ category is simply an effect of discourse. But the effect of such destabilization is often seen as being the rejection of such categories altogether” (Aslop et al., 2002, pp.105-106).
Since our identities are constructed into various social contexts, there is no point to speak for identity categories per se, outside of a certain discourse. When Butler says “there is no subject who precedes or enacts this repetition of norms” (1993), she means that in order someone to be recognized as a person, they should be subjected to certain normative ideologies. Being a subject, which is being recognized as a legitimate person, doesn’t mean you’re free but rather that you’re “free” to choose through a series of choices that are still “negotiated within a matrix of power” (Butler, 1993). So, if somenone tries to re-construct their identities freely, without taking into account the social norms, as a politicized individual, they lose the possibility to organize collective politics and actions. That is due to the core existence of standardized and normative identities in collective politics, in the extend that they determine the socialized existence and choices of each individual.
Intersectionality is a very important notion in feminism; as the feminist discource tries to identify the discrimination and oppression towards femininities (that is everyone who identifies as women), sometimes the work of feminist scholars seems to be “pre-occupied with the experiences of white middle-class women or to ignore completely the experiences of other women” (Single-Rushton, 2013). Intersectionality, described as “one of the most important theoretical contributions that Women’s Studies, in conjunction with related fields, has made thus far” (McCall, 2005), “brings together a set of ideas about the complex multidimensionality of subjectivity and social stratification and the consequences of its mis-specification” (Single-Rushton, 2013). Identifying as a woman means much more than having a certain gender identity and the sexist discrimination usually embodies a combination of systems of oppression, rather than the gender inequality itself. Living in a society where norms and identities overlap, it would be ignorant and unrealistic not to take into account this overlapping because it’s this complexity that cannot be examined as small little pieces, but rather in a total, in order to fully comprehend the wholeness of the social oppression.
All in all, using a single-category approach of research is not a realistic way to examine some of the social problems, when it comes to inequality; although structures of inequality can be discussed separately, it is not possible the complexity of individuals’ everyday life to be determined in a fragmented and sterile way (McCall, 2005). So, through the lens of intersectionality, it is revealed that the elements of each one’s identity don’t actually exist independently of each other. All of these elements are inextricably linked and can be combined to place people into a unique intersection of oppression. By examining only one identity category of an individual or a group, it is a fallacy that someone can fully comprehend or even sometimes recognize that there is discrimination.
Alfrey, L., & Twine, F.W. (2016). Gender-Fluid Geek Girls: negotiating inequality regimes in the Tech industry. Gender & Society, 31, 28-50.
Alsop, R., Fitzsimons, A., Lennon, K. and Minsky, R. ed., (2002). Judith Butler: ‘The Queen of Queer’. In: Theorizing Gender, 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.94-113.
Butler, J. (1993). “Critically Queer.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1:1, pp.17-32. Print.
Davis, K. (2008). Intersectionality as buzzword. A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful. Feminist Theory, 9(1), 67-85.
McCall, L. (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30 (3), S. 1771-1800.
Sigle-Rushton, W. (2013) Intersectionality. In: Evans, Mary and Williams, Carolyn, (eds.) Gender: The Key Concepts. Routledge key guides. Routledge, Abingdon, UK.