Intersectionality and its

Discontents

Harvest Keeney

“Intersectionality” is a familiar term among conversations regarding race, sexuality, gender, etc. “Intersectional” functions to define those with experiences and identities that do not fit within a singular category. Moreover, an intersectional approach is considered essential in order to fully recognize marginalized individuals and communities, especially within feminist theory. Jasbir Puar analyzes intersectionality in her article, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” to further examine its relationship among feminist thought production. However, the first segment of her analysis is titled, “Intersectionality and Its Discontents,” implying a different understanding of the intersectional approach. Puar does indeed present a disparate view of intersectionality by examining its problematic potentialities. Additionally, she includes the work of several theorists to support her analyses. I noticed a particular common thread that Avtar Brah, Ann Phoenix, Nira Yuval Davis, and Rey Chow shared, which clarified why intersectionality and intersectional approaches can be so precarious. Furthermore, by applying their arguments to the current issues of today’s world, we are able to see their claims in action. I believe the use of intersectionality has proved to be problematic during the COVID-19 global pandemic, as well as the recent surge of Black Lives Matter protests in response to George Floyd’s lynching. 

Avtar Brah and Ann Phoenix situate intersectionality within a global context, highlighting geopolitical issues that are important to recognize as catalysts for intersectional approaches. They claim that past debates and discourses often resurface when society acquires a new sense of urgency due to recent events. We can see their argument in action when thinking about the social and economic issues that COVID-19 has incited. For instance, accessible and affordable healthcare is of concern, considering that many lower-income families lack dependable insurance (or insurance at all). With the threat of a global pandemic looming over the nation, countries are being compared and scrutinized in the differing ways that they are approaching healthcare disparities. These disparities exist among those that are not affluent white folks, signaling the importance of examining marginalized communities. However, healthcare disparities are only being prioritized because the world is in a state of emergency. With the threat of COVID-19, a new sense of urgency has been acclaimed, and society is shifting its focus to accommodate it. Shouldn’t healthcare disparities be of concern, even when it is as simple as a common cold? Additionally, in response to the flood of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, shouldn’t all Black lives be of concern every day, including those with intersectional experiences? I cannot help but notice the sudden, and overwhelming support for Black transgender women on my social media. Would the donations and Instagram-reposts be as numerous if the Black Lives Matter movement was not trending on twitter? Furthermore, Brah and Phoenix continue to emphasize that the categories which are produced because of intersectional approaches do not always abound “national and regional boundaries.” Essentially, intersectional analyses do not equate a fixed definition, or category. Instead, they relate to the country in which they are invented. Brah and Phoenix include the notion of “discrete identity” as an example. “Discrete identity” is rooted in “modernist colonial agendas” and epistemic violence, meaning western-euro American systems that target specific groups of people through structural disparities. Nonetheless, in light of the world’s current social and political issues, I believe that intersectional experiences are being translated across borders and seas. The importance of essential workers and their high risk of contracting the virus can be seen everywhere. Moreover, the long-standing issue of American police brutality is being protested by supporters around the world. I guess the true question is, what allows a particular intersectional approach to become of global significance, in which its problematic confinement to its roots is dissipated. 

Subsequently, Nira Yuval Davis points out that the emerging analysis and methodology of intersectionality can often suffer from confusion, as it clashes with its predecessors. Davis refers to the feminist scholars who have already begun working on the issues that suddenly resurface as intersectional approaches. Davis also notes that America’s interest in intersectionality has mainly stemmed from movements; while in Europe, intersectionality’s importance is rooted in their efforts to recognize race and pursue its long-overdue theorization, considering its lack thereof in many societal systems. Furthermore, Davis claims that intersectionality is a heuristic for teaching difference in America, and also that the U.S. is reproduced as the “dominant site of feminist inquiry.” Collectively, Davis’ points convey a problematic intervention, in which “transnational and postcolonialist feminist scholars” are pushed to the back along with the subject matter they have been working with. Instead, they are interjected with intersectional analyses, which ultimately convolute matters that are already in the progress of being examined. It seems as if centralized movements allow for issues to become “new” again, but in the process, original scholars are discredited. Davis’ argument is relevant to the world’s current state, just as Brah and Phoneix’s theories withstood. Her claim is demonstrated in the surge of information being circulated on social media as a response to COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement. Healthcare disparities among lower-income families of color is an issue that has constantly pervaded history; just as systemic racism, perpetrated by police forces has been continuously recognized. Nonetheless, it is only because of current movements and events that these issues have been allowed to reclaim the spotlight. As these issues ascend the social media trend hierarchy, I feel that the activists and scholars who prioritize these topics on a daily basis become a part of the mass. Intersectional approaches allow long-standing issues to become hashtags and trends that periodically resurface the internet. 

Puar concludes this particular segment of her analysis by referencing Rey Chow’s argument. Chow echoes intersectionality’s problematic potentialities by presenting her own argument: poststructuralist significatory incarceration. In other words, intersectionality prompts a questionable reevaluation of the particular subject. This reinvestment includes questioning whether the marginalized subject is “still a viable site” to produce politics, and ultimately be included in political discourse. Essentially marginalized subjects are second-guessed, and their validity of being a political priority is reinvestigated. Moreover, intersectional approaches create new differences, which in return produces new subjects to be inquired upon. The process of promoting inclusion is backfired, as paths of exclusion are multiplied. Chow continues to criticize poststructuralist efforts, as intersectionality becomes a form of anti-essentialism for them; meaning that if our observations appear to be different, we must give these differences our attention. Yet, poststructuralists seem to make things which have always been controversial appear in varied light, allowing the issue to become “new again.” Chow explains it through a formula, “Subject X may be different in content, but shows up, time and again, the same in form.” When inserting COVID-19 in this formula, we can think of health disparities as Subject X, and content being the Coronavirus and other various diseases and outbreaks from the past (such as Swine Flu). Both of these occurrences have prompted the resurfacing of healthcare issues among low-income families of color. Similarly, when inserting George Floyd’s murder in Chow’s formula, we can think of police brutality against Black lives as Subject X, and content being George Floyd’s lynching; as well as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the other countless names of Black lives who were victims of police brutality. Again, these murders have all provoked surges of Black Lives Matter movements and protests. 

The common thread that is woven through each of these theorists’ claims, is that intersectionality becomes problematic when it situates long-standing issues as “new topics” for the sake of relevancy. It undermines the subject matter’s temporal significance, as well as the progress and work of its deep-seated scholars. It creates a new string of loose ends, though the issue itself has implored a solution long-before. When thinking about the issues that seem to be at the forefront of our world today, including the Coronavirus pandemic as well as George Floyd’s lynching, we must approach these issues not as solely contemporary events. I think that we need to consider the underlying problems in which these occurrences have stemmed from; ultimately viewing them within a broader context, and noting what led up to the “new” issues that have emerged. 

Rachelle Barone

During the time of COVID-19, the world has seemingly shut down and turned people’s homes into shelters of safety from an impending airborne illness. However, as lockdowns took effect and society started to slow down and really reflect, a not-so-new pandemic took the headlines, as the death of George Floyd echoed across the media with a video of him being killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while a crowd of people protested the act. This is another public lynching of a Black man that has been committed by a police officer under the guise of the law, and not even the last one since this incident took place just a few weeks ago. Now, the current social atmosphere in the U.S. has turned from fear of the COVID-19 pandemic to rage against blatant racism and police brutality within this country, as protesting has turned into complete social unrest with the Black Lives Matter movement spearheading the way towards change in our society. Meanwhile, the Coronavirus continues to claim lives across the nation, as people are risking both their lives and their health to march the streets in the name of human rights and the dismantling of a system that upholds racism at its core. All of this happening during national pride month brings ideas of intersectionality and feminism to mind, as we apply the ideas of Jasbir Puar’s article on intersectionality, assemblage, and affective politics to the current events happening today in order to make sense of it all.

A lot of things have changed within this country since the murder of George Floyd. What once was supposed to be a stay at home order with people sheltering in place at their homes, wearing masks outside and trying to stay 6 feet apart from others at all times to fight this deadly virus, has now become a mandatory curfew and continued brute force against protestors outdoors trying to stand for what they believe is right. This country was very involved in the issue of the Coronavirus sweeping the nation, issuing closures of stores and restructuring the everyday lives of the American people. Many people have lost their jobs, and many have lost their lives during this time. However, not once during the stay-at-home orders was a curfew or mask-wearing enforced by the police force or the law. When protestors gathered in Orange County and other parts of the nation against wearing masks and not being able to access the same services they were able to before the lockdowns, police were calm and collected while the protestors got in their faces and even threatened them. Now, during the protests for George Floyd against police brutality and systemic racism, what was supposed to be peaceful has turned into complete chaos, as crowds of people gather and are met with pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets to enforce a new curfew and the idea that their protests are wrong. However, as theorist Kimberle Crenshaw noted in her 1991 article, there are three crucial forms of intersectional analysis, which include structural, political, and representational. Puar’s article credits Crenshaw for being one of the first to mention intersectionality as part of her feminist theory, making it a very popular and widely used term in the feminist scholar community. All of these forms of analysis that Crenshaw mentioned as part of intersectional analysis can be used to see the issues within the current system we live in and how it forms an unfair and unequal existence for Black people and peoples of color, particularly Black women, as feminism is one of the cornerstones of this movement for its belief in equality and equity. These forms of analysis can astutely explain just why protesting is so important and necessary right now, for dismantling the patriarchy that upholds racist stereotypes and practices still in a so-called progressive country while it continues to belittle and badger Black men, women, and non-binary peoples on the street, in their homes, at places of work, and at school, to name a few. The Black Lives Matter movement can be said to come from these forms of analysis, as this original hashtag syllabus was made to show how police brutality disproportionately affects Black people, and how easily police are able to get away with racial profiling while on the job, even when they end up killing somebody with excessive force. These cases are used as emblems of a broken system that lets people in power, as part of the patriarchy, use and abuse their power for personal and political gain. The reason we are seeing so much more coverage now on these protests and riots in the media is emblematic of the system at large trying to diverge from the goal and show the public in pandemonium, and as the elections of 2020 are nearing closer, this makes political stunts more likely and prominent during this time of needed change. Meanwhile, people are hearing less about the Coronavirus that is continuing to kill thousands of Americans nation-wide, maybe even more now that people are seeing less news about it and therefore believe it will not affect them any longer. The news has no way of intersectional analysis when it comes to current events when it is needed most.

While people are vouching for change in the system, dismantling some forms and beliefs of society must be done in order to succeed in changing society for better equity. As feminist theorist Malini Schueller believes, the act of “othering” can be more harmful than helpful, and in this current situation aligning oneself with the BLM movement is not saying that this is a white and black issue, but rather a people versus racism. Puar mentions that this kind of othering can be more harmful to the idea of intersectionality and intersectional analysis than good, as it makes things seem different from one default subject, which always happens to be the white feminist woman. It doesn’t need to be said that other issues like the Coronavirus and people rioting causing public and property damages, however, there is no right way to protest, and if people spent less time trying to separate themselves from the movement or from the riots and instead focused on the real issues going on they would see that it does not need to be said that all lives matter because right now Black lives need to matter just as much as every other life in America and worldwide. Black lives matter is a movement to address the othering and racism that Black people face daily that is harmful to not only their wellbeing but their success and livelihoods. It is not enough to not kill them, but to give them the same opportunities at justice and freedom as their white counterparts, because everything is compared to how white people are treated. During the Coronavirus protests, white people formed a majority of the crowds, and there were no arrests, tear gassing, or curfews made to keep them from using their voices. During the protests for George Floyd’s justice, there have been countless arrests, rubber bullets shot directly at people in crowds, and peaceful protesting met with curfews, like the one in LA currently set at 6 pm to keep people off the streets to gather and protest. Each of these protests is an example of how the police handle groups of white people and groups of people of color. Even with white allies, there is no justice or thought involved when it comes to condemning Black people and people of color for using their voices to speak out against injustice and unfair treatment compared to groups of white people advocating for haircuts during a global pandemic. 


Being an intersectional Black woman in America right now is most likely harder than getting a haircut during a global pandemic. As Audre Lorde wrote in her article on Age, Race, Class, and Sex, “...it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes...Black and Third World people are expected to educate White people as to our humanity”. That sentiment is seen carried out in every protest, every informational post, every linked piece of literature and work in the hashtag syllabus that is the Black Lives Matter movement. The need for educating the oppressors to their mistakes is so strong now that even white allies are calling out their racist and uneducated peers to get educated and join the fight for human rights that has been going on for decades. There is an obvious reason we have not been seeing much news of the global pandemic that has been terrorizing our hearts and homes because there is a new big moment in history happening in the streets outside of lockdown that is threatening Black people’s lives more than the Coronavirus could have in the same amount of time it was given before George Floyd’s untimely murder. The connection between today’s happenings and yesterday’s literature about the world and societies we live in have not changed very much, and that is one of the biggest issues. Progress has to start somewhere, and the first step has been taken, just like the first brick was thrown at Stonewall creating history and commemorating it with a whole month celebrating intersectional pride during June. All big moments in history can be seen in the media, and the Coronavirus pandemic created the perfect storm for a social uprising here in America. Now, there needs to be action taken in dismantling the system we know to create space for a better America, that cares for people of every ethnicity, race, gender, identity, and origin in true intersectional style, instead of simply reforming a broken system that prioritizes white lives over every other life in America.

SOURCES

Crenshaw, Kimberle,  “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” https://heinonline.org/hol-cgi-bin/get_pdf.cgi?handle=hein.journals/stflr43&section=52

 

Lorde, Audre  "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference" 

https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=C4w9DAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA16&dq=Audre+lorde+age+race+class+and+sex&ots=xYpB_cRMkh&sig=HBl8n1zrn-GFj17tSJqU10QR6as

 

Schueller, Malini Johar, "Analogy and (White) Feminist Theory: Thinking Race and the Color of the Cyborg Body“ https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/431372

 

Puar, Jasbir. "‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and

Affective Politics." Meritum, revista de Direito da Universidade FUMEC 8.2 (2013).

https://transversal.at/transversal/0811/puar/en