Reflections on Racial-Gender Intersectionality Theory

Two approaches in sociology have developed for analyzing social injustice: gendered racism and intersectionality. Despite similarities between the two, some recent studies have neglected earlier contributions to this topic. This essay raises questions as to why this is happening.

In the late 1990s, I co-authored several articles and was first author on a book, Double Burden, on the topic of gendered racism. Data for the book came from two sources: a large national set of interviews with middle-class African Americans, and focus group interviews. Our model was Everyday Racism (1990), Philomena Essed’s pioneering comparative study of gendered racism, based on the experiences of Surinamese women in the Netherlands and African American women. According to Essed:

Black women are faced with oppression on the basis of their gender (sexism), their racial/ethnic origin (racism), and – in most cases – on the basis of their class as well (classism). These different forms of oppression converge in black women’s experience. . . . Being both women and black, they may meet with different forms of sexism than do white women.

It is often difficult to establish when a new idea appears. But Ange-Marie Hancock, author of a recent analysis of intersectionality, places around 1988 as the approximate date. Hancock gives credit to legal critical scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw for introducing the concept. Another scholar considered a founder is Bonnie Thornton Dill. So, Essed’s work on the combined effects of race and gender was published very early.

Moreover, her early and powerful definition of gendered racism strikingly resembles the definition of intersectionality in a recent book by sociologists Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge more than twenty years later:

Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity of the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways.

As defined here, intersectionality seems widely applicable. But so is the theory of gendered racism. The image of crossroads is analogous to both concepts. As crossroads, intersectionality and gendered racism have similar complexities and consequences. The more sections meet, the greater need for caution and intervention. Here is gendered racism as defined in Double Burden in the 1990s:

In the everyday lives of black women there are distinctive combinations of racial and gender factors. They face not only the “double jeopardy” condition of having to deal with both racism and sexism but also the commonplace condition of unique combinations of the two. Because racial and gender characteristics are often blended, they may trigger individual and collective reactions by whites that are also fused. This real-world blending often makes it difficult to know the separate contributions of each element in particular situations that involve both racial and gender barriers to social mobility and personal achievement.

Several articles which preceded the publication of Double Burden also explored gendered racism, describing it as “discrimination faced by black women that stems from the intersection of race and gender.” Based upon interviews with African American women, the articles also explored the subtle nature of gendered racism, as well as its costs for life in the workplace, and for the African American family.

Intersections are clearly not limited to inequalities of gender and race. Class, age, marital status, education, politics, economics, homeownership, health status, foreign or immigrant status, ethnicity, citizenship, sexual and religious preferences – academic ranking and institutional status for scholars – in addition to many more factors, can intersect at multiple levels.

Intersectionality is presented as “new and improved,” qualities valued in the United States. It is also useful for macro-level analyses of such categories as transnationalism, diasporic citizenship, and institutions. Are these levels sufficient? Take, for example, the enduring conflicts on Quisqueya (Hispaniola) between the Ayiti (Haitians)and those in the Dominican Republic. The experiential reality (micro level) of Dominican-Haitians in the Dominican Republic is likely different for men and women (i.e., gendered). It is also a vestige of historical supremacy and related policies at the macro level. The study of gendered racism precedes the idea of intersectionality, and continues to be relevant to building a sociological frame. Thus, it is important to cast a net widely enough to acknowledge the contributions of earlier scholars.

I reviewed several articles for this commentary (Allen, 2002; Hughes and Howard-Hamilton, 2003; Shorter-Gooden, 2004; Rodriguez, 2006; Jones et al, 2007; Hall et al., 2012; Grollman 2014), as listed at the end of this commentary. Of particular interest to me are analyses responding critically to a lack of research on immigrant women. In the United States, immigrant women have experiences similar to those of African-American women, but additional characteristics such as language and skin color make analysis more difficult. When present in combination, these factors would enter any analysis that uses gendered racism as a theoretical framework.

Class, determined by skin color and language, adds even more intersections. Lighter skin offers privileges not accessible to dark women. Accented speech, signifying a lack of cultural assimilation, can block or delay social mobility. Yet, in other circumstances the same speech can serve as asset, differentiating black immigrant women from native born, and even improve their status. These subtler considerations enter the intersections that shape gendered racism or the intersectionality framework.

Earlier, I mentioned foreign origin status as important to the analysis of both intersectionality and gendered racism. Recent research shows:

racial identity attitudes moderate the relationship between racist stress events, racist stress appraisal, and mental health. . . . [M]ulticultural identity attitudes are somewhat protective against the impact of race-related stress on mental health (Jones, Cross, DeFour, 2007); [and] black Caribbean immigrants have a broader interpretation of race than native-born Blacks (Vickerman, 1999; Waters, 1994; 1999).

This is because,

[t]he historical context of race relations in the United States lends itself to a specific racial orientation for native-born Blacks, because being that in the United States is associated with the specific economic and occupational outcomes that are persistent. [However,r]esearch also suggests that Caribbean immigrants become more racialized the longer they reside in the United States (Vickerman, 1999: 211).

Thus, for immigrant women length of time in the United States is also an important intra-section that helps explain similarities as well as variations in the experience of gendered racism.

I browsed two recent book-length publications on intersectionality and for the most part found what seems to be competition among scholars for the ownership of “intersectionality.” The concept has gained so much in popularity, it is becoming part of the “social scientific buzz” of our time. Although gendered racism is closely related the theory of intersectionality, it does not have a prominent place in these writings. I was taken aback when looking in the bibliographies of Hancock and of Collins and Bilge’s Intersectionality for the name “Philomena Essed,” but could not find it.

The index of the first edition of Collins’ Black Feminist Thought(1990) does not list “intersectionality.” However, the concept appears numerous times in the second edition (2000). The reference section of this newer edition also lists Essed’s Everyday Racism (1991) on page 309, and Double Burden on page 322. However, these two publications do not appear in Collins and Bilge’s 2016 Intersectionality.

In my view it is not enough to write, as Collins and Bilge: “You may find that some of your favorite authors are barely mentioned and that authors whom you have never heard of are discussed at length.” It is incumbent on scholars to give credit to those who contributed to building ideas they later develop. This is even more important for sociologists aware of the consequences of “gendered-racial” exclusion, mirrored by institutions, including the academic. Scholars must lift up less well known scholars working outside research universities, rather than take an elitist attitude toward academic publications.

As a theoretical frame, intersectionality is powerful. But so is the earlier gendered racism. Actually, I too prefer “intersectionality.” It removes the accusatory tone of gendered racism, making it more acceptable as a research tool, and more engaging for discussions. But what is needed in future analyses is clarity. Are the authors speaking to other scholars, to the public, or to themselves? Intersectionality builds upon existing theoretical tools, adding new meaningful categories to the original intersections of race, gender and class.

In addition, this issue of academic elitism, so far, may not have received much attention. But there is a perception (often a demonstrable reality) that scholarship produced by academics working outside research universities is given less consideration by other scholars inside those institutions. It may be time for sociology and other social sciences to address the gap between its ideal of inclusivity and the reality of marginalization.

Yanick St Jean, Ph.D., teaches and researches sociology at Northwest Arkansas Community College

My article References:

Allen, Beverlyn Lundy. 2002. “Race and Gender Inequality in Homeownership.” Rural Sociology 67 (4): 603-621.
Allen, Walter R., Angela D. James and Ophella Dano (eds.). 1998. “Comparative Perspectives on Black Family Life.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies. XXIX: 2 (Summer). Sage.
Grollman, Anthony Eric. 2014. “Multiple Disadvantaged Statuses and Health.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 55(1): 3-19.
Hall, J. Camille, Joyce E. Everett and Johnnie Hamilton-Mason. 2012. “Black Women Talk About Workplace Stress and How They Cope.” Journal of Black Studies 43(2): 207-226.
Hughes, Robin L. and Mary F. Howard-Hamilton. 2003. “Insights.” New Directions for Student Services 95-104 (Winter).
Jones, Hollie L., William E. Cross Jr. and Darlene C. DeFour. 2007. “Race-Related Stress, Racial Identity Attitudes, and Mental Health Among Black Women.” Journal of Black Psychology 33 2: 208-231.
Lovejoy, Meg. 2001. “Disturbances in the Social Body.” Gender& Society 15 (2): 239-261.
Rodriguez, Dalia. 2006. “Un/masking Identity.” Qualitative Inquiry 12(6):1067-1090.
Shorter-Gooden, Kumea. 2004 “Multiple Resistance Strategies.” Journal of Black Psychology 30 (3): 406-425.
Thompson, Maxine S. and Verna M. Keith. 2001. “The Blacker the Berry.” Gender & Society 15 (3): 337-357.

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