Examining Intersectionality: The Conflation of Race, Gender, and Class in Individual and Collective Identities
As many cultural studies theorists have noted, identity is problematic (Hall, 1989; Ang, 2001; Brah, 1996). It is ambiguous because it is in a constant state of negotiation and interpretation: ever changing, always contested, sometimes contradictory, and continuously repositioned by the specificities of place, time, history, culture and experience. Moreover, identity is performed – it is as Ien Ang (2001:24) suggests, ‘strategically fabricated’ to promote a certain aspect or quality of oneself in order to communicate something to the outside world.
Avtar Brah (1996:10) also considers the politics of self, claiming that the use of ‘I’ or ‘me’ implies an authoritative ‘pre-given reality’ despite the changing nature of identity, and despite the ways in which identity is constructed through narration (or representation). For Brah (1996:10), we are constituted by and through narration and thus, ‘the individual narrator does not unfold, but is produced in the process of narration.’
But to whom we are narrating, and for what purpose, is critical here, as the power relations that are inscribed in the relationship between audience and narrator can create, alter, conceal, or altogether erase subjectivities. That is, by claiming a particular identity, other self-identifications are overshadowed or suppressed in the same way that individual identities are often compromised when a collective identity is constructed.
Furthermore, hegemonic, hetero-normative discourse positions us (vis-à-vis one another) in a symbolic hierarchy that reflects and evaluates race, class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. Though we are all subjectified by the power of discourse, resistance may be found in deconstructing and interrogating the articulation between our various subjectivities. Intersectionality, for many theorists (see Brah, 1996; Brah and Phoenix, 2004; Lewis, 2006), is a way to challenge subjectification based on gendered assumptions, essentialized difference, racialization, and other post-colonial regimes of power.
Stuart Hall (1989:226) argues that cultural identity is ‘not an essence, but a positioning’, positioned by the discourses of culture and history, and is thus dictated by a politics of position. The same can be said of self-identity – that it is shaped, positioned and interpreted by discourse, and what is more, it is performed in ways that conform to discursive formations. Ang (2001:24) observes that autobiography or the act of self-representation involves a staging of a ‘useful identity’ – one that entails a particular message or objective. Identity is thus fabricated, and the process of fabrication (or construction, creation, manipulation…) emphasizes a certain aspect/s of a whole identity, so that something may be communicated about our self-perception (how we perceive ourselves), our imagined self (how we imagine others perceive us), and/or our contextual belonging (our reasons for promoting a given quality, or for ‘being’ who we are).
Being a Ugandan of Indian descent, Brah (1996) demonstrates how the politics of self are crucial to self-perception and self-imagining. Throughout her account, she shows that by being positioned in different ways (as a subject in different social symbolic hierarchies) and experiencing how she was perceived by others, she came to question how she perceived herself, not only as an individual (African/Indian/black/feminist), but also as a collective subject (Asian/non-white/exile/migrant/immigrant woman) (Brah, 1996). From this, Brah (1996) raises some interesting questions about how race and gender subjectivities are framed in different contexts.
Gail Lewis (2006) argues that in the European context, the immigrant woman symbolizes the archetypal non-European subjectivity that threatens the imaginary of Europe. That is, as “Europe” attempts to construct an essential (and exclusive) European identity through an imagined commonality, the non-European woman (non-white/non-Western/non-Judeo-Christian) imposes upon the symbolic imaginary, disrupting the hegemonic, idealized gender order of transparency and equality (Lewis, 2006).
Linda Duits and Leisbet Van Zoonen (2006) claim that the gendered subtext of social tension regarding women’s clothing, and in particular, the Muslim veil, illustrate how sexuality and femininity are regulated through hegemonic discourse (see also Brah and Phoenix, 2004). They maintain that as the classic symbol of Otherness, the headscarf ‘symbolizes alleged essential differences’ and is the ultimate sign of not belonging to the West (Duits and Van Zoonen, 2006:109).
Therefore, the headscarf (as a physical symbol of difference) is a kind of ‘corporeal malediction’, a symbol that impresses upon someone a pre-given identity inscribed with the gendered social relations of colonial and post-colonial discursive constructs (Brah, 1996, see also Ang, 2001; Duits & Van Zoonen, 2006). Thus, Lewis (2006:95) posits that Europe’s symbolic order desires (requires?) the invisibility of the immigrant woman to maintain the tension between tolerance and visibility (of the Other), and further, that the Other woman both ‘bespells and exposes the limits of Europe’.
Both Brah and Ang have the lived experience of being the Other woman in Europe and both engage with the ‘powerful formation’ of white/Western feminism (Ang, 2001:178). Witnessing the 1970s women’s movements in the United Kingdom, Brah (1996:13) notes that British black feminism was underpinned by the ‘silent text of non-whiteness’ and further, that to be ‘black’ (African, Caribbean or South Asian) was to be racialized through a gendered class positioning.
Though claiming a ‘black’ political identity was the basis for solidarity amongst women of African, Caribbean and South Asian descent, it also rendered other more particular identifications invisible. This meant that the concept of ‘black’ in Britain was somewhat meaningless as it was devoid of, rather than inscribed with, the particular complexities of experience and affiliation that constitute one’s being (Brah, 1996). Brah (1996) alludes to a homogenization of women’s experiences in British black feminism that, while creating a unified, collective political identity, demonstrates the potential (and actual) conflict within and between feminisms. In other words, race, social class, and sexuality differentiate both our experiences and our interpretation of the systematic oppression that we endure.
To borrow from Lewis (2006:98), conflict of gender occurs not only between male and female, but also within the ‘livedness of differently positioned femininities in a context of racialization and unequal exchange’. This conception of difference in the “decentered subject” debunked the myth of the global sisterhood.
For Ang (2001), the deconstruction of the ‘global sisterhood’ not only revealed the ambiguity of what it means to be a woman, but also rendered the essentialized category of ‘woman’ rather redundant. The privileged nature of white/Western feminism means that the ‘otherness’ of the Other woman ‘disrupts the unity of “women” as the foundation for feminism’ and thus, we are forced to confront and engage with difference instead of relying on the (un)common ground of ‘woman’ (Ang, 2001:182).
Avtar Brah and Ann Phoenix (2004) also discuss the failure of the ‘global sisterhood’ to account for the power relations that separate our historical, cultural, and social experiences. Brah and Phoenix (2004:80) present an argument for intersectionality: that dimensions of social life (economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective, and experiential) cannot be divided into singular realms of analysis, but must be addressed in accordance with their ‘contradictory and conflictual relations to each another’.
Intersectionality provides the foundation for decentering normative feminisms and challenges ‘gendered forms of “whiteness” as the normative subject of Western imagination’ (Brah and Phoenix, 2004:76). It is through intersectionality that we may be able to consider our intersubjectivities; that the categories through which we are defined are interlocked in constant negotiation; and that who we are is never a pre-given reality, but constructed, performed, enacted, and filtered through structured discursive formations.
Ang, Ien (2001) On Not Speaking Chinese, London: Routledge.
Brah, Avtar (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities, London: Routledge.
Brah, Avtar and Phoenix, Ann (2004) ‘Ain’t I A Woman: Revisting Intersectionality’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5(3): 75-86.
Duits, Linda and Van Zoonen, Leisbet (2006) ‘Headscarves and Porno-Chic: Disciplining Girl’s Bodies in the European Multicultural Society’ European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(2): 103-17.
Hall, Stuart (1989) ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, first published in Framework 36, available online: http://www.rlwclarke.net/Theory/PrimarySources/HallCulturalIdentityandDiaspora.pdf Last accessed: 10 January 2011.
Lewis, Gail (2006) ‘Imaginaries of Europe: Technologies of Gender, Economies of Power’ European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(2): 87-102.