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October 29, 2016

Shireen Hassim at Warwick: New Politics of Intersectionalilty

by Anni Piiroinen, based on a talk by Shireen Hassim at the University of Warwick on 27 October 2016, 'Intersectionality: Making Sense of Difference in African Debates'

dear history

Intersectionality is the word of today. It has become something of a traveling concept that has been applied with ease to diverse contexts. Coined in the United States originally, it has spread globally, including to South Africa, where it occupies a central stage in political conversations of the moment. In South Africa the concept became hugely popular last year with protests of Rhodes Must Fall, a campaign demanding the removal of a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes from the campus of University of Cape Town. The concept has escaped the confines of academia and extended its reach into popular culture, where it has signalled a new wave in emancipatory politics.

Intersectionality refers to the way different identity categories, such as gender, class, race, age and sexuality, overlap, and how this creates particular forms of oppression that cannot be properly understood or addressed without looking at them in connection to each other. For instance, the oppression experienced by a black working-class woman is likely to be very different from that experienced by a white middle-class woman. Indeed, originally the call for intersectionality was a reaction against the white sisterhood feminism of the 1970s. The term was coined by an African-American legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as an attempt to solve a particular legal problem. The case Crenshaw was dealing with was Degraffenreid v. General Motors, where a group of black female employees sued General Motors for racial and gender discrimination. The problem they faced was that the case did not fit the single ground principle of the American justice system, according to which a person had to base their case on only one form of discrimination. The women of Degraffenreid v. General Motors therefore had to state that they were discriminated against either for their gender or for their race, not both. This obscured the interaction of these forms of discrimination and denied the particularly vulnerable position of African-American women. In Hassim’s words, it was a case of 'legal idiocy'.

In South-Africa intersectionality was originally used as a critique of black leftist politics as well as white feminism. The former had focused largely on black men’s experiences in postcolonial times and the mission of restoring black manhood. Attention was given to black heterosexual men, while others were pushed to the margins. Indeed, black solidarity was developed by restoring patriarchy and reasserting black men’s control over women. In terms of feminism, South African intersectionality attacked the Angelina Jolie-esque white woman savior feminism which saw black women as victims.

Intersectionality thus allows us to see types of oppression and power that would not be visible otherwise, and makes space for new forms of political organisation. However, there are several caveats to the concept as well. Sometimes its critical potential has been diluted by reducing it to an appreciation of pluralism and diversity. This usage, which has been particularly prevalent in the United States, ignores the importance of power structures and leaves them unquestioned. The difficulty of talking about structural power is apparent in the way class is often left out of analyses of intersectionality. This is perhaps connected neoliberalism’s crisis of representation, whereby political representation is delinked from economic organisation of society. In new social movements, political subjectivity is more individualised than it was in traditional collective political identities. These changes challenge familiar ideas about class and make it more difficult to construct a political project around a shared class identity. Another potential risk of intersectionality is creating such high levels of specificity that issues may be individualised, making it difficult to see what people have in common anymore and organise around those commonalities. The intersection may indeed become very 'crowded' as an increasing amount of axes of oppression are included.

Despite these risks, intersectionality is a deeply interesting and exciting feature of contemporary politics, articulated by young the breakers of traditional boundaries. Whether it manages to effectively challenge existing power structures remains to be seen. The statue of Cecil Rhodes may have come down, but other structures of power, more invisible in nature, are still intact.

Image source: African Gender Institute, available at: <>, licence available at: <>.

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