Theoretical Approaches to the Human Rights of Marginalized and Excluded Individuals or Groups – Part III: A Short Critique of Intersectionality

Author: Veronika Flegar

This is the third blog post in a series of four in which I aim to highlight some of the underlying assumptions of concepts and approaches which are commonly employed to further the human rights of excluded or marginalized individuals or groups. The last two blog posts dealt with human dignity and the capabilities approach. This blog post will cover intersectionality before the last blog post will deal with the notion of vulnerability.

As with the other posts of this series I am unable to provide an in-depth discussion of the concept I am highlighting here. I therefore recommend readers interested in intersectionality to refer to the collected works of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the main architect of the approach or, for a more practical application, to a forthcoming monograph by Lorena Sosa, whose research focuses on intersectionality and human rights with regard to violence against women. Unlike those comprehensive studies, this blog post should merely be read as a piecemeal overview of intersectionality. It aims to provide some food for thought rather than trying to come to terms with the approach as a whole. The post sets out to give a short definition of intersectionality, explains how it is linked to human rights and subsequently points out a number of criticisms that might delimit the approach’s potential to actually realize the human rights of everyone.

What is intersectionality? Intersectionality was first coined in a 1989 essay by Kimberlé Crenshaw in relation to the experiences of black women. The approach seems to recently have gained increased attention in the academic community – particularly among (intersectional) feminist and critical race theory scholars. Carbado et al describe intersectionality as “a method and a disposition, a heuristic and analytic tool” that aims to “dismantle the instantiations of marginalization that operated within institutionalized discourses that legitimized existing power relations”.[1] Intersectionality is commonly understood as work in progress and as an approach that crosses disciplines and national boundaries.[2] Proponents argue that the original goal of intersectionality was “to analyse capitalism and make resistance more effective” rather than the approach being an instance of identity politics. Yet, it has sometimes been appropriated by advocates of more radical thought and often seems to remain closely linked to identity politics.

As an academic approach, intersectionality seems to be crucially different from human dignity and the capabilities approach in trying to identify different axes of oppression which marginalize people rather than focusing on individual abilities and desires.[3] In so doing, intersectionality takes a group-oriented and structural approach towards societal change. It tries to address multiple forms of discrimination and emphasizes that, e. g., not all women experience discrimination or disadvantage the same way but that their experiences differ depending on which other social categories might apply to them (e.g. race, ethnicity, ability or social class).[4] In paying attention to these different lived experiences, intersectionality can certainly be considered useful for challenging mainstream thinking and in adopting a more inclusive and comprehensive approach towards the situation of marginalized individuals or groups. It is also exactly for this reason that proponents regard it as a powerful tool for the realization of the human rights for all. Arguments based on intersecting group experiences might thus potentially be useful to disentangle how societal and state institutions are directed towards a particular prototype of human beings that does not sufficiently take into account the lived experiences of many who do not fit this prototype.

Yet, some criticism remains. As with the previous blog posts of this series, I can only point to a few of the most frequently encountered critiques and the limits of a blog post make it impossible to comprehensively engage with these arguments. The criticism I highlight below is therefore merely related to the universality claim of intersectionality, the essentialism implied in intersectional thought and the alleged overemphasis on group identity.

Although developed as an alternative approach to the dominant liberal universalism, intersectionality still seems to have an (implicit) universal claim to it.[5] As such, persons invoking intersectional arguments often seem to speak for, e. g., all black women.[6] This is the case despite the fact that many alleged members of any of these intersecting groups might not experience discrimination or marginalization the same way and might not agree on the arguments brought forward on their behalf.[7] As an online article reveals, the political ideas of most individuals are usually not so much based on their (alleged) intersecting identity characteristics but are shaped throughout individual lives of different experiences and contexts to which they are exposed. As such, the article finds that “focusing intensely on group identity and intersectional ideology places individuals in a very restricted “collectivist” position previously only found in very conservative cultures”. The emphasis on group rather than individual experiences might thus be overly simplistic. Identity always remains socially constructed. Emphasizing an intersecting group identity which many might not yet have felt can empower some who are in search for a community. Yet, it might simultaneously alienate others who found their identity or feeling of belonging through other means than through the ways in which intersectionality prescribes them as being different from mainstream society.

Related to this critique is the argument against the implied essentialism of intersectionality. Along these lines Chang and McCristal Culp assert how an emphasis on intersecting group identities might fail to identify the actual issue at hand.[8] After all, disadvantage or marginalization often depends on a large variety of factors and can be completely different depending on the context and circumstances individuals find themselves in. In addition, “[i]dentity, while being useful as a way of describing the oppressions that exist, can emphasize groups in such a way that it contributes to conflict”.[9] Another blog post brings this argument to the point quite nicely: “It treats identities as static entities, and its methods only serve to further reify those categories. It aims to liberate identity groups (or members thereof) qua identity groups (or individuals), rather than aiming to liberate them from identity itself”. Viewed this way, it seems like intersectionality is building on the exact categories it is trying to overcome. Criticizing the system from a particular identity perspective rather than as a whole might therefore prove to be short-sighted and unconstructive in the long-term.

Overall, there is certainly value in intersectionality for contributing to the realization of the human rights of those who are excluded or marginalized. Intersectionality might be valuable in being less focused on the individual and in highlighting formerly neglected lived experiences. However, although proponents of intersectionality might disagree, the intersectional approach does not (yet) seem entirely convincing as being the most constructive way to build an inclusive society. As such, its overemphasis on (intersecting) group identities rather than individual experiences in a web of different and unique human relationships and circumstances remains questionable. The next blog post will therefore discuss the extent to which the notion of vulnerability might or might not be able to go beyond these limitations.

[1] Devon Carbado, ‘Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory’, Du Bois Review, 10:2 (2013), 303-4.

[2] Ibid., 304 and 307.

[3] Compare, e.g., Olena Hankivsky and Renee Cormier, ‘Intersectionality and Public Policy: Some Lessons from Existing Models’, Political Research Quarterly, 64:1 (2011), 217.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Compare, e.g., Nancy Ehrenreich, ‘Subordination and Symbiosis: Mechanisms of Mutual Support between Subordinating Systems’, UMKC Law Review, 71:2 (2002), 301; and, generally, Robert Chang and Jerome McCristal Culp Jr., ‘After Intersectionality’, UMKC Law Review, 71:2 (2002).

[6] Compare e.g. Julia Jordan-Zachery, ‘Am I a Black Woman or a Woman Who Is Black? A Few Thoughts on the Meaning of Intersectionality’, Politics & Gender, 3:2 (2007).

[7] This obviously holds true for any group-based arguments and intersecting groups might already constitute a more nuanced approach.

[8] Compare Chang and McCristal Culp (2002), 488.

[9] Ibid., 487.

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