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Understanding Intersectionality. Núria Almiron

Understanding Intersectionality. Núria Almiron

Núria Almiron, professor at the Departament of Communication and coordinator of the MA in International Studies in Media, Power and Difference

07.05.2021

 

In 1989, the Afro-American feminist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to refer the overlapping of categories of gender, class and race in the phenomena of oppression, domination and discrimination. Crenshaw pointed in particular to the fact that being a woman means starting from a position of disadvantage in the United States, but being a woman who is black increases discrimination; and being a woman, who is black and has scarce resources, yet further. 

In 1989, the Afro-American feminist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to refer the overlapping of categories of gender, class and race in the phenomena of oppression, domination and discrimination. Crenshaw pointed in particular to the fact that being a woman means starting from a position of disadvantage in the United States, but being a woman who is black increases discrimination; and being a woman, who is black and has scarce resources, yet further. Intersectionality reminds us that there are individuals that belong to groups subject to multiple oppressions and that in order to understand their plight, and to combat it, there is a need to understand how oppressions overlap.

The concept of intersectionality was not born of Crenshaw as it had previously been used with a similar meaning. But Crenshaw’s virtue is that she set the bar for what was to become a theory that can be applied to any type of abuse of power. What this theory tells us is that all forms of injustice are interconnected, they do not act in isolation but are interrelated. The three initial categories proposed in the triangle of intersection are today joined by many others. Discrimination on any grounds –age, gender, ethnicity, class, disability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, nationality, etc.– never takes place independently. This theoretical revelation has profound practical consequences. For example, it highlights that we cannot dismantle sexism if we are racist. Neither can we fight against racism if we are sexist. And we cannot expect to effectively combat either of these from a classist standpoint, just to give some examples.

The concept of intersectionality has been very useful for understanding inequality and social injustice and envisaging the most effective ways to combat them. But, in my opinion, this concept was limited in scope until critical theorists incorporated speciesism into the overlaps, a category that has traditionally been overlooked in many analyses and still is today, and is yet highly illuminating. Speciesism refers to discrimination on the grounds of species, concretely of non-human species. Obviously, this category does not intersect directly with the oppression of human beings, but its consequences do. Speciesism is based on a binarism invented to fit our species: the human-animal binary (which does not reflect any reality because humans are also animals and the category “animal” does not exist as such, means putting our planet’s millions of non-human species in the same bag). This binarism incorporates one key difference, however; the one that exists between the ideal human (a particular human) and all other beings (other humans and individuals of other species). Hence the derogatory category of animal, which allows exploiting individuals of other species according to human interests but, as is evident, also allows dehumanizing, i.e., inferiorizing some human individuals by equating them to this devalued condition. For example, racism and sexism greatly abuse this devaluation.

Non-human animals deserve not to be oppressed nor discriminated against for sufficient ethical reasons in themselves. But, incorporating speciesism into intersectional theory allows us to understand how important it is not to perpetuate the devaluation of non-human animals from other areas of social justice, if we wish the latter to be effective. Of course, this also applies in the opposite direction. We cannot expect to progress in the fight against speciesism with sexist or racist behaviours, for example. And, going further, intersectional theory also allows us to better understand the suffering of other animals (whose oppression is also multiplied by the intersection of sex, age, species, etc.).

The incorporation of speciesism to the understanding of intersectionality is particularly illustrative of the need to understand discrimination and oppression globally and structurally, regardless of who the individual and species affected.  Although in the end each of us focuses only on one struggle, or a few struggles, embracing the intersectional perspective is essential to render all social struggles more inclusive and more effective.

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