Discrimination (17): Human Rights and Intersectionality

Intersectionality is an interesting concept because it’s related to the interdependence of human rights. (Sorry for the alliteration). Kimberlé Crenshaw was the first to propose the term for the purpose of describing interacting forms of discrimination. Some examples. A black woman may have relatively worse life outcomes compared to a white woman who is similar to her in most respects, even though both suffer gender discrimination. The combination of racism and sexism makes it much harder for the black woman to find a job. She will have to overcome anti-female prejudice as well as racism on the job market. An immigrant woman may have a hard time escaping sexual violence because her irregular status makes it difficult for her to go to the police. And so on.

Victims of discrimination and oppression are sometimes very different from each other, depending on the various types of discrimination that combine in order to make their lives difficult. A white upper-class able-bodied female citizen may be discriminated in some ways, but her fate is unlike the one suffered by a poor black illegal immigrant mother. Intersectionality makes for more intense discrimination.

And there’s an additional claim: people’s outcomes are made worse because of the ways in which different forms of discrimination combine (the sum being larger than the addition of the parts). Two or three types of discrimination can be mutually reinforcing. They do not act independently of one another but instead shape one another. Racial stereotypes for example need to be broken down by gender in order to see how different gender representations combine with racial stereotypes in order form an overall discriminatory ideology.

Take for example the Jezebel character. A Jezebel is a loose, sex-craved woman who is often depicted as stereotypically black, i.e. with big lips and funny hair. It’s racist prejudice about sexual morals of black people combined with a gender stereotype. (The idea that it’s men who want more sex is a relatively recent one; and “the sex-mad negro” representation is still around). It’s also no surprise that Reagan’s “welfare queen” was black. Being both poor and a “lazy and untrustworthy black person”, the welfare queen encapsulated a toxic mix used to criticize poor blacks until this day.

The concept of intersectionality “grew up” in the context of feminism. Feminists at some point in the 60s or 70s realized that although the focus on gender as a cause of discrimination is necessary, gender isn’t the sole factor determining the fate of women. A white middle class woman suffers a different form of oppression compared to a poor black women or a disabled woman. Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) became the effort to understand how gender, race and class combine to limit women’s life prospects. Since then, the word has transcended the realm of feminist theory and is now applied to all people who suffer a combination of different forms of oppression. 

All this has practical implications. For example, if you want to take a stand on more female CEO’s or quota for women in parliament you may inadvertently leave existing class structures intact, even if you include race in your quota demands (black women can have class privilege too). On the other hand, if you focus only on racism you may be blind to the specific suffering of black women. Intersectionality is therefore kind of a call for solidarity across victimized groups. 

Time to get back to human rights, I hear you say. The notion of interdependency in rights theory can be likened to intersectionality. If both your right to a decent standard of living and your political rights are violated, then these violations affect each other. For a poor person it’s much harder to reclaim her political rights because her struggle to survive takes precedence over other concerns. However, without her political rights, it’s much more difficult to escape poverty. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. I think it’s fair to say that this interdependence of rights is similar to the notion of intersectionality.

More posts in this series are here.

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