Intersection of gender and race

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  • Published On: 19-12-2023

Gender studies have evolved over a period of time, with the feminist theory being at the forefront of the academic movement related to gender studies. Intersectionality refers to different social categorisations, such as, race and gender that can impact the way in which subjects experience gender injustice. Within the feminist theory, the writers who focussed on intersectionality have sought to bring attention to impact of intersectionalilty of gender, race, class, ethnicities, to understand how the lived experiences of different groups of women could differ from each other. These writers considered the feminist approaches to gender justice to be inadequate and narrow if intersectionality was not taken into account; it was argued that such narrow conceptualisation should be challenged and redefined (Annamma, Boelé, Moore, & Klingner, 2013). Intersectionality has been adopted by some feminist scholars for the reason that it is able to explain the complexities and diversities of female experiences and also for its ability to explain social and historical specificities of experience of marginalisation and oppression that women do experience (Brah & Phoenix, 2013).

This essay discusses how intersectionality approach has come to be adopted in the feminist theory and how this approach is able to explain the diverse experiences of the different groups of women based on the intersectionality of race and gender. This essay also discusses how intersectionality has been applied to understand the experiences of women with employment, violence within their family, and even representation of victimisation by rape and sexual violence.

Feminist theory and intersectionality

Feminist theory has been directed at explaining how diverse systems of oppression in the society affect women and how women experience injustice and violence within the social structures (Collins, 2000). The feminist perspective was the first major theoretical perspective which had sought to explain the oppression and marginalisation of women in terms of power and control within established patriarchal structures (Carter, 2015). The first theoretical movements within feminism in the 1960s were premised on the issue of power and control which are centred in men within the patriarchal systems and this was a radical feminist perspective (Carter, 2015).

Therefore, the focus of the first feminist theorists was on the articulating of the reasons for the oppression of women where the premise was based on the patriarchal structures in the society, where such structures engender control and violence against women (McPhail, Busch, Kulkarni, & Rice, 2007). Patriarchy was said to affect the social system and the position of woman within this social system (Price & Shildrick, 2017).Although, this argument or premise of feminists in the 1960s is useful for understanding the experiences of the women in the society, it is a narrow argument because it equates the experiences of all groups of women and does not account for the different experiences of oppression that women may face because of the intersection of their gender and race. What can be surmised at this point is that radical feminism was a narrow perspective towards oppression of women based on the issues of power and control within patriarchal structures which did not account for the differences of experiences of women of different races and ethnicities.

Post modern feminism, which was a movement that differed from radical feminism in crucial aspects contributed more to the understanding of the social and cultural construction of masculinities and femininities (Bagshaw & Chung, 2000). Thus, while radical feminists were able to explain how patriarchy driven cultures and structures oppress women, post modernist feminists takes a more intersectional approach (Bagshaw & Chung, 2000). The intersectional approach has been used by the feminists to explain different areas of oppression like gender justice (George, et al, 2014).

The third wave feminists have developed this intersectional approach further; the crucial difference between the third wave feminists was that they rejected patriarchy as the primary cause of oppression, and sought to bring to the fore a variety of explanations that are more nuanced towards explaining how and why women are oppressed in the society on the basis of their race and class apart from the fact of their womanhood (George, et al, 2014). The intersectional approach to understanding diverse experience of gender based justice explains how intersections between gender and race, and gender and class can explain gender perspectives (Collins, 2000).

Crenshaw’s (1991) work has been instrumental for developing the intersectionality approach within feminism movement and for revealing how the nuances of intersectionality of gender, race and class leads to perpetration of oppression. The following passage from Crenshaw (1991) is a good argument for why intersectionality ought to be applied in gender studies:

“Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination-that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example, is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of political empowerment and social reconstruction” (Crenshaw,, 1991, p. 1241).

The above observation is a critique of the liberal and radical feminist perspective that avoids the discourse on race and other identity categories. The consequence of this approach is that it leads to the absence of a discourse of diversity within feminist literature. As Crenshaw (1991) points out in the above observation, there is space within feminist theory to include diversity in the discourse around gender studies so that the intersectionalities of race and gender as well as other intersectionalities can be included in our discourse on gender studies.

The approach of the western feminists was also critiqued by feminists from non western societies, with Mohanty (1984) going so far as to say that western feminists had appropriated and colonised the non western women by reducing the different and diverse classes, religions, cultures, races and castes into a composite whole which was not able to develop better understanding of the diverse experiences of women everywhere in the world and even within the western societies. Similarly, Liddle and Rai (1998) criticised western feminists and asked that the western feminists must avoid appropriating the experiences of Saudi women for advancing a western feminist discourse. It was argued that the western feminists should be respectful of the agency of non western women to represent themselves (Liddle and Rai 1998). The criticism of the western feminist theory was that at the time it was not able to address the need to explain the diverse experiences of women instead of homogenising these experiences under the umbrella explanation of patriarchy. The impacts of this intersectionalities of race and gender are discussed in the next section.

Impacts of intersectionality on lived experiences of women

Intersectionality approach can help explain complex and varied experiences of individuals in different capacities so that the diversity of the experiences can be addressed (Egeland & Gressgård, 2007). Such complex and diverse experiences can relate to identity, gender, race, ethnicity and religion of the individual and intersectionality further explains the nuances of the diverse experiences of different groups of people. Gender is the most important factor for explaining the experience of women everywhere while an integrated approach using intersectionality can help researchers to understand the experiences of women on the basis of their race, religion, class, sexuality, and ethnicity (Bilge, 2010). Intersectionality involves an approach that accepts that experience of an individual is mediated by an interplay of these factors, which may lead to the experiences of one individual to differ from another individual who may not share a common race or other such factor.

There are different areas where the impact of intersectionalities of race and gender can be observed and some of these are discussed in this section of the essay. The purpose of this section is to demonstrate how intersectionalities of race and gender impact the experience the women with oppression. The first area under discussion is how intersectionality of race and gender can impact the experience of women with employment and wages. Then the discussion carries forth on the issue of violence against women within families, and finally sexual violence against the women.

Employment and wages

There is now sufficient research that provides evidence on how intersectionalities of gender and race affects the wages and terms of employment of women. Research from Canada, United States, and the United Kingdom among other countries provides this evidence, some of which is discussed in this section.

Pay gap is a phenomenon that impacts women in general. However, as research shows, the pay gap becomes wider for women based on their indigeneity and race. In Canada, there is evidence from research that indicates that Aboriginal, and women of colour are paid even lesser than their White counterparts, thus widening the pay gap for women who are not White (Lambert & McInturff, 2016). This evidence suggests that there is merit to the arguments presented by Crenshaw (1989; 1991) that race and gender should not be treated as “mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 139). The argument made by Crenshaw (1989) was that the approach of separating race from gender is problematic because intersectionality between race and gender does impact and marginalise women of colour in some ways even more that white women and in some ways different to white women.

The question then is raised whether the intersectionality of race and gender can also be related to systemic discrimination in workplaces, because the intersectiobality of race and gender can compound the level of discrimination that women may face because of their race and as is reflected in the greater wage gap for racialised women as compared to white women. To explain this further, the research by Lambert and McInturff (2016) would suggest that women would experience pay gap with comparison with men and that women of colour would experience greater pay gap as compared to white women. In the UK, absence of pay parity is considered to be direct discrimination against women and this can involve both gender and race (IDS, 2008).

To take the example of Canada again, there is some valuable research coming from this country which shows how the experiences of indigenous women have differed from the white women beginning with precolonial Canada. Williams (2012) has discussed how historically the indigenous Canadian women were not subjected to gender based division of labour and how this concept of division of labour was imported into Canada by the settlors who were used to such division of labour in their communities as women were responsible for bearing, nurturing, and teaching children and households in comparison with the indigenous women who were also involved in hunting, trapping, and fishing. The patriarchal form of gender relations and the division of labour impacted the indigenous women in Canada differently to the white settlor women. When settlor communities fell short of labour in hard and cheap menial labour sector, indigenous women were pulled into this sector while settler women continued to adhere to the gender division of labour (Williams, 2012).

Patrias’s (2016) research was concerned with how race and gender were central to the process of the devaluation of work, which impacted racialised women more. While women played an important role in the sustenance of the early economy in countries like Canada and the United States, over a period of time, indigenous women came to denied access to pay, rights and work stability (Patrias, 2016). This was partly due to the fact that white women and racialised women worked in different sectors. Better paid work in the factories was not available to women of colour in countries like Canada and the United States until the Second World War when the inclusion of these women was necessitated by the need for more labour hands in Canadian factories (Brand, 1994). Until this time, women of colour were denied such better paying work in factories and were relegated to menial and low paying work (Brand, 1994).

Thus, indigenous women in Canada experienced gender and race intersectional descriminatin where they were made to work in hard labour like sinking wells, and building roads, dams, and fences (Williams, 2012). This is very important evidence that the female experience with employment cannot be considered to be uniform because the intersectionality of race and gender does play a role in making these experiences more diverse and more complex. Williams (2012) writes:

“Lower-class or racially marked women were conscripted as indentured or colonized manual laborers, at the extremes of political or social marginality as they toiled in settler fields or in households managed by wealthier, and lighter-skinned, women. Thus, some women subscribed to, rather than challenged, the stratification of labor that evolved in the settler colonies” (p. 8).

These experiences of indigenous and women of colour suggest that there is a need to explain the totality the experiences of the women which would encompass the experiences of women in the context of employment and wages and other terms of employment.This needs an intersectionality approach; this was missing in the first wave feminism, which explored the ways in which women’s experiences could be understood in a largely patriarchal world but failed to explain how intersections of race and gender can make the experiences of different groups of women different to each other and how some women could face a higher degree of discrimination (Wilson, 1996).

Women within their families

Another area where an intersectional approach can be used to provide insight and better understanding of how women may experience discrimination or oppression in ways that are diverse and differentuated between different groups of women. Intersectionality of race and gender can affect the status of women within the family and the society. An example of this in the British society can be seen in the context of family based violence experienced by women of colour in the British society.

In Britain, one of the serious crimes against women is that of honour killing or honour based violence. Evidence suggests that this affects racialised women or women of colour disproportionately (The House of Commons, 2009). Honour killing or honour based violence is experienced by women as perpetrated by the family members of the women and it is prevalent in the Asian and African origin families, particularly in the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities (The House of Commons, 2009, p. 13). An intersectional approach is required to understand this because the experience of these women is not just because of their gender but is an example of intersectionality between race and gender. In Asian an African communities, patriarchal structures are considered to have led to systemic and structural conditions that perpetuate honour based violence (Gill, 2014). Victimisation can be perpetrated by the brothers, fathers, and other male members of the family (Gill, 2014).

The experience of honour based violence is more prevalent for women of colour and a narrow approach to understanding women’s experiences in the society is not adequate to understand these experiences of women and indeed to devise responses to this issue. Crenshaw (1991) also mentions the import of intersection of race and gender for understanding violence experienced by different groups of women. Crenshaw mentions the structural elements reflected in the experience of Black and Latina women in battering shelters which beg the need to consider the intersectionalities that lead to the experiences of the women being mediated by race.

Sexual violence in wartime

Intersectionality approach can also help to understand the experiences of women with sexual violence during wars and armed conflicts. Although this is one area that may be informed by the patriarchal understanding of gender-based violence, the relevance of intersectionality is also important to understanding social reactions to women’s victimisation. An example of this can be seen with reference to Indian partition when many women suffered sexual violence; but the martyrdom literature in that country focusses on women who were killed by their family members to avoid rape and protect honour, while rare mention was made of those women who were actually raped (Zarkov, 2006). This reflects on the way in which different cultures or races could have differing approaches to rape and sexual violence and how it is represented in the literature on such events. This ultimately affects experiences of women victimised by rape and sexual violence within these societies. This may be something that is not commonalised because women in the western societies may not relate to and experience representation of victimisation in the same way as women in other societies do experience it. Thus, the conceptualisation of intersectionality of race and gender may be essential for understanding sexual violence against women in racial and cultural contexts.

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Crenshaw introduced the term ‘intersectionality’ to the feminist theory vocabulory and there are many feminist writers who have contributed to the development of an intersectional approach to understanding female experiences. Intersectionality helps to explain how race and gender impacts on the lives of women. This is important for developing mechanisms and methods for addressing the different ways in which women are discriminated against. For example, if intersectionality approach is able to explain how women of colour may suffer a higher pay gap as compared to white women, then the laws and policies of a state can be addressed to this problem. This is possible only where the laws and policy makers are first able to understand how intersectionality of race and gender can play a role in mediating the experience of women in the society. Once this approach is used to understand the diverse experiences of women, then the ways in which such experiences can be addressed with efficient measures or solutions.


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