Trigger warning: Mentions racially and gender targeted murders (and names of victims), police brutality, transphobia, sexism, sexual abuse, mental health and death penalty.
Firstly, it is helpful to define what we mean by ‘intersectionality’. Kimberle Crenshaw coined this term in the 1980s. At the time, it was used to encapsulate the experiences of African-American women using a crossroad analogy, as not only did they experience the strains of patriarchy. They experienced multiple forms of oppression such as racism, colonialism and imperialism, which link together to make a double, triple or multiple layered blankets of oppression (Crenshaw, 1991). Today, this term has been used to examine a broader range of discriminations people may face, such as homophobia/transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, classism and material deprivation. Therefore, in this essay, I will consider material and cultural accounts of gender such as intersections with class, disability, culture, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender expression to examine how these forms of oppression overlap and shape individuals’ experiences. To ground the argument, I will draw from contemporary and historical examples such as policing and healthcare, and contextual factors, empirical evidence and relevant theory such as feminism and queer theory.
Now, let’s delve deeper into the origin of intersectionality and strive towards inclusive feminism in the 19th and 20th century before assessing its contemporary relevance and impact. Before Crenshaw, Black feminists, activists and abolitionists expressed the need for a more inclusive perspective within feminism, which was necessary because “white women focused on their oppression as women and ignored differences of race, sexual preference, class and age” (Lorde, 2007). In 1851 Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth confronted this issue during the first wave of feminism at a Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio. She expressed “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). A century on in 1984 Black feminist Audre Lorde acknowledged the same issue with how white women in the feminist movement ignored their built in privilege of whiteness and defined ‘woman’ based on their own experiences alone. They viewed Women of Color as ‘other’ and therefore could not or did not try to relate to their experiences (Lorde, 2007). This showcased how Black women and Women of Color felt like outsiders within the Women’s Rights/feminist movements due to racism as well as within Black communities due to sexism, which is what led to the consideration of intersectional accounts of feminism. More recently, the term ‘misogynoir’ was coined by feminist activist Moya Bailey to define the place where anti-Black racism and sexism meet, which was described as “the particular brand of hatred directed at Black women in American and popular culture” (Saad, 2020). Although intersectionality started as a consideration of racism combined with sexism. Lorde acknowledged that we must recognise differences amongst women and devise ways to use these differences to enrich our visions and our joint struggles (Lorde, 2007), which includes aspects such as our class, sexuality, religion, [dis]ability and gender expression/identity as well.
Intersectional accounts of feminism are important because sexism and racism are still very much prevalent in UK society, despite policies such as Race Relations Acts 1965-1976, the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010, that aimed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality within everyday life and the workplace (Legislation.Gov.UK, 2021). Even though, men from minoritised ethnic groups in the UK have to navigate through the strains of racism, for example, people from Black British, Afro-Caribbean, Asian/Asian British, Arab and mixed backgrounds. Women from the same backgrounds experience their own class of racialised misogyny. The hashtag #SayHerName was created in 2014 to highlight this and the number of Black women and girls that were murdered by law enforcement officers, including Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Aura Rosser and Maya Hall, to name a few (Khaleeli, 2016). Although in general, Black individuals are more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested and abused/murdered by the police due to racial profiling and institutional racism. For example, Black people were 9.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in 2018-19 and more than any other race and ethnicity (GOV.UK, 2021). The stories of Black women and girls, including sexual abuse and murders, are often overlooked, unnoticed and untold, which is reinforced through lack of media coverage, education and justice around these cases. One case that did catch the media and the public’s attention was the death of Sandra Bland. The police officer pulled her over for not using her indicator. Then, soon after, slammed her head down on the pavement, without a justifiable reason. This was caught on camera, which explains the attention it accumulated. Three days later, she was found dead in a police cell (Khaleeli, 2016). This showcases an example of anti-Black patriarchal violence and dehumanisation against Black female bodies. Another example of misogynoir would be shown in the 2014 NHS report as Black British women are more prone to experience anxiety, depression, panic and OCD disorders than white women. Also, Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth in the UK and three times more in the US compared to their white counterparts (Saad, 2020). This disparity could be partly down to Black women being stereotyped as strong, sassy and aggressive and viewed as less worthy, which are harmful stereotypes translated to the medical field and explains why Black women are less likely to receive the care they need (Saad, 2020). Although, Black women and girls have not received as much media coverage as Black men and boys in recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations and debates around police brutality. Black men and boys are much more likely to be targeted by the police, be the victims of an excessive police force and receive harsher prison sentences than women. These occurrences could be due to values of chivalry built into our society and harmful stereotypes around Black men; for example, they are viewed as sexually deviant, violent, less intelligent, lazy and criminal (Saad, 2020). This stems from systemic racism grained into Western society and portrayals of Black men in the media such as the 1915 Birth of Nation, which was fabricated as a propaganda message to justify the violent treatment against Black men, which still lives on a century later in the collective white psyche (Saad, 2020). These stereotypes are shown in action in the 2014 University of Michigan Law School study that shows how Black offenders were 75% more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender who committed the same crime. Furthermore, Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive prison sentences that are, on average, nearly 20% longer (US Sentencing Commission, 2017). Another example of the disparities between Black and white men regarding experiences with the police include when the rapper, activist and author Akala was pulled over by a male police officer that pointed out “cars like this are used by gang members” (Akala, 2019). Once the female officer realised Akala was ‘someone important’, the male officer’s attitude towards Akala changed completely, which shows how his class privileges came to the fore and trumped their racial assumptions (Akala, 2019). But, in most cases, class or status is not obvious through physical appearance, so Black people are judged by their race before anything else. Moreover, lower-class Black men are often the targets due to the assumption that they are associated with crime or gangs. In this circumstance, we see how class, gender and race intersect with one another to shape the experiences of Black men and women in society.
To look at class and gender more generally, working-class women, especially lower-class BIPOC and Asian women, are the most likely to experience the strains of capitalism and material deprivation compared to men. For example, the 2012 and 2013 British women’s groups such as the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Budget Group found that the government’s austerity measures hit women the hardest (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). This is reinforced through the pandemic, as working-class women were more likely to be furloughed or out of work. Due to the nature of their roles (semi-routine and face-to-face), it resulted in almost half of working-class women (43%) receiving no hours of work in April compared to just 20% of women in professional or managerial roles (university of Nottingham, 2020). Furthermore, in April 2020, 41% of working-class women felt distressed, which was the highest proportion across the classes (University of Nottingham, 2020). This could be due to financial struggles, being in lockdown with no work, long hours in crucial work and focusing on childcare/housework on top of this. Furthermore, the pandemic alienated the disabled community; for example, face masks make it impossible for deaf people to lip read and see facial expressions, and social distancing makes it difficult for disabled people who require personal assistants. The pandemic exacerbated inequalities across class, gender identity and disability groups, as working-class disabled women or gender non-conforming people experience a multi-layered blanket of oppression in a society where they threaten ‘norms’ and do not accommodate them in times of crisis.
In contemporary society, we see more diversity and freedom of expression due to political and societal progression, as well as increased conflict due to our ability to acknowledge and ridicule these differences due to the digital revolution. This inequality is especially apparent within the LGBTQIA+ community, as heterosexuality and cisgenderism continue to be the norm. Hence, there is still an overlap of discriminations such as sexism, homophobia/biphobia and transphobia towards people who deviate from this norm. When feminists in the 1970s began to challenge male privilege encoded into conventional heterosexual relations, it laid the foundations for a radical critique of heterosexuality, which we later made explicit by Adrienne Rich (1980). She looked into compulsory heterosexuality, which is the idea that lesbians were confined and subordinated by heterosexuality because it was perpetuated as universal, natural and normal (Richardson et al., 2006). Furthermore, many queer and gender non-conforming people had to conform and hide their true identity due to a society that sees queer identities as deviant or gender as a binary socially constructed product of patriarchal societies (Richardson, et al., 2006). Despite the previously mentioned policies that aimed to minimise discrimination of sexuality, gender expression and identity. There is still significant overt and covert forms of homophobia, sexism and transphobia across the globe, which includes harmful stereotypes around lesbian women and gay men, slurs, a fetishization of bisexual, gender non-conforming and trans people, high rates of murders amongst BIPOC trans women, the death penalty in certain countries/cultures, exclusion of trans women in sports and exclusion of disabled trans people within the LGBTQIA+ community. An example of this would be how 350 transgender people who were murdered, suffocated or burned alive in 2020, most of which happened in South and Central America (Forbes, 2020). This shows how our location and culture come into play with our gender identity and expression because certain countries protect the rights and lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals, whereas others do not. Some countries that criminalise LGBTQIA+ people include Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya (Human Dignity Trust, 2021). However, we see how our gender can intersect with our sexuality, gender expression, race and class. Many critical feminists feel as if the inclusion of trans and queer women within feminism has taken away the initial aims of the movement (Richardson et al., 2006). Furthermore, others, such as the right-wing website Breitbart London defined intersectionality as a debate strategy – to call your opponent racist or a capitalist when you lose an argument about feminism (Eddo-Lodge, 2018). However, this is overly simplistic and ignores the intricacies of how our identity shapes our experiences with the world. As one’s Blackness and queerness is as much a part of them as their womanhood, as they cannot be separated or one deemed more important than the other (Eddo-Lodge, 2018).
In conclusion, despite arguments against the need for a intersectional perspective within feminism. Intersectional accounts of gender continue to have an impact on contemporary society. Although white middle-class heterosexual women can also suffer under the strains of patriarchy. It is important to consider how multiple parts of our identity intersect to shape our experiences within society and how those parts can create a multi-layered blanket of oppression in some cases. Furthermore, it important to apply the notions of intersectionality to men and non-binary/transgender people because men’s identities are diverse and multifaceted (sexuality, religion, culture and race). These characteristics all come together and impact their experiences and treatment as men in similar ways to women. For example, hegemonic ideologies around being ‘manly’ and ‘tough’ can put a strain on men’s mental health and body image.
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