Arts and Culture

CULTURE WATCH: Musing on Intersectionality, Politics and Culture

May 4, 2017
By Jo Tavener

Kimberlé Crenshaw is professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School; she is also a  pioneer in critical race theory.  In her 2016 TED Talk, Professor Crenshaw defines the term, intersectionality, as indicating the complexity of oppression that goes unmarked in our society.  She explains it in conceptual terms as undoing the framing barriers that make it difficult for courts to acknowledge the combined oppressions of racism and sexism that black women experience on the job on a daily basis.  Unrecognized, their legal complaints go unanswered.

The silenced voices of black women reaches far into the culture. The inability of all but four in her TED Talk audience to name the black women, whose pictures she provided with the same ease they named the black men killed by the police proves her point.  It is the unacknowledged overlapping or intersectionality of race, class and gender, as experienced by black women, that causes their oppression and subsequent suffering to remain nameless.

The very culture that frames so many struggles in terms of identity politics often has difficulty acknowledging intersectionality when it comes to activism — each group separate from the other even though, in large part, those who work against sexism also claim to stand against racism.  As separate groups with specific agendas and goals, it is easy to see how they might work parallel paths without crossing over and acknowledging mutual and common concerns.

We saw the same lacunae occurring during the 2016 Presidential election.  The surprisingly strong showing for Trump in the Rust Belt, where unions were once strong and workers voted the straight Democratic ticket, caught the party by surprise.  Attempting a coalition of various identity groups on the rise — women, Latinxs, LGBTQ people, millennials and progressives together with media, tech and financial elites  — the New Democrats (as they call themselves) thought they could abandon their traditional base, the industrial working class, and still win the election.

What I couldn’t understand at the time was how one could hope to win without fiercely fighting for the working class and its issues, its unions, and against the grave economic inequality that has hollowed out our lives. How could one possibly be for women and neglect economic concerns? Seventy percent of the population makes less that $50,000 and women in this group make a half to a third of what white men make; their prospects for advancement are slim to none.

The same applies for female college professors. If you come in at $40,000, you won’t make much more after years of service unless you become a star. Then there are the college students, both black and white, male and female. The mantra that higher education provides higher incomes is a joke when seen in the context of college indebtedness that turns students into indentured servants.

Sanders got Clinton to climb on board progressive policy initiatives that all but died once she became the party candidate. It was easier to name what the party was against. How could it name what it was for without campaigning for income redistribution?

The intersectionality of gender, race and class must be addressed if we are to speak to the realities of the everyday life of the bottom 70%.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  We are the economic majority and yet we are treated separately and often see ourselves as minorities with discreet concerns.  What is so powerful about the concept of intersectionality is that it enables us to identify and understand our particular differences, yet come together around our mutual concerns and our common identities to grasp our collective power.

I’ve left out one group from this discussion.  Can anyone guess which one?  It is so omnipresent, yet so distorted by our consumer culture that turns genes into property and our stages of life into an array of consumer products.  Botox anyone?  I’m talking about growing old, being mortal, living for 20 to 35 years (even more) as senior citizens.  We even have a name to identify us, to turn us into a demographic, a media buy.  There are hosts of products to make our slow but steady decline more bearable: health products, food products, medicines, exercise machines and gyms.

The intersectionality here is between age and class, with even greater indignities when sexism and racism are added to the line-up. I can attest to the experience of being thrown away once one reaches a certain age.  Consumer culture is organized for obsolescence. Is it so difficult to acknowledge that it throws away people as well?  What happens to workers who can’t work anymore?  Where are the pensions?  Where are the cultural forms and social organization necessary to sustain the meaning of life for those no longer valued as workers?  Many turn to loved ones but problems there abound because the family is working or absent.

To uncover what is going on around us, we need the framing of intersectionality to reveal the complex overlappings where age is concerned.  The aging process is not just a medical sequence of events.  It is a cultural phenomenon of overlapping assumptions, biases and fantasies affecting us all.  Intersectionality could help us arrive at an understanding of what we are up against, providing the necessary insight to possibly alleviate the suffering, isolation and depression that so often accompanies the last cycle of life.


Jo Tavener is a member of the NewPeople Collective.  A retired assistant professor of media and cultural studies, she is teaching a course on the experience of aging at Pitt Osher this summer.


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