Defining Intersectionality Through the Lens of Gender Identity

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The term intersection was originally coined by Kimberly Crenshaw; which was to do with the identities of black women. This essay aims to unpack the definition of intersectionality and then further explain how it works with ideas and differences. Another aspect that will be tackled in this essay is how crosscutting identities shaped the lived experiences of certain people. For this section I will be making use of numerous case studies. This essay will then further discuss the role power of and the intersection of oppression and privilege, all of this will be achieved in order to give a holistic understanding of intersectionality.

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As defined by Kathy Davis, “the interaction of multiple identities and experiences of exclusion and subordination” (Davis, 2008, p. 67), intersectionality recognises the contrasts among women, and handles problems that present-day feminism faces – the legacy of its debarring ( (Davis, 2008, p. 70). Intersectionality distinctly looks at how race, class and gender interrelate in women’s lives and how they have the ability to construct and alter relations of power (Davis, 2008, p. 71). Amanda Gouws similarly defines the term with how different identities intersect with each other and how these how lived identities are experienced as interlocked with systems of oppression. One of its objectives is to show that this convergence of identities can disclose how dissimilar relations of power lean to different forms of maltreatment (Gouws, 2017, p. 21).

My understanding of intersectionality is similar to these descriptions as I see it as a term that is most commonly used in relation to feminism, and it shows how it advocates the needs to those who are white, middle-class, heterosexual and able bodied. This stance merges the reality that non-white women face discrimination on the foundation of class, gender and race. It rests crucial for studying and altering motifs of inequality and unfairness. One must understand that the ideas of different social categories are not limited to only race, gender and class, and this comprehension will help people to understand their power. There are many cases where one type of identity could have power over the other, or where one may be more oppressed over another, or one may have power and oppression within it.

Black women are challenged against race, gender and class oppression. Ascribed to racial hierarchies and colonial racism, both discoloured conceptions of beauty, thus letting black hair to be politicised by class and gender, as well as it being racialised (Erasmus, 1997, p. 12). Hair is a significant matter in most black communities, and the process in which one’s hair is attended to reflects class difference. Within these communities, ‘good hair’ meant smooth hair, and a woman would have inherited this ‘smoothness’ or they would have to either spend hours at home attending to their hair, or on the other hand spend hours at the salon if they were able to afford it. Here, the working class women (as well as women who are labelled cheap) have the freedom to be in public with their unattended hair on full display whereas the middle class women do not have this freedom since their reputation could be ruined over such a thing as being seen in public with a stocking over their head, or curlers in their hair. In the past, most black women straightened their hair since it was seen as an essential norm at the time but now, some black women leave their hair ‘natural’ – which is seen as a modern reaction to the colonial- racist beliefs of beauty (Erasmus, 1997, p. 14).

Intersectionality also looks into opportunity and/ or privilege, and how these intersect with social identities. This can be done by doing an intersectional analysis – for example, by completing a certain analysis, one can see that being a woman, in this case, or gay or lesbian is also influenced by issues of income, socio-economic status or education.

Being a male in South Africa has multiple privileges which leaves the remaining people, who do not identify themselves as a man, to be oppressed. Looking at Nigel Patel’s work, there are different issues which include the lack of upkeep and poor quality of female bathroom arrangements when juxtaposed to males’. The accounts within his findings reveal sexist, racist and transphobic methods of ferocity – all of which are in relation to the toilet space and are dominantly experienced by people of colour in in Cape Town’s bathrooms, situated within the intersections of class, gender and race (Patel, 2017, p. 53). Communal toilets are “state-provided toilets contested specifically on grounds of gender” (Patel, 2017, p. 56) which again sparks a sense of inferiority and segregation, and can put certain people in difficult situations due to them not being as advantageous as a male, for example – there are cases where women have been attacked within or on their way to a bathroom but there are evidently fewer occurrences of males being attacked, mostly as a result of their gender. Another oppression example is the country’s toilet cistem that was forced on communities through colonisation and apartheid-segregation of toilet spaces (Patel, 2017, p. 62), which was noted as an absolute segregation of races, thus bitterly positioning the space based on one’ gender as well as race. Once reading Nigel’s work, one will notice that the mentioned violent experiences in bathrooms are connected through gender as well as race and class.

Expanding on the topic of class, Zimitri Erasmus’ work has highlighted the extent of women’s efforts that they go through in order to make themselves presentable enough to face their community, and these efforts seem to be partly influenced by class, but the case study within Erasmus’ piece has highlighted that men majorly contribute towards these efforts – unfolding how men’s power can affect women. Intersecting identities has a lot to do with social location and social context which contribute to a coloured woman’s experiences within their community, and further unpacks about ‘what it means to be a woman’ in this specific location, looking at how a woman’s race and class will determine how they will be looked at and/ or how they will present themselves. The case study mentions that men do not look for features such as “kroes hair, round buttocks, round nose and thickish lips” (Erasmus, 1997, p. 13) within a girl, she would have to have “naturally straight hair, a flat buttocks, sharp nose and thin lips” (Erasmus, 1997, p. 13). These features are not possible for every female to have, thus creating a constant pressure among women, involving a series of emotions ranging from feelings such as pain to rejection.

The straightening of hair shows a binary where black women are “reactionary” (Erasmus, 1997, p. 15) if they straighten their hair and others are “progressive” (Erasmus, 1997, p. 15) if they do not – dodging the assumption that there are pure and natural ways of wearing one’s hair. The sense of admirable hair is beginning to move from colonial-racist expectations (straight, shiny) (Erasmus, 1997, p. 15) to the idea that hair is healthy whatever the texture. Women responding to such experiences of oppression by dying their hair ‘unnatural’ colours or styling their hair in a unique way could be responsible for this shift; which is all about breaking binaries and finding ways to express oneself differently.

This control and power affect women’s emotions and occur within their communities, but it can also create an overall form of oppression and privilege over their lives. Power dissimilarities emerge from different identities that intersect, and they often depend on one’s context. Intersectionality works with ideas of difference by looking at, for example, the study of the difference between male and female which will allow for us to see how not all women or men are the same, and how their lived experiences are different. Through examination of a case study, M Accapadi observes that through the interactions between white and non-white women, the white women will always gain from their privilege due to them having an identity as white. As woman, they must be able to recognise the power that comes with their whiteness, and in order to do so, they must acknowledge that their societal norms allow them to switch their identities. By combining the two social identities, white women can be both a woman and pick to be white, or they can be both dependent without the incapability casting over all white people (Accapadi, 2007, p. 213). One will also gather that male privilege situates the essence of womanhood (due to hegemonic masculinity), while white privilege through history positions a white woman’s reality as the universal norm of womanhood (seeing as, within a hegemonic femininity category, an ideal woman would be heterosexual, white, kind and so on) leaving a woman of colour defined by two layers of oppression.

This essay has managed to define intersectionality in depth, with aid of certain authors, and has illustrated how the term works with ideas and differences. It has shown, with guidance of certain case studies, the ways in which crosscutting identities have managed to shape the lived experiences of people which can also further depend on one’s social location and context, and finally; this essay has concluded with further discussions of how the role of power has the ability to bring about intersections of oppression and privilege.

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