Some thoughts on intersectionality and class

Photo by tanakawho, shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

I’ve been talking a lot about the uses of ‘intersectionality’ as a concept lately – it seems to be coming up a lot in my academic circles at the moment. I also found out the other day that I’m presenting on the ‘intersectionality’ panel at a conference in a couple of weeks. As my research is very much about intersections (gender/feminism/race, feminism/(anti-)racism, oppression/privilege), I am of course heavily indebted to scholarship on intersectionality, and have been using it for a long time, but recent conversations have made me reflect a bit more critically on it again.

I recently re-read Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color’ (1991), from which intersectionality as a conceptual tool originated. I think it’s so important to go back to the roots, to map the genealogy of the concept, link it to the bodies behind the theory. Intersectionality came out of black feminist theorising, in order to address the ways in which women of colour were structurally as well as politically marginalised. It’s so important to hold on to this history – too many times I’ve seen white feminists (among others) appropriating the concept, while marginalising the experience of racialised women within feminism all over again.

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference called ‘Feminist Genealogies’ at Goldsmiths (organised by Sara Ahmed). One of the panels was titled ‘Intersectionality’, and as part of this Beverley Skeggs gave a talk, which I found both invigorating and problematic. Skeggs was very critical of how intersectionality has been taken up as a concept. Her argument is (if I understood her correctly) that class as a category is at odds with other identity categories such as gender, race, disability and sexuality, because struggles around class are based on exploitation, whereas struggles around other identity categories are based around claims to recognition. Therefore, she argued, class always gets left out of the intersectionality equation: it simply doesn’t fit.

Although I agree it’s important to not conflate different differences or suggest that they operate in the same way, I’m not sure I agree with Skeggs that there is such an absolute antagonism between class and other differences. ‘Race’, for example, being a social construction created in order legitimise racial hierarchies, is surely as much about exploitation and oppression as class? I also don’t agree with her characterisation of intersectionality scholarship. Yes, I agree intersectionality has been applied in many a dubious contexts, but I don’t think this inherently makes the concept less useful.

In Crenshaw’s article, for example, class clearly forms part of her analysis of structural intersectionality – because women of colour are most likely to be working class and financially vulnerable. For example, Crenshaw highlights how issues of homelessness and poverty affect women of colours’ access to domestic violence services – because the services were unable to meet the needs of poor women of colour, because their immediate needs were often financial ones which did not fit into the model the services were based on (i.e. that fitting to white, middle class women). So class is definitely part of Crenshaw’s intersectional analysis. What seemed to be missing from Skeggs critique was a recognition that class is also intersectional – and that poverty and class-based exploitation affects people of colour disproportionately.

What I do agree with Skeggs on is that sometimes intersectionality is used in ways which evade accountability for what actually matters. There’s this mantra which pops up regularly – that all categories are always equally important – that we need to be taking ‘everything’ into account. And as this is simply not possible, we always have our (in Judith Butler’s term) “embarrassed et-ceteras”. And I agree, that sometimes this is not helpful – but rather, depending on the context, some categories and differences do matter more than others.

In terms of my research, I’ve been thinking about how I have often thrown in “and working/middle class” as an “etc”, without full consideration of how class differences affect the “primary” gender/race intersection I am analysing.  I need to look more closely at how feminist discourses and constructions of whiteness are classed as well as racialised. And I appreciated Skeggs talk, in terms of bringing this insight home to me more clearly. But, against Skeggs, I would argue that an understanding of the theory of intersectionality is essential in order to do so.