Intersectionality— a weighty concept with history

When you say Kimberlé Crenshaw, you mean intersectionality— and vice versa. It’s a bit like Einstein and the Theory of Relativity or Newton and the Law of Gravity. Two sides of the same coin. Inseparable. And of considerable weight. After all, the concept of intersectionality has shaped our understanding of the complexity of discrimination and the diverse and often contradictory interrelationships and overlappings of power structures, beyond feminist thought, like no other, in recent years. The fact that we have been talking of “multiple discrimination” ever since the UN World Conference against Racism in 2001 in South Africa is just one piece of evidence among many. Intersectionality is a response to the great challenge that, on the one hand, you can understand the living conditions and subjectivities of all sexes only if you do not confine yourself to sex or gender, and on the other, that these conditions cannot be understood without a comprehensive understanding of gender relations and gender. Gender relations, just like racial, ethnic and class relations, collaborate with other dimensions of social division; they are mediated and ruptured by them and they mediate and rapture them. “‘Race’”, as Judith Butler once said, is ‘lived in the modality of sexuality’ and ‘the social gender is lived in the modality of ‘race’”. Marginalizations thus do not occur successively or side by side, rather they amalgamate, overlap, and appear in the guiseof the other. Intersectionality, according to Kimberlé Crenshaw, does not mean that I am first knocked down by racism and then by sexism, but by both simultaneously. The extent to which this continues to be exciting and challenging in equal measure when it comes to thinking about the interweaving of power relations becomes clear when we consider how long we have been trying to think this way. It goes back much further than Crenshaw’s metaphor of the crossroads. In her biography A Colored Woman in a White World from the year 1940, the African American journalist, civil rights activist, feminist and pioneer in the universal suffrage movement, Mary Church Terrell (who in 1904 at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin together with Susan B. Anthony represented the US women’s rights associations, where she was the only Black speaker) described her own story as that of a “colored woman living in a white world. It cannot possibly be like a story written by a white woman. A white woman has only one handicap to overcome—that of sex. I have two—both sex and race”. And another half a century earlier, in 1892, the African American writer, sociologist, mathematician, educationalist and activist Anna J. Cooper (who in 1925, at the age of 65, was only the fourth Black woman in the history of the United States to earn a doctorate in philosophy) explained: “The colored woman of to-day occupies a unique position in this country. She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both.”

Mary Church Terrel and Anna J. Cooper themselves are yet to be discovered—certainly in German-speaking academic and activist contexts; however, their thought lives on unbeknownst to many in the concept of intersectionality. 100 years after Anna Cooper’s reflections, Kimberlé Crenshaw indirectly built on this figure of the unknown or unacknowledged position of the Black wom*n when she 37 spoke of intersectional invisibility, the invisibility of intersectionally structured positions and relations. Crenshaw referred to a systematic cross-fading, which render invisible both the gender-specific aspects of racial discrimination and the racial implications of gender discrimination. To remember Mary Church Terrell or Anna J. Cooper is not mere nostalgia, rather, it constitutes an active intervention in a peculiar historical amnesia that is often manifested in discussions of intersectionality; this in turn itself actively contributes to the rendering invisible of the rich and varied history of feminist thought and feminist activism and to the interweaving of sexism and racism. And this is perhaps even more valid for the history of the German-speaking reception of her work than for Crenshaw herself. Because long before the transatlantic journey and the arrival of the metaphor of the crossing of repression relations in the 1990s, feminist, lesbian-feminist and women’s movement circles wrestled with the question of how sexism, racism and class-based power relations are linked to one another.

I will just mention one example: In the call to the first joint wom*n’s congress of foreign and German wom*n, which took place in March 1984 in Frankfurt am Main, the wom*n (calling themselves “foreign” at the time) described their situation thus: “Being a female foreigner means direct disenfranchisement and oppression in three respects: as foreigner, as wage-dependent worker, and as woman”. It is “high time”, they said, to step out of the “isolation and loneliness in the daily struggle against oppression by the law, by men, by the conditions at the workplace”, and to “break the silence in exchange with each other, but also in exchange with German women”. The idea for the congress came about after the wom*n at the “Tribunal against xenophobia and human rights violations”, which had taken place the year before yet again, found “that the ‘question of women’s rights’ was treated as marginal”, for which a discussion in 38 a working group was adequate, as they write in the congress documentation. The congress itself, which was held under the motto of “Are we really so alien to ourselves?” and which was attended by more than 1000 wom*n, included several talks and working groups intensely examining and discussing the relationship between racism and sexism. I vividly remember to this day the passionate discussions, the intense attempts to become intelligible to each other, and the irrepressible will to make a difference.

This “1st joint women’s congress of foreign and German women” vividly illustrated what the social scientist Gudrun Axeli Knapp called the “hot epistemic culture” of feminism: that feminists and wom*n in the wom*n’s movement (not always the same) produce feminist—and, yes, also intersectional—theories that are close to the conditions and constellations of their specific lives and experiences. It is events like these—and many more could be named—that are part of a yet-to-be-told feminist genealogy of intersectional knowledge production. And to understand and to politicise the work of the “foreign women” at the congress in Frankfurt, their aspirations, and the “disenfranchisement and oppression in three respects” which they experienced is part of this story. It is the story of knowledge production which starts at the very point at which mere programmatic pronouncements on intersectionality stop: at the exploration of the specific and ultimately coincidental constellations of dominance and submission, empowerment and confinement. To think in terms of intersectionality and intersectional policy-making therefore also means to work against the rendering of this history as invisible.