Mapping the Margins

Just some quotable smartness and some of my reflections as I re-read Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins”:

From Page 1:

“The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination—that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of social empowerment and reconstruction.”

What would it mean to empty an identity category? What might radical feminists (those who advocate complete cultural restructuring) say about this?

From Page 2:

“I should say at the outset that intersectionality is not being offered here as some new, totalizing theory of identity. Nor do I mean to suggest that violence against women of color can be explained only through the specific frameworks of race and gender considered here. … My focus on the intersections of race and gender only highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.”

I suspect that I and others need to be really careful about invoking intersectionality. In order to avoid making it into the totalizing theory Crenshaw warns against (and in so doing rob this idea of much of its value), we must be very careful in describing the particular kinds of intersectionalities we are interested in when engaging in a particular kind of work.

From Page 4:

” . . . [W]omen of color occupy positions both physically and culturally marginalized within dominant society, and so information must be targeted directly to them in order to reach them. Accordingly,rape crisis centers must earmark more resources for basic information dissemination in communities of color than in white ones.”

This statement makes me nervous, and I’m having trouble figuring out why. I think it’s because it sets up marginalization as being dependent upon a person’s inaccessibility by (rather than to) seats of power. (That is, if communicators with power have trouble reaching someone, that person must be marginalized. I’m not sure I buy this.) Maybe the communities of color mentioned above have their own ways of dealing with rape and don’t want the intervention of the rape crisis centers? Or maybe I’m romanticizing communities that I know nothing about. Food for thought.

From Page 5

“The concept of political intersectionality highlights the fact that women of color are situated within at least two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting political agendas.”

Important! Further on, Crenshaw also points out that women of color experience racism differently than men of color and sexism differently than white women. This suggests that feminism+antiracism isn’t enough to deal with the situation of women of color; they are facing a problem that is entirely different. It’s greater than the sum of the parts.

From Pages 10-12

In the case of the Latina woman who was denied access to a shelter because she could not prove she was English-proficient … Are there more issues of intersectionality going on here than race and sex? Where does gender fit in? How about language? Status as a mother of a teenage son?

From Page 14

“Historically, legal rules dictated, for example, that rape victims had to have resisted their assailants in order for their claims to be accepted. Any abatement of struggle was interpreted as the woman’s consent to the intercourse under the logic that a real rape victim would protect her honor virtually to the death. While utmost resistance is not formally required anymore, rape law continues to weigh the credibility of women against narrow normative standards of female behavior. A woman’s sexual history, for example, is frequently explored by defense attorneys as a way of suggesting that a woman who consented to sex on other occasions was likely to have consented in the case at issue. Past sexual conduct as well as the specific circumstances leading up to the rape are often used to distinguish the moral character of the legitimate rape victim from women who are regarded as morally debased or in some other way responsible for their own victimization.”

Obviously, cultural understandings of what constitutes “good” behavior for a woman are at play here. Any woman whose behavior falls outside that narrow spectrum essentially receives less protection from the judicial system. Since women’s behavior is dependent upon their own cultural backgrounds, and since public perception of women depends upon their race (and trends of public exoticization of particular ethnicities), this situation is a problem for all qomen and can quickly become an intersectional problem for women of color.

From Page 21

In regard to the 2 Live Crew case: “Where Will saw a misogynistic assault on Black women by social degenerates, Gates found a form of “sexual carnivalesque” with the promise to free us from the pathologies of racism.”

For me, this argument brings forth the larger issue of where cultural relativism and social justice collide. How do we draw and justify that line? (And who is “we”?)

From Page 27

“It is  helpful in this regard to distinguish intersectionality from the closely related perspective of antiessentialism . . . One version of antiessentialism, embodying what might be called the vulgarized social construction thesis, is that since all categories are socially constructed, there is no such thing as, say, Blacks or women, and thus it makes no sense to continue reproducing those categories by organizing around them. . . . But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world.”

From Page 28-29

Regarding Anita Hill: “Caught between the competing narrative tropes of rape (advanced by feminists) on the one hand and lynching (advanced by Thomas and his antiracist supporters) on the other, the race and gender dimensions of her position could not be told. . . . [T]he problem is not simply linguistic or philosophical in nature. It is specifically political: the narratives of gender are based on the experience of white, middle-class women, and the narratives of race are based on the experience of Black men.”

This leaves me feeling rather depressed. What action can I take? (My uncertainty about action, by the way, is a critique of myself, not Crenshaw.)

From Page 29

“Recognizing that identity politics takes place at the site where categories intersect thus seems more fruitful than challenging the possibility of talking about categories at all.”


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