At the Crossroads: Understanding Intersectionality through Images

A blogpost by Antonia Porst

What is intersectionality? – „Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection…“1 With this important analogy from the essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection”, Kimberlé Crenshaw used the image of an intersection to explain how discrimination can flow in different directions, like traffic. While Crenshaw did not intend to create one of the central metaphors and be largely responsible for the term for intersectionality,2 the text and this specific metaphor are key elements of the theory and history of intersectionality.

By now, exemplified by the text “Intersectionality” by Patricia Hill Collins and Valerie Chepp, intersectionality can be understood as a dynamic, complex, and multidimensional approach, concept, method, or knowledge project,3 as we discussed in the class “Theories and History of Gender Relations” at the University of Innsbruck during the summer term 2023.4 The difficulty in finding the right description or answer for the question posed at the beginning of this text suggests the question which I will discuss in the following essay: How can intersectionality be translated into an image or images; how can it be visualized in general? Given that there are multiple popular visualizations and metaphors one ought to think about what those images lay their focus on, what they really convey or want to convey, and even what they may not show for the purpose of focusing on other things.

The Image of an Intersection—and its Drawbacks

Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the image of an intersection while arguing on the concrete situation of Black women in the US, explaining how the experience of discrimination of Black women cannot be described using singular categories of race or gender alone: “Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.”5 She uses legal cases to demonstrate how important it is to understand these categories as intertwined and discrimination based on them as relational: “The intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”6 In the same text, Crenshaw also uses the analogy of the basement to argue how Black women are “marginalized in the interface between antidiscrimination law and race and gender hierarchies”.7 In this, she imagines people stacked on top of each other in a basement, with those at the very bottom being more disadvantaged by categories such as gender, race, class, sexuality, and physical ability.8 This is only a short description; however, both examples convey similar ideas.

Drawing of a street crossing with a person in the middle. Multiple categories of discrimination (gender identity, class, race, sexuality and disability) are written on the intersecting lanes.

Figure 1: screenshot taken from NMAAHC (29.08.2017): #APeoplesJourney: African American Women and the Struggle for Equality; YouTube  [02.07.2023]9

In the metaphor of the intersection, the image used is crossing roads (e.g., from a visualization on a website, see fig. 1). The prototype of the intersection would be two roads and four directions to go into. It is easy to liken one road to one identity category, meaning race and gender in this case. An ambulance would only be able to come from one of these roads and would not be able to help on the intersection because the specific situation of the Black woman in the middle is not the focus of it.

The critique applicable here is that, although Crenshaw might not have meant it that way, identity categories are reproduced as separate. A person hit by cars from different directions would still imply that there are two separate instances of discrimination. However, a person hurt in the middle of the intersection would be hurt in a distinct way from someone hurt on just one of the roads. One of the big endeavors of intersectionality research is to move away from additive approaches to focus on “the constitutive nature of this issue”.10 The image constructed here only entails horizontal lines. The basement, on the other hand, talks about vertical lines in the form of hierarchy. This conveys a very static picture of people being fixed in place by a structure of discrimination, which explains how law disadvantages and privileges, but at the same time is not able to encompass the complexity and multitude of contexts in which people of a society and/or of different cultures are affected by different categories.11

Fig.2: A Venn-diagram of multiple colorful overlapping ellipses.

Figure 2: Wikipedia [02.07.2023]12; CC BY-SA 3.0

The image of lines, circles, ellipses, or others overlapping and intersecting is a prominent and maybe the most prominent visualization of intersectionality and may be the effect of this early metaphor (e.g., image from Wikipedia; see fig. 2).

Of course, it has to be mentioned that Crenshaw is arguing on the specific account of the experience of Black women and chooses her analogies according to this specific point. It is however undeniable that the image of the intersection has been greatly influential to the conception of intersectionality in general. Deducible here is that vertical as well as horizontal aspects should be imagined, as well as dynamic and intertwined categories.

Efforts in Broadening the Image

In the text Intersectionality (2013), Patricia Hill Collins and Valerie Chepp talk about a widened conceptualization of intersectionality. They consider how great, ambiguous, inconsistent, and at times contradicting the “field” of intersectionality is. It spans across multiple disciplines and is defined as a theory, theoretical paradigm, perspective, concept, type of data, method, and more.13 The main question posed in the text is: “how do we make sense of intersectionality as a construct that is so widespread and visible yet simultaneously loosely defined and paradoxical?”14 The authors, coming from a background of sociology, use the framework of sociology of knowledge, which focusses on knowledge as being socially constructed, conceptualizing intersectionality as a constellation of knowledge projects: “[We’re] conceptualizing intersectionality as a knowledge project whose umbrella is broad enough to encompass the ambiguities, contradictions, and questions discussed in the introduction.”15 While not being the main focus of this argument, the term umbrella, which is used here, is worth noting. It gives an image of intersectionality as a type of shield, collecting all kinds of different concepts, approaches, disciplines, and developments under it. This umbrella is fashioned out of the six core ideas proposed in the text by Collins and Chepp, which explain the main ideas underlying intersectional scholarship (see fig. 3).

An umbrella, stylized as a diagram, with six different colored parts of the canopy. Each part is referenced to by a raindrop of the same color and a short summary of each of the six core ideas of intersectionality after Collins and Chepp. 1: Systems of Power intersect and coproduce each other 2: Knowledge is situated within these power relations 3: Systems of power are constituted and maintained through relational processes 4: Worldviews and standpoints are also relational and co-constructing 5: Boundaries are significant in their existence and in the transcendence of them 6: There is a concern with complexity within intersectional research

Figure 3: umbrella with core ideas of intersectionality (after Collins and Chepp 2013); template adapted from here [02.07.2023]16. Here is the chart created in the seminar.

It is important to note that intersectionality in this approach is not bound to gender studies, the authors argue on the complexity of the concept and its applicability on all kinds of research fields.17 In this, the usual triad of gender, race, and class, with gender often being the “master category”, is called into question.18

Arriving at an umbrella to visualize intersectionality can also not be considered the end of the search for the right visualization. While an intersection might be too specific to the context it was used in, an umbrella might be too broad of an image in trying to encompass all that intersectionality was, is, and might be, without limiting it to fixed categories. What should the umbrella’s colors be, what material is it made out of, which perspective of it should be shown? In focusing on the academic side of it, the real materiel effects of it, the individuals who are affected by it, and the agenda for social change are made invisible – or barely visible – by an image which tries to talk about everything.

It seems to me that in an effort to describe the whole of intersectionality, there is no singular correct way of visualization, nor should there be. Neither a cross, a star nor an umbrella can or will be able to convey all of intersectionality. Not only because in a static two-dimensional image multidimensionality and dynamics might be lost, but because it is quite obvious that the loss in translation, the need to simplify and reduce, and the figuration of the abstract make this simply impossible. But then, why even pose the question of this essay?

I have tried to argue along two important texts on intersectionality, especially referencing the latter, that choosing an analogy to visualize the concept naturally brings forth problems. It is important to closely look at the context of creation and especially the purpose it was created for. It is also important to notice which approach to intersectionality has been chosen in an image and, like Collins and Chepp, look at this as a construction as well as situated in a specific system of power. Choosing the image of an intersection today, for example, might imply historical consciousness for an important text for intersectionality and the origins of the term, but it also might give a reduced image of the complex relations, multitude, and intertwinement of categories. It also might situate intersectionality in a specific scientific context.

My point is that, in the context of feminist science critique,19 one also has to look at the power of images and the things that they do not show. There is always something outside the box, so to speak, and the image is merely an excerpt from an always bigger picture.

 

Antonia Porst is studying for a master’s degree in Gender, Culture and Social Change as well as German Philology at the University of Innsbruck. Previously, she studied German Philology and Philosophy, also in Innsbruck. As a student assistant, she is currently working on a research project on prefigurations of pop in the entertainment magazines of the 1920s (SFB 1472: „Transformationen des Populären“). This essay was written as part of the seminar “Theories and history of gender relations” in the summer semester of 2023, led by Levke Harders.

 

Diesen Artikel zitieren: Porst, Antonia: At the Crossroads: Understanding Intersectionality through Images, in: Migration and Belonging, 18.09.2023, https://belonging.hypotheses.org/4469 [Abrufdatum].


Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Gast-Autor*in (2023, 20. September). At the Crossroads: Understanding Intersectionality through Images. Migration and Belonging. Abgerufen am 19. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/lwyt

  1. Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989): Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. In University of Chicago Legal Forum (1), Article 8, pp. 139–167, 149. []
  2. Cf. Guidroz, Kathleen; Berger, Michele Tracy (2009): A Conversation with Founding Scholars of Intersectionality Kimberlé Crenshaw, Nira Yuval-Davis, and Michelle Fine. In Michele Tracy Berger, Kathleen Guidroz (Eds.): The Intersectional Approach. Transforming the Academy Through Race, Class, and Gender. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, pp. 61–80, 65. []
  3. Collins, Patricia Hill; Chepp, Valerie (2013): Intersectionality. In Georgina Waylen, Karen Celis, Johanna Kantola, S. Laurel Weldon (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics: Oxford University Press, 57–87. []
  4. Cf. the blog post Lehren, Lernen, Forschen (in German). []
  5. Crenshaw 1989, p. 149. []
  6. Ibid., p. 140. []
  7. Ibid., p 151. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. https://youtu.be/X5H80Nhmn20?t=40  [02.07.2023] []
  10. Nira Yuval-Davis in Guidroz and Berger 2009, p. 71. []
  11. Cf. the critique of Eurocentricity of intersectional studies by Dhawan, Nikita; Castro-Varela, Maria do Mar (2016): “What Difference Does Difference make?”: Diversity, Intersectionality and Transnational Feminist Politics. In Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies 16, pp. 11–39. []
  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality [02.07.2023] []
  13. Cf. Collins / Chepp 2013, p. 58. []
  14. Ibid., p. 59. []
  15. Ibid. []
  16. http://youtube.com/@POWERPOINTUNIVERSITYINC/ [02.07.2023] []
  17. Ibid., p. 60. []
  18. Ibid., p. 72. []
  19. E.g., Haraway, Donna (1988): Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In Feminist Studies 14 (3), p. 575. []

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