by Manjari Sahay

To mark 30 years of ‘intersectionality’ since Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the concept in her article ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’, the Department of Gender Studies, LSE organised a day-long celebration on 29 May 2019. The conference showcased scholarly and activist reflections underlining the centrality of intersectionality and its conceptual purchase across disciplines and locations. This series of posts is a selection of interventions presented at the conference but also essays by students and scholars thinking through intersectionality.  

In this contribution, MSc student Manjari Sahay reflects on the travel of intersectionality, engaging some of the challenges and possibilities posed by travelling theory for transnational feminist praxis.

Photo of Kim Crenshaw

Photo credit: Mohamed Badarne (uploaded by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

Two years ago, I was sitting in an open forum on issues of gender at my undergraduate university in New Delhi, India. The conversation inevitably turned to feminism—what does it mean to be a good feminist?—and a girl, few years my junior, stood up to speak: “If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s honestly bullshit,” she said unhesitatingly. At the time, I knew what “intersectional”—loosely understood by me as describing the interconnectedness of social categories—meant despite never having read academic work that explicitly mobilises the term. The vigorous nods of everyone present in the room suggested they knew it too. I ascribed this knowledge of intersectionality to a flurry of journalistic articles and status updates—shared on Facebook by my list of predominantly Indian, English-speaking, upper-caste, upper-class friends—which used (and abused) the term at every click. Satisfied with intersectionality’s seeming ability to establish consensus in my social circle, I did not bother to investigate the history of the term any further, and closed the chapter without a second thought.

But the second thought arrived—as it always does—when a master’s in Gender Studies in London, UK, compelled me to reopen the chapter on intersectionality. Upon revisiting my memory of the open forum, I was struck by two things that I now regard as being closely related to one another: my former ignorance about intersectionality’s origins and the fact of its extensive travel. Coined and popularised, as such, by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 but a mainstay of Black feminist thought in the US long before then, intersectionality reached me in India almost 30 years later. Its travel across time and space simultaneously attests to and secures its dominant position in feminist theorising, reflected in both academic and, increasingly, pop culture analyses. However, having acquired the status of a buzzword, it is now referenced by people to signal their familiarity with and commitment to feminism without necessarily exploring the theoretical debates surrounding intersectionality. In light of this, it is unsurprising that the origins of intersectionality did not matter to me two years ago: the word itself stood for everything I needed to know and say about it—a self-explanatory universe that any ‘progressive’ individual worth their title admitted to living in, no questions asked.

Edward Said, in his pioneering essay “Traveling Theory,” writes that although the travel of theory nourishes and sustains intellectual activity by enabling us to move past the constraints of our immediate environment, it risks domesticating the ideas being transferred. This is because theory, according to Said, is “a response to a specific social and historical situation of which an intellectual occasion is a part.” Its displacement (and concomitant institutionalisation), then, sometimes involves a reduction of the insurrectionary spirit bestowed upon it by the time, place, and very fact of its origin.[i] Indeed, I somehow doubt that Crenshaw was met with enthusiastic—if not obedient—nods when she first articulated intersectionality. If we grant that the radicality of intersectionality stands diminished by its travel, how might we account for its continued hold on the imagination of English-speaking populations outside the US?

While granting that intersectionality’s success is well-deserved, this post begins from the premise that at least some of its widespread travel and take-up, particularly in the Global South, can be attributed to its position as a theory originating in the US. When the context is one of unequal power relations between countries, including unequal epistemic authority, the travel of theory cannot be treated as apolitical movement or even happenstance, independent of colonialism and imperialism. Attached to this are epistemic consequences, which are also political ones. Using examples from India, I seek to unearth some such implications of intersectionality’s travel by asking the following question: What do we lose in exchange for our uncritical application of intersectionality in contexts different from that which it first sought to describe? I engage with this question by (a) expounding on the concept of intersectionality, (b) discussing some of the potential erasures involved in its travel, and (c) considering briefly how these erasures can be mediated by treating intersectionality as an “analytic sensibility.” In doing so, I make a case for paying closer attention to the local and its linkages to the global, thereby holding on to what, like travelling theory, connects us across difference.

Intersectionality in/as US Black Feminist Thought: Risk as Travel Companion

In “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antriracist Politics”—the text credited with being the first in which the term ‘intersectionality’ appears—Crenshaw analyses legal cases to outline how the experience of sex discrimination is defined and delimited by the experiences of white women, while the experience of racial discrimination is defined and delimited by those of Black men. In addition to being unable to represent women and Blacks, Black women are also unable to represent themselves, since the combination of statutory remedies for race and sex discrimination is considered, by the judicial system, a “super-remedy.” As a result of this “single-axis framework” that treats “race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis,” Black women are erased not just from anti-discrimination law but also from feminist theory and anti-racist politics. In place of this, Crenshaw espouses an intersectional approach to discrimination. Using the analogy of a traffic intersection, she explains, “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.” Intersectionality is, then, a conceptual framework that posits discrimination as the result of interlocking and therefore mutually constitutive systems of power—an understanding markedly different from the additive view of oppression, where Oppression A is supplemented by Oppression B, that it is commonly mistaken to be.

When the person deploying the term intersectionality recalls that it first emerged as a way of understanding Black women’s experience of discrimination in the US—as the anecdote at the start of this article suggests, this may not always be the case—one erasure is prevented, but possibly at the cost of another. This erasure takes place if discussions about race and how it plays out in one context are displaced onto analyses of other kinds of difference in other contexts (for example, the analysis of caste discrimination in the Indian context). Straightforward displacement flattens out the logic of the two discriminations (race in the US and caste in India) by establishing equivalence between them, preserving the specificity of neither.

Second, not only does the travel of intersectionality tend to establish equivalence between different categories, but it also equates different understandings of the same category. Discussing “the coloniality of gender,” María Lugones provides a historical account of gender in postcolonial societies by arguing that it was a colonial introduction. She writes, “Colonialism did not impose precolonial, European gender arrangements on the colonized. It imposed a new gender system that created very different arrangements for colonized males and females than for white bourgeois colonizers.” According to her, in this “new gender system,” colonised peoples were regarded as having sex but no gender, i.e., they were males and females, not men and women, for only the ‘civilised’ have gender. Postcolonial scholars have shown that colonised populations attempted to ‘re-gender’ themselves as part of a nationalist response to colonialism. Partha Chatterjee, for instance, writes that in late nineteenth-century India, elite Indian men sought to appropriate the norms of Western modernity while still preserving the distinctiveness of the Indian nation. Selectively incorporating changes into their own homes—families were realms of self-governance for men—they fostered the “new” Indian woman. This woman, who could now access education as a means to cultural refinement, became the embodiment of the spirituality of the nation—as opposed to the materialism of the West and its women—which she was responsible for protecting and nurturing. As a result of this colonial history, the body of the Indian—specifically Hindu, middle class, and upper caste—woman is closely tied to and symbolises the Indian family and nation.

In any postcolonial society, gender—that is, the hegemonic conception of gender—is therefore unlikely to mean the exact same as it does in a society that did not experience colonisation, itself colonised other societies, or experienced colonisation differently (even as it is inevitably entangled with these other meanings). In other words, there are, in some sense, as many formulations of gender as there are postcolonialisms, and there are as many postcolonialisms as there are locations. Intersectionality’s uncritical deployment in a location different from that of its origin then threatens to erase the specific meaning of historically constructed categories in that location, gender being just one of them.

Intersectionality and ‘Indian’ Feminist Epistemologies: Imperial Import or Postcolonial Potentiality?

A third criticism of the travel of intersectionality comes from Nivedita Menon, who argues that intersectionality adds nothing new to our understanding of feminism(s) in the Global South since “‘the single-axis framework’ was never predominant or unchallenged in our parts of the world.” In these parts, the politics of engaging with multiple, intersecting identities, she writes, can be traced back to the anti-imperialist struggles, including women’s movements, which located the identity of women within the nation and other kinds of communities from the very beginning. Additionally, Menon cites more recent examples of how the totalising category of ‘Indian woman’ has been especially destabilised by the politics of caste, religion and sexuality. She then uses this to argue against the universal validity that is automatically bestowed upon concepts developed in the Global North, saying, “Even when an understanding of politics in the global South predates a name for a similar understanding developed in the Western academy, it is the earlier conception that will be named after the later” (emphases hers). In this manner, she unveils how the travel of Crenshaw’s articulation of intersectionality overwrites local feminist understandings of it, reproducing the Global North/South hierarchy of knowledge-production.

Menon’s thought-provoking article was met by an equally forceful response from Mary E. John, who claims that the prominent examples offered by Menon do not demonstrate the redundancy of intersectionality as an idea in the Indian context. John confirms that feminism in India has a unique historical trajectory due to the phenomena of colonialism and nationalism, but goes on to say that just because issues like caste and communalism emerged at the beginning of the Indian women’s movement does not mean that they were adequately engaged with. Mainstream feminist politics in India has, contrary to Menon’s claims, been elite, Hindu, and upper caste for much of its history. Moreover, while acknowledging the role of Western—specifically US—hegemony in the dominance of Western concepts, John writes that our colonial and postcolonial histories have resulted in our entrapment by not only false universalisms but also false rejections of the universal. She writes, “We will need a much more multilayered notion than a simple imperialism of categories to be able to capture the ways in which subordinated peoples have been able not just to make sense of their worlds, but also to fight back.” Dalit feminists have, after all found inspiration in the history of Black women, suggesting that some dimension of Crenshaw’s theory might speak to them.

While I agree with John’s criticism of Menon’s rendering of the Indian women’s movement as ‘already intersectional,’ I take special note of Menon’s observation about the politics of concepts’ travel. This is by no means a suggestion to ignore the affinity between the experiences of Black and Dalit women, as doing so would mean submitting to the kind of border anxiety that breeds methodological nationalism and impedes the creation of coalitions. Rather, I recommend holding onto the affinity and, when necessary, adopting a critical approach to it—one necessitated by the fact of US imperialism. There does indeed exist the risk that the travel of intersectionality may spell, for Indian feminists, blindness to remarkably similar theorisations in their own intellectual traditions. Dalit feminists, for instance, have theorised the intersection of caste and gender in a vein similar to Crenshaw’s, but without any explicit reference to her work. Most notably, Uma Chakravarti, in her discussion of “Brahmanical patriarchy,” reveals the relationship between caste and gender hierarchies in maintaining Brahmanical social order. Sharmila Rege’s work is another significant intervention: it describes the “masculinisation of Dalithood and the savarnisation of womanhood,” which historically resulted in the exclusion of Dalit women from India’s feminist and anti-caste movements, and calls for a distinct Dalit feminist standpoint.

When a discussion of Dalit women’s experiences overlooks these works in favour of Crenshaw’s analysis, it reproduces the kind of epistemic violence that intersectionality sought to remedy. Instead, it might be most productive to take advantage of the resonances between the two sets of theorisations and use them both to strengthen our intersectional understandings. This is very different from saying that race and caste are equivalent or that they function through the same logics—a faux pas referenced earlier in this article. Rather, there seems to be something similar (alongside something different) in Black and Dalit women’s experiences. Here, I follow John’s lead in holding together the universal and the particular in tension with one another as a means to generate the productive force of feminist politics and weave solidarities across disparate contexts.

“What Intersectionality Does”: Intersectionality as Transnational Analytic Sensibility

All three of the potential erasures I have discussed—the equivalence of different categories, the equivalence of different meanings of the same category, and ignorance of local feminist theorisations of intersectionality—can, arguably, be mediated by paying closer attention to the local as a means to combat the imperialism that results in its invisibilisation. This would entail treating intersectionality not as a duplicable methodology but rather as an “analytic sensibility”—a suggestion made by Crenshaw herself. In an article co-authored with Sumi Cho and Leslie McCall, she explains (emphasis mine):

…what makes an analysis intersectional—whatever term it deploys, whatever its iteration, whatever its field or discipline—is its adoption of an intersectional way of thinking […] This framing—conceiving of categories not as distinct but as always permeated by other categories, fluid and changing, always in the process of creating and being created by dynamics of power—emphasizes what intersectionality does rather than what intersectionality is.

This claim does more than just suspend, however temporarily, raging debates about what intersectionality was intended to be (a theory, ideology, or methodology)—a discussion that, to my mind, is of little intellectual and political relevance due to its lack of concern with what intersectionality has made possible irrespective of its original aims. More significantly, it preserves and encapsulates the power of intersectionality by opening it up to diverse and localised applications. Equally, it should be noted that attentiveness to the local includes the keen observation of its imbrication in the global, particularly necessary in a world where power relations do not adhere to the boundaries set by national borders and, if anything, are responsible for creating them. Travelling theory, by virtue of transgressing these borders, makes a fine candidate for thinking through questions of transnational feminist responsibility and political strategy.

Photo of authorManjari Sahay (@manjarisahay on Twitter) has a BA and Postgraduate Diploma in Political Science and English from Ashoka University, India, and an MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation from the LSE, UK. Having worked almost exclusively in university settings—as a consent trainer, teaching assistant, and research assistant—she imagines her life unfolding within the academy, where she hopes to teach and write about the interdisciplinary field of transnational feminist and postcolonial studies. Currently, she is keeping academic burnout and impostor syndrome at bay by taking time off, and welcomes recommendations for all the books she knows she will not be able to finish reading in this lifetime.

[i] Said revisits this idea in another essay, “Traveling Theory Reconsidered,” where he writes about the possibility of the opposite occurrence—the possibility that the travel of theory may highlight the tensions within and critique of it, thereby making its displaced iteration more transgressive than the original one.