Visiting prof discusses theory of intersectionality

By Lauren Vincent

To understand the theory of intersectionality, professor Jennifer Nash encourages students to picture a road intersection, with each different “road” being a different type of oppression. For someone standing in the middle of that intersection, the different roads are the multiple kinds of injustice that he or she might face.

Courtesy of umass.edu

Nash, an assistant professor of American studies and women’s studies at George Washington University, joined assistant professor Svati Shah from the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts for a panel discussion on the study of intersectionality. The discussion was held in Machmer W-32, and was moderated by Joya Misra, editor of the academic journal Gender & Society and a professor of sociology and public policy at UMass.

The two gender scholars read articles and talked about their own approaches to intersectionality, both through teaching and in a greater context of sociology. The theme of the institutionalization of intersectionality as a field of study was brought up by both speakers, as Nash and Shah spoke about the potential for intersectionality to be established as its own academic discipline.

Intersectionality is a theory developed by feminist scholars that seeks to interrogate “the relationships among multiple dimensions … of social relations,” according an article by Northwestern University sociology associate professor Leslie McCall. Scholars using intersectionality as a framework seek to examine different forms of discrimination as elements of a larger system of oppression, rather than treating them as distinct forces.

Nash emphasized that intersectionality was not a ranking of the different oppressions someone can face, but an acknowledgement of all of those oppressions at once. However, she also stated that the road idea was only one metaphor for intersectionality, not a universal definition.

Shah called intersectionality a “mode through which women of color have become visible in women’s studies.” She referred to the map – or road metaphor – as a static and knowable image, but worries about framing it that way.

“What intersectionality raises is a need for a conceptual way of thinking about categories of analysis, and the process of formation of these categories,” she said, referring to racialization – the placement of racial identities onto groups – as an example. She said that she thought that was where intersectionality might be found in an institutional context.

Shah talked about the legal framework of intersectionality, and said that it had its origins as a legal formation and as a way to remedy harm. She related this to her studies of sex work in India, where the issue of oppression with regard to gender and caste come together.

Nash touched on the idea that institutionalization of intersectionality may result in an appropriation of the theory – that it will instead become a strategy of “difference management.” She said that intersectionality scholars must critically interrogate its “easy incorporation into the machinery of the corporate university.”

“We inhabit an academic corporate moment when certain words and concepts generate attention and financial support in academic institutions, at least my own,” said Nash, referring to practices like diversity initiatives. “It is up to us to assure that intersectionality isn’t incorporated and assigned academic value, only to be de-radicalized, stripped of its commitments to exposing hegemony, and radically remaking the very fabric of how we think about subjectivity.”

Lauren Vincent can be reached at [email protected]