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Capitalism and the Problem of Intersectionality

What does it mean to do “intersectional” analysis? Generally it is taken to mean that more than one sort of oppression dynamic is being accounted for (e.g. race and class or gender and race and class), and in that case, it is meant to be an improvement over analyses that only take into consideration one dynamic. But what else does this locution “intersectionality” betray?

It seems to give us an additive model of social relations in which discrete identities intersect; therefore, our strategy for understanding the particular social nexus of a working class black lesbian might end up looking something like: black + woman + lesbian + working class = their particular experience. However, what would it actually mean to try to understand what each of these abstract identifications means in this discrete additive model? Can you really abstractly separate these identifications? It does not seem likely we could — and yet this sort of problematic strategy seems to be in place if we think about doing an analysis of oppression in terms of racism + sexism + homophobia + … etc.

In her 1988 article, “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness,” Deborah King critiques a precursor to the term intersectionality, namely “double jeopardy.” Coined initially in 1972 by Frances Beale to describe the dual discriminations of racism and sexism that black women experienced, others later would also add class based and homosexual discriminations for third and even fourth types of “jeopardies.” King critiques this method of analysis for its understanding of the relationships of discriminations as being merely additive: “in this instance, each discrimination has a single, direct, and independent effect on status, wherein the relative contribution of each is readily apparent.” To supplant this type of additive model King offers a model that allows for the interdependence of oppressions, which maintains a differentially multiplicative understanding of their interactions.

Utilizing this sort of method we may interrogate experiences of oppression on various levels that bring in and out of focus the oppressive dynamics involved. King writes, “[I]n some cases, race may be the more significant predictor of black women’s status; in others, gender or class may be more influential.” This ability to differentiate between various aspects of the ways that oppression affects someone’s economic or social status is an important improvement over a merely additive or undifferentiated theory of “independent” vectors of oppression. Thinking of racism, sexism, or homophobia as independent and discrete vectors does not allow a differentiated view of the their interactions, which is crucial if we want to figure out ways of diminishing their detrimental effects.

King goes on to analyze census data that show some of the ways in which gender, race, and class differentially effect income level, attainment of education, and the respective returns of postsecondary education among both white and black males and females. Her analysis complicates the notion of the additive equation of oppression that would either say those with the most are unequivocally always the worst off in every way, or that there is some kind of hierarchy of oppressions. Specifically to refute any fixed hierarchy of oppression, King notes that for black women, while race was the most influential in terms of their level of education, their gender most affected their income level. This is merely to point out “the relative significance of race, sex, or class in determining the conditions of black women’s lives is neither fixed nor absolute but, rather, is dependent on the socio-historical context and the social phenomena under consideration.”

Angela Davis makes a similar point in her 1972 piece “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” Here Davis debunks the myth of the “black matriarch” and shows black women in particular socio-historical contexts to have historically been in solidarity with black men rather than white women — again destabilizing any fixed notion of a hierarchy of oppression or independently discrete relationship between sex and gender in black women’s lives. Further, not only does she demonstrate black women’s solidarity with black men, Davis actually shows how many slave women were the forerunners of counter-insurgent political action. Thinking of the black women in this particular socio-historical context, we see they have a different set of relations to sexism than white women during the same period. Black women worked in the fields just as hard as men — and in some cases even harder — and were absolutely essential to the survival of a community of resistance. Perhaps even because black women in the slave community had relatively more equality in their relationships with black men, they faced increased sexual violence from white males. Here we see again how black women’s lives were differentially affected by their race and sex compared to black men and compared to white women.

While King’s formulation of “multiple jeopardies” instead of some kind of numerical/additive formulation is absolutely a theoretical advance, she does not fully develop how this model works (at least in this particular article). However, she does offer critiques of some political struggles at the time that can be used to begin to layout a plan for what would need to be included in a radical black woman’s political project. King criticizes current political struggles for either privileging white voices (in terms of the woman’s movement) or ignoring economic oppression and exploitation (in terms of some race liberation struggles and women’s liberation struggles). She particularly reprimands some feminists for only struggling to win primary sector professional careers, which would remain (even if gained for white women) entirely unavailable to lower income black women. King notes that this blindness to class-based issues relies on many feminists’ notion that economic disadvantage is only relevant to feminism as it relates to an inequality with white men — where actually there is a less dramatic income differential between black men and women.

Ultimately King demands the following of a black feminist liberatory theory: (1) it must declare the visibility of black women; (2) it must assert self-determination as essential; (3) it must fundamentally challenge “the interstructure of the oppressions of racism, sexism, and classism [and we might add homophobia] both in the dominate society and within movement for liberation;” and (4) it must presume the image of black woman as a powerful, independent subject. King pairs this set of demands with the following method: “it is in confrontation with multiple jeopardies that black women define and sustain a multiple consciousness essential for our liberation, of which feminist consciousness is an integral part.”

This is a great start in developing a strategy for integrating various analyses of oppressive dynamics toward a political project of liberation — but what does it mean to maintain “multiple consciousness”? While King offers this a powerful conceptual tool, she does not fully work out the details of what it means to maintain and act according to “multiple consciousness.”

In our class discussion Nancy Fraser offered a helpful lens that I think can help us think further through King’s multiple consciousness: rather than doing analysis that we would term “intersectional” in the general sense of the word — of adding up independent oppressions — we should acknowledge from the beginning the co-constitution of oppressions and their ultimate emergence out of the “master-frame” of capitalism. This master-frame of capitalism does not imply an economically reductionist account of class as the master identity, but rather, it realizes what King and Davis called for as the socio-economic context situating particular identities. Viewing capitalism as the master frame does not entail claiming that sexism or racism originated with capitalism, but rather, it claims that the form of those dynamics today are actively shaped and affected by the capitalist mode of production — which serves as the organizing frame of all current social relations.

With this move Fraser has taken us one step further than King’s analysis. While King actively acknowledged economic factors being the primary organizer of black women’s lives, Fraser reminds us that this is true of all lives within a capitalistic mode of production. Taking capitalism as the master-frame that differentially organizes the various identities (gender, race, sexuality, class, etc.), we avoid any additive or hierarchical understanding of oppression while also situating oppression within its current socio-economic context. On this account we can differentiate how maintaining particular identities affects both social status and economic status.

We can analyze and fight oppression under capitalism by making interventions at various levels: (1) at the level of personal experiences and identities; (2) at the level of socio-cultural meaning/scripts/roles that form the discursive frames through which individuals filter their experience; (3) at the level of the positions in society available to individuals; and (4) at the structural level of society/macro-processes of society.

Feminism may make interventions at each level, and is not confined to one particular level — even though its Western version most frequently makes interventions at the first and second levels. In fact, because there is such a dearth of feminist analysis specifically aimed at the structural/macro level compared to the others, it presently behooves to focus our energies there.

Alyssa Adamson

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