Overcoming the margins: intersectionality.

By Elena Alban.

Even if in advanced and developed countries, the judiciary system has developed consistently during the history and many results have been reached in the recognition of human rights toward all humankind, in the practice people still face many obstacles in having their rights granted.

In the article “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality. Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Colour” by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the issue is focused on the difficulties that black women face in denouncing acts of violence in the U.S. According to the article, the problem within the African-American communities concerns the suppression of domestic violence mainly for two reasons.

First of all, according to Crenshaw’s view, there is a resistance from the community itself in recognizing such a type of violence, by privileging other rights, such as the fact that saving the honor of the family from shame has the priority over the violation toward the woman. Moreover, most of the time violence is not denounced for the will of the minority community not to disrupt the integrity of the community and not to be stereotyped as a violent community. There is a general tendency within antiracist discourse to regard the problem of violence against women of color as just another manifestation of racism.

Secondly, according to a field study of battered women’s shelters located in minority communities in Los Angeles, the refusal to denounce battering or rape comes from women themselves. They are more reluctant to call the police and the authorities as there is a generalized community ethic against public intervention.

These feelings are a consequence of the racist policies of the past. Moreover, they have contributed to shifting what was born as segregation during the Jim Crow period into what is seen today as congregation, based on the assumption according to which the black community is seen as a “safe place”. Indeed, in the past in the US, because of racism, black communities developed as closed communities, where all black people could find a safe shelter from the intervention of the State. Nowadays, this sense of belonging and inclusiveness is still present and strong.

As Crenshaw writes, this mentality and approach toward an ongoing changing world are limiting the evolvement of those communities that first of all need to see their rights to be recognized by public authorities. Isolating themselves contributes to the adoption of the identity-politics approach by the State. In particular, this approach limits the category of black women that are not fairly taken into account in policies provided by the States.

The problem of identity-politics issues is that it ignores intragroup differences. It is based on the identification of groups following specific targets, such as black or white, man or woman, middle-class person or worker, …. It risks falling in stereotypes that crystallize the identity of a person reducing it to a mere single category. Mainly, the category of black women is a convergence of two different categories: sex and race. These two categories, taken individually, normally define policies against sexism (based on white women’s experiences) and against racism (based on black male experiences). It is in this context that policies do not take into consideration an intersection between the two phenomena. Indeed, black women are less likely to have their cases pursued in the criminal justice system, because of limited meaningful intervention by institutions based on a non-intersectional context that do not foresee cases of multiple-subordination.

Moreover, besides sexism and racism, other status can affect the access of black women to escape from situations of battering or rape, like the immigrant status. An example is provided by the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986, according to which a person who immigrated to the United States to marry a United States citizen or permanent resident had to remain “properly” married for two years before applying for permanent resident status, at which time applications for the immigrant’s permanent status were required by both spouses. Predictably, under these circumstances, many women are not willing to leave from an abusive marital situation in order not to be deported. As reported by Crenshaw, when facing the choice between living with your batter or being deported, many immigrant women decide to choose the former one.

That’s why Crenshaw introduced an important concept in the literature on the violence against women: intersectionality.

Intersectionality refers to what can be called “multiple identities”: it is a concept used to understand how different dimensions can affect different grounds of one’s identity.

Intersectionality helps us in understanding why policies generally fail in addressing a type of subordinated group that does not fall within the categories provided by the identity-politics approach, such as black women, but also immigrant women too.

In particular, by applying this type of study in Europe, given the refugee crisis of 2015, intersectionality should become a fundamental principle on which creating policies focused on the integration of immigrants in the European society. It obliges authorities to take into consideration the fact that “new-comers” arrived in Europe do not always shape the European basic values and many times discriminations are placed within their original cultural background. National and European authorities should be aware of these aspects and of the fact that they can obstacle the enjoyment of rights in Europe, by producing policies that take into consideration the people to whom they are destined. It means, with reference to women, not to conceive them just as immigrant women, but to take into account the different degrees of subordination that are imposed on them because of their race, because of their class, their gender, because of cultural factors, etc…. Intersectionality implies to take into account different aspect shaping one’s identity to create policies that could better address the needs of people.