Article Access: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”
By Deniz Saygi
Intersectionality is an approach first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw that emphasises that categories such as gender, sexual identity, class, race, nation, disability and age/generation cannot be considered as independent of each other, and states that we must look at the interactions between different forms of inequality and discrimination. 
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (1989) is a useful resource in understanding intersectionality and how it is applied in the world today. In her article, Crenshaw sets out to answer a question: Why is viewing antidiscrimination theory and praxist from a single-axis framework problematic?
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is an American civil rights advocate and a leading scholar of critical race theory.
Crenshaw says of the single-axis framework that “dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination … occurring under a single categorical axis” (p. 140). Here, Crenshaw highlights the belief that under the current anti-discrimination doctrine, people can face discrimination just because of one identity. Within the scope of this doctrine, there are legal, social and political mechanisms that disadvantaged groups struggle against inequality.
Crenshaw discusses why the single-axis framework is problematic in combating discrimination and underlines that this situation arises for two reasons:
- Crenshaw cites three cases for her defence, stating how intersectionality has been ignored in the fight against discrimination. Regarding these cases, Crenshaw highlights that the single-axis framework disregards intersectionality and deepens and complicates discrimination. This framework forces the experiences of discrimination experienced by Black women to conform to the dominant understanding of discrimination.
- Using theoretical and political developments as examples, Crenshaw also shows how the single-axis framework excludes and marginalizes Black women in both feminist theory and anti-racist political movements. This marginalisation, stated by Crenshaw, occurs as a result of the fact that both the feminist movement and the anti-racist movement are shaped by dominant discrimination concepts that exclude groups and communities that are disadvantaged in various ways.
In her article, Crenshaw cites three cases that deal with both racial and gender discrimination as examples of why the single-axis framework reinforces discrimination: DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc., and Payne v. Travenol. In each case, Crenshaw argues that the court’s narrow view of discrimination is a major reason for the conceptual limitations of the problematic analysis offered by the single-axis framework of how it deals with both racism and sexism in the law. Thus, the law fails to see that Black women are discriminated against based on both race and gender simultaneously. At this point, Crenshaw emphasises that the mentioned discrimination issue creates a combination of discriminations and, as intersectionality indicates, the reasons for discrimination cannot be considered separately from each other.
In the 1976 case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, five Black women sued General Motors over a seniority policy targeting only Black women. General Motors did not hire Black women until 1964 and fired all Black women after the layoffs based on seniority during the recession of the early 1970s. The Court did not accept the intersectional approach of this company policy in terms of both gender and racial discrimination. As Crenshaw detailed, in May 1976, Judge Harris Kenneth Wangelin stated that Black women could not be considered a protected class and separate from the prevailing law. Judge Harris ruled against the plaintiffs, arguing that if a decision different from the dominant opinion of the law will be taken, it would open a “Pandora’s box” of each discriminated minority:
“The legislative history surrounding Title VII does not indicate that the goal of the statute was to create a new classification of ‘black women’ who would have greater standing than, for example, a black male. The prospect of the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.” (p. 142)
“Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts. In particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see.” 
— Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw touches upon a few key points about how intersectionality is handled within the dominant doctrine and assesses these points through the areas of anti-discrimination doctrine, the feminist movement, and the fight for Black liberation.
Regarding the anti-discrimination doctrine, Crenshaw argues that Black women were marginalised in all of the three examined cases. Such marginalisation reflects a manifestation of the dominant perception and understanding of discrimination that does not accept criticism and is not open to change (p. 150). The current dominant doctrine, unfortunately, does not allow for the unification of classes and hence for a proper examination of intersectionality. Existing doctrine, which does not accept intersectionality, additionally demands that discrimination be defined in the single-axis framework and treated accordingly. At this point, the dominant understanding of discrimination offers a single point of view and stipulates that anti-discrimination practices can only be put into action if the person(s) affected by this situation is treated fairly or impartially. As Crenshaw has stated, dealing with discrimination in such a single dimension brings with it the focus of gender discrimination only on the experiences of white women and racial discrimination on the experiences of Black men. Therefore, the single-axis framework is disadvantageous for Crenshaw in terms of discrimination, unable to improve the conditions of people in many ways and causes problems to become more complex.
Crenshaw examines the second main topic of how intersectionality is regarded in the single-axis framework through the feminist movement and shows how the activism of Black women is undermined in the dominant feminist movement. An example of this is the case of Sojourner Truth. At the Women’s Rights Conference held in Ohio in 1851, Sojourner Truth challenged widespread views that saw women as weak, calling attention to the horrors of slavery she experienced, highlighting the intersections of discrimination in her life as a Black, previously enslaved woman.
Describing the painful events of slavery experienced by many Black women, Truth:
- Opposes the dominant hegemonic patriarchal view that accepts women as weak and powerless
- Emphasises how the dominant feminist approach puts white women in the centre and ignores the colour of women
White feminists, who believed that the focus of Truth’s speech would move away from feminism and focus only on slavery, hindered Truth’s activism. Since Sojourner Truth’s time, the activism experience of Black women has been weakened in the feminist movement. For this reason, we see that dominant feminist attitudes and women’s perceptions are managed as one-dimensional and by ignoring intersectionality.
In her article, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw examines the fight for Black liberation concerning how intersectionality is taken into consideration. At this point, Crenshaw provides examples of how the problems of Black women have been left aside in the fight for Black liberation. Among these examples, Crenshaw, who also cites her experiences of being a Black female student at Harvard University, offers important media examples on the subject. One of them is “The Moynihan Report (also known as The Negro Family: The Case For National Action)” written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965. In this report, it is argued that Black families are dragged into a bad situation because of a ‘’Black man’’, and a Black matriarch is needed for family members to improve themselves and move forward regarding their development. Stating that the argument put forward by Moynihan is racist and one-sided, Crenshaw underlines that the views defended in the report, for Black families, are wrongly applied to the dominant patriarchal norms maintained by whites.
In the conclusion of her article, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw discusses how both the anti-racist movement and the feminist movement can better include Black women with the intersectionality-led approach, moving away from the one-dimensionality offered by the single-axis framework. Crenshaw highlights that “the praxis of both should be centred on the life chances and life situations of people who should be cared about without regard to the source of their difficulties” (p. 166).
The concept of “intersectionality”, which has increased in use today compared to the past years, as Crenshaw stated, removes the dominant general understanding of the single-axis framework based on discrimination and uses it with an accurate analysis of the experienced discrimination for the disadvantaged groups. Therefore, this kind of approach will adequately show how the classifications “intersect” with each other and provide a fairer ground for justice and equal rights.
“It is not necessary to believe that a political consensus to focus on the lives of the most disadvantaged will happen tomorrow to recenter discrimination discourse at the intersection. It is enough, for now, that such an effort would encourage us to look beneath the prevailing conceptions of discrimination and challenge the complacency that accompanies belief in this framework’s effectiveness. By so doing, we may develop language that is critical of the dominant view and provides some basis for unifying activity. The goal of this activity should be to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups for whom it can be said: “When they enter, we all enter.”” (p. 167)
— Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Read the original article here.
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Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989 (1), 139‑167.
 Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. VOX. Retrieved 5th January 2021, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination
Deniz Saygi is a current PhD student at Middle East Technical University in Science and Technology Policy Studies. Deniz also holds degrees from Ankara University (MA Latin American Studies) and TOBB University of Economics and Technology (BA International Relations and Affairs). Deniz writes contributions for the Earth Refuge, Human Rights Pulse and Sustainability for Students. She currently is selected as the Max Thabiso Edkins Climate Ambassador for the Global Climate Youth Network hosted by the World Bank.