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Gender and Race, Intersectionality Theory of



Despite long‐standing concerns around gender and race as distinct issues, critical commentaries on the intersections of gender and race often emerge as peripheral concerns in mainstream anthropology. This is despite the widespread recognition of intersectionality, a concept aimed at unpacking how gender, race, and other social orders come to inform oppression in distinct and varied ways. What conditions undermine a wider embrace of intersectionality in mainstream anthropology? How has the discipline engaged the intersections of gender and race? And what are the intersectional possibilities of anthropological inquiry?
Gender and Race, Intersectionality
Theory of
Australian National University, Australia
As a eld, anthropology has a long-standing commitment to overcoming ethno-
centrism and to disrupting beliefs of cultural and ethnic supremacy. Despite this
commitment and ongoing concerns around inequalities linked to racial dierence,
critical discussions of gender and race, including how they operate within a broader
milieu of social dierence, remain largely outside mainstream anthropology. A
select few anthropological journals (e.g., Transforming Anthropology) are expressly
committed to publishing work that interrogates relationships between inequality and
gendered forms of social dierence. e observation that critical engagement with race
embedded concern: that anthropology remains preoccupied with notions of binary
dierence, the eects of which are far reaching.
According to Tami Navarro, Bianca Williams, and Attiya Ahmad (2013), the narrow
notion of dierence embedded within the discipline is an outgrowth of anthropologists’
disciplinary self-conception as researchers distinct from the communities (or others)
they study. is stance, in turn, comes to inform the dierential treatment of those
who do anthropological research. For example, mainstream anthropology tends to con-
ate women of color “with their research agendas—that is, the assumption that these
scholars are necessarily speaking from a ‘native’ position—and systematically disadvan-
tage women anthropologists of color” (Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad 2013, 444). As
such, other, more interdisciplinary, elds, including ethnic, gender, and cultural stud-
ies, are oen more inclusive of ethnographers of color, particularly those researching
transnational or marginalized communities in the United States and other industrial-
ized Western countries (Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad 2013, 445). In short, there can
be a distinct epistemological dierence. Work by anthropologists of color is oen not
readily legible to a traditional anthropological gaze, because it emerges from a dierent
vantage point that is not premised upon a binary notion of dierence.
Unpacking mainstream anthropology’s uneasy relationship with the interconnec-
tions between raced and gendered dynamics requires considering the disciplines rela-
tionships to its subjects of study (or others) as well as those who practice anthropology
but do not readily t into binary categories of dierence—notably, albeit not exclu-
sively, women of color. “Intersectionality,” a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé
Crenshaw (1989), is a common framework employed to unveil these distinct forms of
marginalization. In her early formulations of intersectionality, Crenshaw explains how
black women in the United States occupy the intersection of two axes of subordination,
e International Encyclopedia of Anthropology.EditedbyHilaryCallan.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1814
race and gender. ey stand guratively at the point where race and gender overlap.
of color navigate, such as work by Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis (1983), which
evoked the importance of such intersections and directly inuenced feminist anthro-
pological thinking. Crenshaw (1991, 1245) elaborates on the three dimensions of inter-
sectionality: (1) structural intersectionality, which involves the forms of subordination
that render the experiences of women of color qualitatively dierent from those of white
women or men of color; (2) political intersectionality, which entails practices that fail
to acknowledge how the position of women of color is distinct (including antiracist and
feminist coalitions that evoke one axis of subordination); and (3) representational inter-
(in)visibility of women of color. Combined, these three dimensions have profound and
embodied implications for women of color in everyday life. Accordingly, Crenshaw’s
articulation of intersectionality lends well to thinking through how individual people
endure forms of subordination dierently.
While intersectionality’s emphasis on unpacking the subordination of individual
scholars, for instance, contend that transnational relationships yield complicated
inequalities that surpass individuals and axes of subordination. Using the US war
on terror as an example, Jasbir Puar (2005) details the convergence of modernity,
inequality, violence, sexuality, and xenophobia, which cannot be understood as
separate forces colliding at an intersection or as embodied by an individual experience.
Instead, the nonlinearity of these logics exceeds intersectionality’s focus on identity.
Anthropological work grounded in in-depth eldwork with local communities makes
a similar point through a dierent mode of critique. Anthropologists have documented
a number of cultural orientations that do not value the individuated person in the way
that Western standpoints presume. e individual—or a notion of a singular self—is
thus not necessarily the given starting point for conceptions of personhood, making
identity-centered analyses problematic in many contexts.
In response to these concerns, other feminist ethnographers suggest the need to
reframe intersectionality in a way that is attentive to contextual concerns and their
transnational dimensions, especially in light of more recent feminist scholarship on
intersectionality (Henne and Troshynski 2013; Patil 2013). Although Crenshaw’s (1989)
original metaphor for intersectionality invoked cars entering a trac intersection in
her discussion of US discrimination law, it is not the only way to conceive of such
paths, particularly if heeding Vrushali Patil’s (2013) advice that Crenshaw’s work is
only one particular kind of “domestic intersectionality” targeting legal landscapes in
the United States. With this in mind, Kathryn Henne and Emily Troshynski (2013)
acknowledge that there are various kinds of travel across the globe, each shaped by
dierent histories, norms, structures, and patterns of trac. ey point to an array
of co-constitutive relationships that inform the shape and nature of intersectionality
in dierent spaces, suggesting that a key challenge for ethnographic scholarship is to
document and query how dierent peoples are situated within them.
Taken together, the aforementioned observations reect broader scholarly critiques
leveled at the academic representations of marginalized peoples, doing so in a way
that speaks to concerns about the depictions of non-Western people and contexts. In
calling for a “decolonized” anthropology, Faye Harrison (1991, 3) argues that counter-
hegemonic strategies are imperative if scholars are to rethink the “race, gender, and
class inequalities at the heart of the world system,”which,inturn,shapeethnographic
research. She calls for confronting entrenched colonial legacies that frame not only
intersectional concerns but also academic knowledge production more generally. In
calling attention to these dynamics, Harrison echoes other black feminist observations
that have questioned the values of academic knowledge production. For example, Black
feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins (1989, 753) contends that scholarship tends to
rely upon a “Eurocentric masculinist criteria for methodological adequacy,” a critique
that mainstream anthropology does not escape, even though it is committed to the
study of dierence (Harrison 1991; Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad 2013). For Navarro,
Williams, and Ahmad (2013, 445), this is an embedded feature of anthropology, which
“continues to rely on the assumption of a white, male researcher venturing into the
unknown as the neutral anthropological position.” us, although the crisis of repre-
sentation within anthropology may have disrupted the means through which we think
about and approach ethnography, it has not destabilized the gendered and raced char-
acteristics of the discipline’s foundational standpoint. e consequences of this vantage
point transcend scholarly outputs; it carries over into academic labor and who become
accepted as academic laborers. More specically, “faculty who complicate or challenge
this disciplinary identity (either by existing outside of this race/gender/class position or
pursuing research among communities with which they have preexisting ties) oen face
marginalization and fare poorly within anthropology departments” (Navarro, Williams,
and Ahmad 2013, 445).
Intersectional scholarship, particularly black feminist intellectual thought, has a tra-
dition of articulating narratives that both reveal and counter the postcolonial underpin-
Hong (2008, 100) explains, “because the racial project of Western civilization was always
a gendered and sexualized project,” black feminism is preoccupied with “the intersec-
tions of race, gender, sexuality and class within the context of global colonial capital-
ism.” Scholarship has been central to these larger projects, prompting other scholars to
question not only the connections between who has access to academic knowledge but
also the politics of how it is created (Christian 1994). For Barbara Christian (1994), a
shi in the foundational politics of knowledge is necessary to enable more women of
In light of these tensions, what then does—and can—intersectionality oer anthro-
pology? Intersectionality, when critically considered, oers an important check for our
analyses, one that helps us to “make sure that we do not speak for those who cannot
speak or ask others to share our agenda while they wait for their own” (Grillo 1995, 30).
Anthropologists of color have already detailed the marginalizing politics of anthropol-
ogy through conceptual and ethnographic accounts. Intersectionality oers one mode
of critically interrogating and checking the production of ethnographic knowledge. In
short, it provides another reexive strategy, one that forces a rethinking of the kinds of
dierence at the heart of ethnographic engagement.
SEE ALSO: Cultural Politics; Gender; Gender, Colonialism, and the Colonial Gaze;
Gender and Globalization; Gender and Migration; Gender, Nationalism,and Ethnicity;
Gender and Personhood (Individual, Dividual); Global Women’s Movement; Hetero-
sexuality, Heteronormative; Identity in Anthropology; Interculturality; Patriarchy and
Male Dominance; Postcolonial eory and Feminism; Race and Racisms; Representa-
tion, Politics of; Sexuality
Anthias, Floya, and Nira Yuval-Davis. 1983. “Contextualising Feminism: Gender, Ethnic and
Class Divisions.” Feminist Review 15: 62–75. doi:10.2307/1394792.
Christian, Barbara. 1994. “Diminishing Returns: Can Black Feminism(s) Survive the Academy?”
In Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, edited by David eo Goldberg, 168–77. Oxford:
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1989. “e Social Construction of Black Feminist ought.” Signs: Journal
ofWomeninCultureandSociety14 (4): 745–73.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist
Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist eory and Antiracist Politics.” University
of Chicago Legal Forum 14: 138–67.
Crenshaw Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Vio-
lenceagainstWomenofColour.Stanford Law Review 43: 1241–99.
Grillo, Trina. 1995. “Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s
House.” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal 10 (1): 16–30. doi:10.15779/Z38MC6W.
Harrison, Faye. 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for
Liberation. Arlington, VA: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological
Henne, Kathryn, and Emily Troshynski. 2013. “Mapping the Margins of Intersectionality: Crim-
inological Possibilities in a Transnational World.” eoretical Criminology: An International
Journal 17 (4): 455–73. doi:10.1177/1362480613494990.
Hong, Grace Kyungwon. 2008. “‘e Future of Our Worlds’: Black Feminism and the Politics of
Knowledge in the University under Globalisation.” Meridians 8 (2): 95–115.
Navarro, Tami, Bianca Williams, and Attiya Ahmad. 2013. “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Field-
notes from Women of Colour in Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (3): 443–63.
Patil, Vrushali. 2013. “From Patriarchy to Intersectionality: A Transnational Feminist Assess-
ment of How Far We’ve Really Come.” Signs 38 (4): 847–67. doi:10.1086/669560.
Puar, Jasbir. 2005. “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages.” Social Text 23 (3–4): 121–40.
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