Monday, March 21, 2016

Shades of discrimination

Written by Sharda Vishwanathan

As the run to the US Presidential race gains momentum, dialogue and debate around numerous issues ranging from economic reforms to migration politics have been the most voted flavor of the season. And Hillary Clinton’s recent tweet on “intersectionality” brings to the forefront the overlapping dynamics of gender, race, class and other identities. 

Intersectionality as a concept has often been ascribed various meanings. While some have associated it with identity politics, there are others who have often used to term to understand identities and the different institutional barriers that parallelly affect these different identities. In the recent years, this has in fact become one of the buzzwords in the context of social justice.  However, intersectionality as a concept can be traced back to the 19th century when scholars like Anna Julia Cooper and Maria Stewart advocated the need to understand race through a gendered lens and to explore feminism through a racial lens. However, it was only in 1989 that the word was coined by African-American legal scholar KimberlĂ© Crenshaw to illuminate how social justice movements neglected black women’s issues and struggles.

Often discourses on feminism adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It then becomes imperative to take into consideration the fact that women as a group are not homogenous. Take for e.g. an immigrant from Asia will have different experiences from those who are from Mexico. A poor Dalit woman has to deal with several layers of oppression; one on the lines of gender, second on the lines of her class and third for belonging to a different caste.

There are other instances.

A woman of colour faces the discrimination both on the basis of her gender and her race.

Thus, the privilege of being a ‘white-woman’ or an ‘upper-caste’ woman makes her experiences different from what the other women have to face for not having that same privilege.  Identities then become the bedrock that only further perpetuate discrimination and exclusion. In other words, sexism is something that all women encounter but casteist sexism, class sexism and racialized sexism is something that only some women encounter thus, making it important to provide for different narratives within the feminist discourse.

The popular wage gap statistics, which highlights that white women make 77 cents to a white man’s dollar, black women make 69 cents for that same dollar and Latinas make a mere 59 cents in comparison reinforces the need for feminism to be intersectional.

Another classic example of this is the 1976 case brought by a group of black women against General Motors which highlighted how anti-discrimination movements failed to confront the intersecting concerns of African-American women:

“Blacks did one set of jobs and whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was of course a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded. You see, the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites. Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory if he were male; if she were a black female she would not be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t have a chance at that job if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white.  Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired?”

Thus, feminism ends up perpetuating the discrimination by subscribing to dominant discourses that relegate minorities and marginalized groups within the movement.

While Clinton’s tweet has been perceived as an effort on her part reach out to and gain support of the young women who have embraced the very idea of intersectionality, it is certainly a welcome change that intersectionality has now begun to occupy space in the wider framework of politics and political discourse. But what remains to be seen is if this goes beyond the political jargons to actually designing concrete solutions at the policy level to address the varied levels of structural inequalities and barriers affecting the varied communities at every level.