Racism and Intersectionality

Racism and Intersectionality

While we have discussed racism in general terms, our other social group memberships, such as class, gender, sexuality, and ability greatly affect how we will experience race. For example, one of the key limitations of Second Wave Feminism was that the movement addressed women as though they were a cohesive group and assumed they had shared experiences and interests. Actually, the women we think of as at the forefront of the women’s movement of the 1960s were White middle-class women (Frankenberg, 1993; Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981). In many key areas, their interests were not the same as other groups of women. For example, while White middle-class women may have been eager to break their domestic confinement and enter the workplace, women of Color had long been in the workplace. Women of Color’s interests may have been better served by fighting for the economic and social conditions that would allow them to stay home to raise their children without being seen as lazy or bad mothers.

Intersectionality is the term scholars use to acknowledge the reality that we simultaneously occupy both oppressed and privileged positions and that these positions intersect in complex ways (Collins, 2000;


Crenshaw, 1995). For example, poor Whites, while oppressed through classism, are also elevated by race privilege, so that to be poor and Asian, for example, is not the same experience as being poor and White. Further, because of sexism, to be a poor White female will create barriers that a poor White male will not face due to gender privilege. However, while the poor White female will have to deal with sexism, she will not have to deal with the racism that a poor Asian female will face. Indeed, race privilege will help a poor White female cope with poverty, for example, when looking for work or navigating social services such as welfare and health care. Facing oppression in one area of social life does not “cancel out” your privilege in another; these identities will be more or less salient in different situations. The challenge is to identify how our identities play out in shifting social contexts.

We return now to the student quote that opened this chapter: “I was really lucky. I grew up in a good neighborhood and went to good schools There were no problems with racism. I didn’t learn anything about different races. My family taught me that everyone is equal.” This quote is a powerful illustration of how White people make sense of race and the invisibility of racism to us.

First, the term “good neighborhood” is usually code for “predominately White.” To believe that one learned nothing about racism and that there were “no problems” with racism in a White enviroment positions Whites as outside of race; Whites are “just human,” with no racial experience of their own. Race becomes what peoples of Color have. If peoples of Color are not present, race is not present. Further, if peoples of Color are not present, not only is race absent, so is that terrible thing: racism. Ironically, this positions racism as something peoples of Color bring to Whites, rather than a system that Whites control and impose on peoples of Color. To place race and racism on peoples of Color and to see race and racism as absent in an all-White space is to construct Whiteness as neutral and innocent. We need to ask ourselves why a neighborhood is seen as good if it’s segregated.

Second, a predominately White neighborhood is not the product of luck, a natural preference to be with one’s “own,” or a fluke; all-White neighborhoods are the end result of centuries of racist policies, practices, and attitudes that have systematically denied peoples of Color entrance into White neighborhoods (Conley, 1999). In the past this was done legally. Today this is accomplished through mechanisms such as discrimination in lending, real estate practices that steer homebuyers into specific neighborhoods, funding roads but not public transportation that could make suburbs more accessible, and White flight. All-White


neighborhoods and schools don’t just happen. Contrary to her claims, this student learned quite a bit about race in her

White neighborhood and schools. As we noted earlier, there is a contradiction in saying to our children, “Everyone is the same,” while raising them in all-White spaces. Conveying to our children that living in a White neighborhood makes them lucky, rather than conveying to them that they have lost something valuable by not having cross-racial relationships, is to teach them a great deal about race.

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