Feminist Perspectives

To our Families

Reconstructing Political Theory

Feminist Perspectives


Mary Lyndon Shanley and Uma Narayan

The Pennsylvania State University Press University Park, Pennsylvania


Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence Against

Women of Color

Kimberle Crenshaw


Over the past two decades, recognizing that the political demands of many speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices, women have organized against the almost routine violence that shapes their lives. This politicization in turn has transformed the way we understand violence agai~st women. For example, battering and rape, once seen as private (family matters) and aberrational (errant sexual aggression), are now largely recognized as part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class.

1 This process of recognizing as social and systemic

what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also character- ize~ the deve~opment of what has been called the “identity politics” of Afncan Amencans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among other~. ~or those who engage in or advocate identity-based politics, mem- bership m a group – defined by race, sex, class, sexual orientation or other characteristics – both helps to explain the nature of the oppression expe- rienced ~y members of that group and serves as a source of strength, commumty, and intellectual development.

. The ~roblem with identity politics is that it frequently conflates or ig~ore~ ~ntragro~p differences. In the context of violence against women, this el1S1on o~ diff~rence is problematic because the violence that many women expenence is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, su~h _as race, class, a?d sexual orientation. Moreover, ignoring difference _withi~ group~ contnbutes to tension among groups, another problem of iden~i~ politics that bears on efforts to politicize violence against women. Femmist efforts to politicize experiences of women and anti-racist efforts to politicize _experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as thoug? the is~ues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrams. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives

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of real people, they seldom do in Ji::minist and anti-racist theories and practices. And so, when those theories and practices expound identity as “woman” or “person of color” as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.

My objective in this article is to advance the telling of that location by exploring the race and gender dimensions of violence against women of color.2 I consider how the experiences of women of color are frequently the product of intersecting patterns of racism and sexism, and how these experiences tend not to be represented within the discourses of either feminism or anti-racism, discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, leaving women of color marginalized within both. I do not m(?an to imply that the disempowerment of women of color is singularly or even primarily caused by feminist and anti-racist theorists or activists. Rather, I hope to capture, at least in part, how prevailing structures of domination shape various discourses of resistance. Although there are significant political and conceptual obstacles to moving against structures of domination with an intersectional sensibility, I argue that the effort to do so should be a central theoretical and political objective of both anti- racism and feminism.

Although this article deals with violent assault perpetrated by men against women, women are also subject to violent assault by women. Violence among lesbians is a hidden but significant problem. 3 Lesbian violence is often shrouded in secrecy for similar reasons that have sup- pressed exposure of heterosexual violence in communities of color – fear of embarrassing other members of the community, which is already stereo- typed as deviant, and fear of being ostracized from the community. There are nonetheless distinctions between heterosexual violence against women and lesbian violence that warrant more analysis than is possible in this essay. I will therefore focus on the intersectionality of race and gender in the context of heterosexual violence.

In an earlier article, I used the concept of intersectionality to denote the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s employment experiences.4 My objective there was to illustrate that many of the experiences Black women face are not subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimi- nation as these boundaries are currently understood, and that the intersec- tion of racism and sexism factors into Black women’s lives in ways that cannot be captured wholly by looking at the race or gender dimensions of those experiences separately. I build on those observations here by explor- ing the various ways in which race and gender intersect in shaping struc- tural, political, and representational aspects of violence against women of color.

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. I ~nd by addressing the implications of the intersectional approach withm the broader scope of contemporary identity politics, and argue that we must recognize that the organized identity groups in which we and others find ourselves are in fact not monolithic but made up of members with different and perhaps competing identities as well. Rather than viewing this as a threat to group solidarity, we should view it as an opportunity for bridge building and coalition politics.

~nter~ectionality is not being offered here as some new, totalizing theory of identity. I consider intersectionality a provisional concept linking con- temporary politics with postmodern theory. In mapping the intersections of race and gender, the concept does engage dominant assumptions that race a~d. gender ~re essentially separate categories. By tracing the categories t~ thetr mtersection~, I hope to suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender as exclusive or separable.5

While the primary intersections that I explore here are between race and gender, the concept can and should be expanded by factoring in issues such as class, sexual orientation, age, and color. Indeed, factors I address only in part or not at all, such as class or sexual orientation, are often as critical in shaping the experiences of women of color. My focus on the intersections of race and gender only highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.

Structural and Political Intersectionality and Battering

I observed the dynamics of structural intersectionality during a.brief field study of battered women’s shelters located in minority communities in Los Angeles.6 In most cases, the physical assault that leads women to these shelters is merely the most immediate manifestation of the subordination they experience. Many women who seek protection are unemployed or underemployed, and a good number of them are poor. Shelters serving these women cannot afford to address only the violence inflicted by the batterer; they must also confront the other multilayered and routinized fori:ns o: ~omination that often converge in these women’s lives, hindering thetr ability to create alternatives to the abusive relationships that brought them to shelters in the first place. Many women of color, for example, are burdened by poverty, childcare responsibilities, and the lack of job skills. These burdens, largely the consequence of gender and class oppression, are then ~om pounded by the racially discriminatory employment and housing practices women of color often face, as well as by the disproportionately high unemployment among people of color that makes battered women of

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color less able to depend on th1~i:~upport of friends and relatives for

temporary shelter. ,·, Where systems of race, gender, and class domina~ion con~erge, as th_ey

do in the experiences of battered women of color, mtervennon strategies based solely on the experiences of women who do not share the sa~e class or race backgrounds will be of limited help to women who face different obstacles. Such was the case in 1990 when Congress amended the mar- riage fraud provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act to protect immigrant women who were battered or exposed to extreme cru~lty by their spouses who were United States citizens or permanen_t res~dents. Under the marriage fraud provisions of the Act, 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 even applying for permanent resident status, at which time applications _for the immigrant’s permanent status were required of both spouses. Predtctably, under these circumstances, many immigrant women were reluctant to leave even the most abusive of partners for fear of being deported. Reports of the tragic consequences of this double subordination ~~t pressure _on Congress to include in the Immigration Act of 1990 a prov1S1on a?1endmg the marriage fraud rules to allow for an explicit waiver for hardship caused

by domestic violence.7 . . . Yet many immigrant women, parncularly immigrant women of color,

have remained vulnerable to battering because they are unable to meet the conditions established for a waiver. The evidence required to support a waiver “can include, but is not limited to, reports and affidavits from police, medical personnel, psychologists, sc?o?l officials, and social service agencies.”8 For many immigrant women, limited access to these reso~rces can make it difficult for them to obtain the evidence needed for a waiver. And cultural barriers often further discourage immigrant women from reporting or escaping batterin? situations. T,~na ~hum, a family counselor at a social service agency, pomts out that [t)his law sounds so :asy to apply, but there are cultural complications in the Asian community t~at make even these requirements difficult …. Just to find th; opportu~ity and courage to call us is an accomplishment for many. Th: typtcal immigrant spouse, she suggests, may live “[i)n an exte~ded family where several generations live together, there may be no pnvacy _on ,the tel~- phone, no opportunity to leave the house and no understandmg of public phones.” 9 As a consequence, many immigrant women_are w~olly depen- dent on their husbands as their link to the world outside thetr hom~s ..

Language barriers present another structural problem that often lt~its opportunities of noh-English-speaking women_ co_ take advant~ge of ex~st- ing support services. Such barriers not only limit access to mformat10n

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about shelters, but also limit access to the security shelters provide. Some shelters turn non-English-speaking women away for lack of bilingual personnel and resources. These examples illustrate how patterns ~f subor- dination intersect in women’s experience of domestic violence. Intersec- tional subordination need not be intentionally produced; in fact, it is frequently the consequence of the imposition of one burden that interacts with preexisting vulnerabilities to create yet another dimension of disempowerment. In the case of the marriage fraud provisions of the Im~igration and Nationality Act, the imposition of a policy specifically designed to burden one class – immigrant spouses seeking permanent r~sident status – exacerbated the disempowerment of those already subor- dmated by other structures of domination. By failing to take into account the _v~lnerability of immigrant wives to their husbands’ control, Congress posltloned these women to absorb the simultaneous impact of its anti- immigration policy and their spouses’ abuse.

The enactment of the domestic violence waiver of the marriage fraud provisions similarly illustrates how modest attempts to respond to certain problems can be ineffective when the intersectional location of women of color is not considered in fashioning the remedy. Cultural identity and cla~s affect the likelihood that a battered spouse could take advantage of the waiver. Although the waiver is formally available to all women, the terms of the waiver make it inaccessible to some. Those immigrant women least able to take advantage of the waiver – women who are socially or economically the most marginal – are the ones most likely to be women of color.

The concept of political intersectionality highlights the fact that women of color are situated within at least two subordinated groups that fre- quently pursue conflicting political agendas. The need to split one’s politi- cal energies between two sometimes opposing groups is a dimension of intersectional disempowerment that men of color and white women sel- dom confront. Indeed, their specific raced and gendered experiences, although intersectional, often define as well as confine the interests of the entire group. For example, racism as experienced by people ofcolor who are of a particular gender – male – tends to determine the parameters of anti-racist strategies, just as sexism as experienced by women who are of a particular race – white – tends to ground the women’s movement. The problem is not simply that both discourses fail women of color by not acknowledging the “additional” issue of race or of patriarchy but that the discourses are often inadequate even to the discrete tasks of articulating the ful~ di11?ensions of racism and sexism. Because women of color experience ractsm m ways not always the same as those experienced by men of color and sexism in ways not always parallel to experiences of white women, anti-racism and feminism are limited, even on their own terms.

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That the political interests of woJ~n of color are obscured and jeopar- dized by political strategies that igriore or suppress intersectional issues is illustrated by my experiences in gathering information for this essay. I attempted to review Los Angeles Police Department statistics reflecting the rate of domestic violence interventions by precinct because such statis- tics can provide a rough picture of arrests by racial group, given the degree of racial segregation in Los Angeles.10 LAPD, however, would not release the statistics. A representative explained that one reason the statistics were not released was that domestic violence activists both within and outside the Department feared that statistics reflecting the extent of domestic violence in minority communities might be selectively interpreted and publicized so as to undermine long-term efforts to force the Department to address domestic violence as a serious problem. I was told that activists were worried that the statistics might permit opponents to dismiss domes- tic violence as a minority problem and, therefore, not deserving of aggres- sive action. · The informant also claimed that representatives from various minority

communities opposed the release of these statistics. They were apparently concerned that the data would unfairly represent Black and Brown com- munities as unusually violent, potentially reinforcing stereotypes that might be used in attemp~s to justify oppressive police tactics and other discriminatory practices. These misgivings are based on the familiar and not unfounded premise that certain minority groups – especially Black men – have already been stereotyped as uncontrollably violent. Some worry that attempts to make domestic violence an object of political action may only serve to confirm such stereotypes and undermine efforts to combat negative beliefs about the Black community.

This account sharply illustrates how women of color can be erased by the strategic silences of anti-racism and feminism. The political priorities of both were defined in ways that suppressed information that could have facilitated attempts to confront the problem of domestic violence in communities of color.

Domestic Violence and Anti-racist and Feminist Discourses and Politics

Within communities of color, efforts to stem the politicization of domes- tic violence are often grounded in attempts to maintain the integrity of the community. Yet th<; violence that accompanies these attempts at unity is devastating, not only for the Black women who are victimized, but also for the entire Black community. The recourse to violence to resolve conflicts


184 Kimberle Crenshaw

establishes a dangerous pattern for children raised in such environments. It has been estimated that nearly 40 percent of all homeless women and children have fled violence in the home, and an estimated 63 percent of young men between the ages of 11 and 20 who are imprisoned for homicide have killed their mothers’ batterers. And yet, while gang vio- lence, homicide, and other forms of Black-on-Black crime have increas- ingly been discussed within African-American politics, patriarchal ideas about gender and power preclude the recognition of domestic violence as yet another compelling incidence of Black-on-Black crime.

A common problem is that the political or cultural interests of the community are interpreted in a way that precludes full public recognition of the problem of domestic violence. While it would be misleading to suggest that white Americans have come to terms with the degree of violence in their own homes, race adds yet another dimension to why the problem of domestic violence is suppressed within non-white communi- ties. People of color often must weigh their interests in avoiding issues that might reinforce distorted public perceptions against the need to acknowl- edge and address intracommunity problems. Yet the cost of suppression .is seldom recognized in part because the failure to discuss the issue shapes perceptions of how serious the problem is in the first place. Suppression of some of these issues in the name of anti-racism imposes real costs. Where information about violence in minority communities is not available, domestic violence is unlikely to be addressed as a serious issue.

The political imperatives of a narrowly focused anti-racist strategy support other practices that isolate women of color. For example, activists who have attempted to provide support services to Asian- and African- American women report intense resistance from those communities. At other times, cultural and social factors contribute to suppression. Nilda Rimonte, director ofEverywoman’s Shelter in Los Angeles, points out that in the Asian community, saving the honor of the family from shame is a priority. 11 Unfortunately, this priority tends to be interpreted as obliging women not to scream rather than obliging men not to hit.

Race and culture contribute to the suppression of domestic violence in other ways as well. Women of color are often reluctant to call the police, a hesitancy likely due to a general unwillingness among people of color to subject their private lives to the scrutiny and control of a police force that is frequently hostile. There is also a more generalized community ethic against public intervention, the product of a desire to create a private world free from the diverse assaults on the public lives of racially subordi~ nated people. The home is not simply a man’s castle in the patriarchal sense, but may also function as a safe haven from the indignities of life in

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a racist society. However, but for r#{~ “safe haven” in many cases, women of color victimized by violence might otherwise seek help.

There is also a general tendency within anti-racist discourse to regard the problem of violence against women of color as just another manifesta- tion of racism. Gender domination within the community is reconfigured as a consequence of discrimination against men. Of course, it is probably true that racism contributes to the cycle of violence, given the stress that men of color experience in dominant society. It is therefore more than reasonable to explore the links between racism and domestic violence. But _the chain of violence is more complex and extends beyond this single link. Racism is linked to patriarchy to the extent that racism denies men of color the power and privilege that dominant men enjoy. When violence is understood as an acting-out of being denied male power in other spheres, it seems counterproductive to embrace constructs that implicitly link the solution to domestic violence to the acquisition of greater male power. The more promising political imperative is to challenge the legitimacy of such power expectations by exposing their dysfunctional and debilitating effect on families and communities of color. Moreover, while understand- ing links between racism and domestic violence is an important compo- nent of any effective intervention strategy, it is also clear that women of color need not await the ultimate triumph over racism before they can expect to live violence-free lives.

Not only do race-based priorities function to obscure the problem of violence suffered by women of color; feminist concerns often suppress minority experiences as well. Strategies for increasing awareness of domes- tic violence within the white community tend to begin by citing the commonly shared assumption that battering is a minority problem. The strategy then focuses on demolishing this strawman, stressing that spousal abuse also occurs in the white community. That battering occurs in families of all races and all classes seems to be an ever-present theme of anti-abuse campaigns. 12 Such disclaimers seem relevant only in the pres- ence of an initial, widely held belief that domestic violence occurs prima- rily in minority or poor families. A few commentators have even transformed the message that battering is not exclusively a problem of the poor or minority communities into a claim that it equally affects all races and classes. I would suggest that assertions that the problem is the same across race and class are driven less by actual knowledge about the preva- lence of domestic violence in different communities than by advocates’ recognition that the image of domestic violence as an issue involving primarily the poor and minorities complicates efforts to mobilize against it. These comments seem less concerned with exploring domestic abuse

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within “stereotyped” communities than with removing the stereotype as an obstacle to exposing battering within white middle- and upper-class communities.

Women working in the field of domestic violence have sometimes reproduced the subordination and marginalization of women of color not only by speaking in un·iversal terms about “batterers” and “victims” but also by adopting policies, priorities, or strategies of empowerment that either elide or wholly disregard the particular intersectional needs of women of color. While gender, race, and class intersect to create the particular context in which women of color experience violence, certain choices made by “allies” can reproduce intersectional subordination within the very resistance strategies designed to respond to the problem.

This problem· is starkly illustrated by the inaccessibility of domestic violence support services to many non-English-speaking women. Diana Campos, Director of Human Services for Programas de Ocupaciones y Desarrollo Econ6mico Real, Inc. (PODER), detailed the case of a Latina in crisis who was repeatedly denied accommodation at a shelter because she could not prove that she was English-proficient. The woman had fled her home with her teenage son, believing her husband’s threats to kill them both. She called the domestic violence hotline administered by PODER seeking shelter for herself and her son. Because most shelters would not accommodate the woman with her son, they were forced to live on the streets for two days. The hotline counselor was finally able to find an agency that would take both the mother and the son, but when the counselor told the intake coordinator at the shelter that the woman spoke limited English, the coordinator told her that they could not take anyone who was not English-proficient. All of the women at the shelter are required to attend a support group and they would not be able to have her in the group if she could not communicate. The intake coordinator restated the shelter’s policy of taking only English-speaking women, and stated further that the woman would have to call the shelter herself for

• 13 . screenmg. Despite this woman’s desperate need, she was unable to receive the

protection afforded English-speaking women, due to the shelter’s rigid commitment to exclusionary policies. Perhaps even more troubling than the shelter’s lack of bilingual resources was its refusal to allow a friend or relative to translate for the woman. This story illustrates the absurdity of a feminist approach that would make the ability to attend a support group without a translator a more significant consideration in the distribution of resources than the risk of physical harm on the street. The point is not that the shelter’s image of empowerment is empty, but rather that it was

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imposed without regard to the disfinpowering consequences for women who didn’t match the kind of client’ the shelter’s administrators imagined. And thus they failed to accomplish the basic priority of the shelter move- ment – to get the woman out of danger. ·

Here the woman in crisis was made to bear the burden of the shelter’s refusal to anticipate and provide for the needs of non-English-speaking women. Said Campos, “It is unfair to impose more stress on victims by placing them in the position of having to demonstrate their proficiency in English in order to receive services that are readily available to other battered women.” 14 The problem is not easily dismissed as one of well- intentioned ignorance. The specific issue of monolingualism and the monistic view of women’s experience that set the stage for this tragedy were not new issues in New York. Indeed, several women of color reported that they had repeatedly struggled with the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence over language exclusion and other practices that marginalized the interests of women of color.15 Yet despite repeated lobbying, the Coalition· did not act to incorporate the specific needs of non-English-speaking women, many of whom are women of color, into their central organizing vision.

The struggle over which differences matter and which do not is neither an abstract nor an insignificant debate among women. Indeed, these conflicts are about more than difference as such; they raise critical issues of power. The problem is not simply that women who dominate the anti- violence movement are different from women of color but that they frequently have power to determine, either through material or rhet~rical resources, whether the intersectional differences of women of color will be incorporated at all into the basic formulation of policy. Efforrs to politicize the issue of violence against women challenge beliefs that violence occurs only in homes of “others.” While it is unlikely that advocates and others intend to exclude or ignore the needs of poor and colored women, the underlying premise of this seemingly universalistic appeal is to keep the sensibilities of dominant social groups focused on the experiences of those groups. This strategy permits white women victims to come into focus, but does little to disrupt the patterns of neglect that permitted the problem to continue as long as it was imagined to be a minority problem. The experience of violence by minority women is ignored, except to the extent it gains white support for domestic violence programs in the white com- munity. Unless policymakers ask why violence remained insignificant as long as it was understood as a minority problem, it is unlikely that women of color will share. equally in the distribution of resources and concern. The struggle over incorporating these differences is not a petty or superfi- cial conflict about who gets to sit at the head of the table. In the context

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of violence, it is sometimes a deadly serious matter of who will survive and who will not.


This essay has presented intersectionality as a way of framing the various interactions. of race and gender in the context of violence against women of color. Yet intersectionality might be more broadly useful as a way of mediating the tension between assertions of multiple identity and the ongoing necessity of group politics. It is helpful in this regard to dis- tinguish intersectionality from the closely related perspective of anti- essentialism, from which women of color have critically engaged white feminism for the absence of women of color on the one hand, and for speaking for women of color on the other.

One rendition of this anti-essentialist critique – that feminism essentializes the category woman – owes a great deal to the postmodernist idea that categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference. 16 While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance.

One version of anti-essentialism, embodying what might be called the vulgarized social construction thesis, is that since all categories are socially constructed, there is no such thing as, say, Blacks or women, and thus it makes no sense to continue reproducing those categories by organizing around them. But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that the category has no significance in our world. On ~he contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people – and mdeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful – is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others. This project attempts to unveil th~ processes of subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people who are subordinated and people who are privil~ged by them. It is, then, a project that presumes that categories have meanmg and consequences. And this project’s most pressing problem, in many if not most cases, is not the existence of the categories, but rather the particular values attached to them and the way those values foster and create social hierarchies.

This is not to deny that the process of categorization is itself an exercise of power, but the story is much more complicated and nuanced than that.

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First, the process of categorizing -J.i~, in identity terms, naming – is not ·”‘ unilateral. Subordinated people cfo and do participate, sometimes even

subverting the naming process in empowering ways. One need only think about the historical subvers1on of the category “Black” or the current transformation of “queer” to understand that categorization is not a one- way street. Clearly, there is unequal power, but there is nonetheless some degree of agency that people can and do exert in the politics of naming. And it is important to note that identity continues to be a site of resistance for members of different subordinated groups. At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it.

Vulgar constructionism thus distorts the possibilities for meaningful identity politics by conflating at least two separate but closely linked manifestations of power. One is the power exercised simply through the process of categorization; the other, the power to cause that categorization to have social and material consequences. While the former power facili- tates the latter, the political implications of challenging one over the other matter greatly. We can look at debates over racial subordination through- out history and see that in each instance, there was a possibility of chal- lenging either the construction of identity or the system of subordination based on that identity.

Consider, for example, the segregation system in Plessy v. Ferguson.17 At issue were multiple dimensions of domination, including categorization, the sign of race, and the subordination of those so labeled. There were at least two targets for Plessy to challenge: the construction of identity (“What is a Black?”), and the system of subordination based on that identity (“Can Blacks and whites sit together on a train?”). Plessy actually made both arguments, one against the coherence of race as a category, the other against the subordination of those deemed to be Black. In his attack on the former, Plessy argued that the segregation statute’s application to him, given his mixed race status, was inappropriate. The Court refused to see this as an attack on the coherence of the race system and instead responded in a way that simply reproduced the Black/white dichotomy that Plessy was challenging. As we know, Plessy’s challenge to the segrega- tion system was not successful either. In evaluating various resistance strategies today, it is useful ~o ask which of Plessy’s challenges would have been best for him to have won – the challenge against the coherence of the racial categorization system or the challenge to the practice of segregation?

The same que~tion can be posed for Brown v. Board of Education.18

Which of two possible arguments was politically more empowering – that segregation was unconstitutional because the racial categorization system

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on which it was based was incoherent, or that segregation was unconstitu- tional because it was injurious to Black children and oppressive to their communities? While it might strike some as a difficult question, for the most part, the dimension of racial domination that has been most vexing to African Americans has not been the social categorization as such, but the myriad ways in which those of us so defined have been systematically subordinated. With particular regard to problems confronting women of color, when identity politics fail us, as it frequently does, it is not primarily because that politics takes as natural certain categories that are socially constructed but rather because the descriptive content of those categories and the narratives on which they are based have privileged some experi- ences and excluded others.

Consider the Clarence Thomas/ Anita Hill confrontation during the Senate hearings for the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill, in bringing allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas, was rhetorically disempowered in part because she fell between the dominant interpretations of feminism and anti-racism. Caught be- tween the competing narrative tropes of rape (advanced by feminists) on the one hand and lynching (advanced by Thomas and his anti-racist supporters) on the other, the raced and gendered dimensions of her position could not be told. This dilemma could be described as the consequence of anti-racism’s essentializing Blackness and feminism’s essentializrng womanhood. But recognizing as much does not take us far enough, for the problem is not simply linguistic or philosophical in nature. It is specifically political: the narratives of gender are based on the experience of white, middle-class women, and the narratives of race are based on the experience of Black men. The solution does not merely entail arguing for the multiplicity of identities or challenging essentialism generally. Instead, in Hill’s case, for example, it would have been necessary to assert those · crucial aspects of her location that were erased, even by many of her advocates – that is, to state what difference her difference made.

If, as this analysis asserts, history and context determine the utility of identity politics, how then do we understand identity politics today, especially in light of our recognition of multiple dimensions of identity? More specifically, what does it mean to argue that gendered identities have been obscured in anti-racist discourses, just as race identities have been obscured in femini~t discourses? Does that mean we cannot talk about identity? Or instead, that any discourse about identity has to acknowledge how our identities are constructed through the intersection of multiple dimensions? A beginning response to these questions requires that we first recognize that the organized identity groups in which we find ourselves in

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are in fact coalitions, or at least potf’\ial coalitions waiting to be formed. In the context of anti-racism, recognizing the ways in which the inter-

sectional experiences of women of color are marginalized in prevailing conceptions of identity politics does not require that we give up_ attempts to organize as communities of color. Rather, intersectionality provides a basis for reconceptualizing race as a coalition between men and women of color. For example, in the area of rape, intersectionality provides a way of explaining why women of color have to abandon the general argument that the interests of the community require the suppression of any con- frontation around intraracial rape. lntersectionality may provide the means for dealing with other marginalizations as well. For example, race can also be a means to create a coalition of straight and gay people of color, and thus serve as a basis for critique of cultural institutions, including churches, that reproduce heterosexism.

With identity thus reconceptualized, it may be easier to understand the need for and to summon the courage to challenge groups that are after all, in one sense, “home” to us, in the name of the parts of us that are not made at home. This takes a great deal of energy and arouses intense anxiety. The most one could expect is that we will dare to speak against internal exclusions and marginalizations, that we might call attention to how the identity of”the group” has been centered on the intersectional identities 0£ a few. Recognizing that identity politics takes place at the site where categories intersect thus seems more fruitful than challenging the possi- bility of talking abo!lt categories at all. Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.


For their kind assistance in facilitating my field research for this article, I wish to thank Maria Blanco, Margaret Cambrick, Joan Creer, Estelle Cheung, Nilda Rimonte and Fred Smith. I benefitted from the comments of Taunya Banks, Mark Barenberg, Darcy Calkins, Adrienne Davis, Gina Dent, Brent Edwards, Paul Gewirtz, Lani Guinier, Neil Gotanda, Joel Handler, Duncan Kennedy, Elizabeth Schneider, and Kendall Thomas. A very special thanks goes to Gary Peller and Richard Yarborough. Jayne Lee, Paula Puryear, Yancy Garrido, Eugenia Gifford, and Leri Volpp provided valuable research assistance. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Academic Senate of UCLA, Center for Afro- American Studies at UCLA, the Reed Foundation and Columbia Law School. Earlier versions of this article were presented to the Critical Race Theory Work- shop and the Yale Legal Theory Workshop. This article is dedicated to the memory of Denise Carty-Bennia and Mary Joe Frug.

192 Kimberli Crenshaw

1 See Susan Schechter, Women and Male Violence: The Visions and Struggles of the Batiered Womens Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1982); R. Emerso”n Dobash and Russell Dobash, ViolenceAgainst Wives: A CaseAgainst the Patriarchy (New York: Free Press, 1979); Lenore E. Walker, Terrifying Love: Why Battered Women Kill and How Society Responds (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

2 For a body of legal scholarship that investigates the connections between race and gender, see, e.g., Regina Austin, “Sapphire Bound!”, Wisconsin Law Review (1989), p. 539; Angela P. Harris, “Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory,” Stanford Law Review, 42 (1990), p. 581; Marlee Kline, “Race, Racism and Feminist Legal Theory,” Harvard Womens Law journal, 12 (1989), p. 115.

3 See Jane Garcia, “The Cost of Escaping Domestic Violence: Fear of Treat- ment in a Largely Homophobic· Society May Keep Lesbian Abuse Victims from Calling for Help,” Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1991, at 2; see also Kerry Lobel, ed., Naming the Violence: Speaking Out About Lesbian Battering (Se- attle: Seal Press, 1986); Ruthann Robson, “Lavender Bruises: Intralesbian Violence, Law and Lesbian Legal Theory,” Golden Gate University Law Re- view, 20 (1990), p. 567.

4 Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), p. 139.

5 Professor Mari Matsuda calls this inquiry “asking the other question.” For example, we should look at an issue or condition traditionally regarded as a gender issue and ask, “Where’s the racism in this?” Mari J. Matsuda, “Beside My Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory Out of Coalition,” Stanford Law Review, 43 (1991).

6 During my research in Los Angeles, California, I visited Jenessee Battered Women’s Shelter, the only shelter in the Western states primarily serving Black women, and Everywoman’s Shelter, which primarily serves Asian women. I also visited Estelle Chueng at the Asian Pacific Law Foundation and I spoke with a representative of La Casa, a shelter in the predominantly Latino community of East Los Angeles.

7 Immigration Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-649, 104 Stat. 4978. The Act, introduced by Representative Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), provides that a battered spouse who has conditionaf permanent resident status can be granted a waiver for failure to meet the requirements if she can show that “the marriage was entered into in good faith and that after the marriage the alien spouse was battered by or was subjected to extreme mental cruelty by the U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse.” H.R. Rep. No. 723(I), 101st Cong., 2d Sess. 78 (1990), reprinted in 1990 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6710, 6758.

8 H.R. Rep. No. 723(I) at 79, reprinted in 1990 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6710, 6759. 9 Ibid.

10 Most crime statistic~ are classified by sex or race but none are classified by sex and race. Because we know that most rape victims are women, the racial breakdown reveals, at best, rape rates for Black women. Yet, even given this head start, rates for other non-white women are difficult to collect. While there are some statistics for Latinas, statistics for Asian and Native American women are virtually non-existent. G. Chezia Carraway, “Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, 43 (1991).

Intersectionality and Identity Politics 193

11 Interview with Nilda Rimonte, Dir4′.itor of the Everywoman Shelter, in Los Angeles, California (April 19, 1991). Also see Nilda Rimonte, “Cultural Sanction of Violence Against Women in the Pacific-Asian Community,” Stanford Law Review, 43 (1991).

12 Natalie Loder Clark, “Crime Begins At Home: Let’s Stop Punishing Victims and Perpetuating Violence,” William and Mary Law Review, 28 (1987), pp. 263, 282 n. 74 (“The problem of domestic violence cuts across all social lines and affects ‘families regardless of their economic class, race, national origin, or educational background.'”)

13 Letter of Diana M. Campos, Director of Human Services, PO DER, to Joseph Semidei, Deputy Commissioner, New York State Department of Social Ser- vices (Mar. 26, 1992).

14 Ibid. 15 Roundtable Discussion on Racism and the Domestic Violence Movement

(April 2, 1992) (transcript on file with the Stanford Law Review). The partici- pants in the discussion – Diana Campos, Director, Bilingual Outreach Project of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violenc~; Elsa A. Rios, Project Director, Victim Intervention Project (a commumty-based project in East Harlem, New York, serving battered :,vomen); and Hay~ee Rosario, a social worker with the East Harlem Council for Human Services and a Victim Intervention Project volunteer – recounted conflicts relating to race and culture during their association with the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a state oversight group that distributed resour~es to battered women’s shelters throughout the state and generally set policy priorities for the shelters that were part of the Coalition.

16 I follow the practice of others in linking anti-essentialism to postmodern- ism. See generally Linda Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1990).

17 Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). 18 Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. (1954).