Academic journal article Generations

The Challenge of Intersectionality

Academic journal article Generations

The Challenge of Intersectionality

Article excerpt

n her exploration of social justice, Nancy Fraser (2008) argues that "participatory parity" critical, "overcoming injustice means dismantling institutionalized obstacles that prevent some people from participating on a par with others, as full partners in social interaction" (Fraser, 2008). While second-wave feminists focused on the barriers that result from gender inequalities, critiques by women of color made clear that women and men are not homogenous groups, and that other, equally important statuses, such as race and class, can shape people's experiences and abilities to participate and achieve.

These critiques underpin the foundational work of legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), who coined intersectionality to explain the interplay of inequalities that could exclude groups from single-inequality analysis. Sitting at the intersections of race and gender, black women were too black to be female, and too female to be black, in terms of their standing in court. They experience racism and sexism in ways not reducible to one or the other.

Applying this concept of intersectionality to violence against women of color and immigrants, Crenshaw (1991) pointed to the obstacles they face in obtaining services designed to serve battered women presumed only to suffer from gender inequality. She argued, "Shelters serving these women cannot afford to address only the violence inflicted by the batterer; they must also confront the other multilayered and routinized forms of domination that often converge in these women's lives, hindering their ability to create alternatives to the abusive relationships that brought them to shelters in the first place."

Crenshaw demonstrated that race, class, nation, and gender inequalities all are tied into the experiences of battered women of color, and thus interventions that stem from "experiences of women who do not share the same class or race background" are limited in their ability to offer them the help they need, or justice (Crenshaw, 1991).

Since Crenshaw's groundbreaking work, intersectionality has become an important but sometimes misunderstood analytic and practical tool. Our goal is to clarify intersectionality, in relation to women and aging; and then apply it briefly to demonstrate its utility to researchers and practitioners.

Intersectionality: A Focus on Inequalities

People differ from each other in ways that often reflect heterogeneity. In relation to aging, individuals might vary in flexibility, strength, lung capacity, or how quickly they heal from injuries. When groups differ, then disparities may result from inequalities that privilege some (whites, men, middle-class members, citizens), while disadvantaging others (women, blacks, workingclass members, foreign migrants). These differences are structured into daily lives and behaviors, based on the ways in which we normally do things (such as family and paid work); as a result, they are taken for granted and generally unseen. The concept of intersectionality illuminates the complex ways in which people's experiences over the life course and in old age emerge from the intertwining of their various categorical memberships within systems of inequalities.

For example, as a group, women have lower incomes in old age because of the way we work and care for family in the United States. Women perform the bulk of domestic labor, thus spending fewer years in paid labor; and women are employed in lower paid jobs more frequently than are men. Much of income in old age, such as Social Security benefits, is based on years worked and earnings. Thus, women are disadvantaged and men are privileged, as the latter can focus more on paid work, while women take greater responsibility for unpaid labor.

Similarly, as a group, blacks have lower incomes in old age than do whites, resulting from the kinds of jobs they receive, and again, because of the way Social Security benefits are calculated. Both of these-race and gender-are systems of inequalities. …

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