November 29, 2021
Written by Merrit Stueven, MPP ’22
Edited by Anisha Asundi, WAPPP Research Fellow, and
Moira Notarstefano, WAPPP Communications Manager
WAPPP’s Fall 2021 seminar series Intersectional Approaches to Gender Equity has focused on intersectional research methodologies to center the needs and experiences of marginalized people and communities in closing gender gaps. In the most recent seminar, Dr. NiCole Buchanan guided participants in taking a step back to examine what we mean by intersectional theory and practice—and how to live up to the potential of intersectional theory in our work and research.
Dr. Buchanan began her talk with a critique of how intersectionality is commonly used and not used in academia and popular culture today. Many disciplines still largely ignore or underutilize intersectionality as a concept—not incorporating it into research frameworks or understandings of interpersonal interactions. She acknowledged that intersectionality has become a more widely recognized term used in mainstream discourse over the last few years. However, with this expanded audience, the concepts of intersectionality have been diluted. Dr. Buchanan mentioned the disconnect between the version of intersectionality that has gone mainstream and intersectional theory’s social justice roots. She explained that this disconnect—a depoliticization of intersectionality—makes it more palatable to academia but severely limits its ability to help us transform our work, our research, and our society through intersectional practice.
While, at its most basic, intersectionality describes the concept of overlapping identities, Dr. Buchanan cautioned against a too simplistic or narrow view of intersectionality. The overlapping identities described are not neutral or independent parts of an individual; instead, intersectional theory dictates that these various identities combine to create unique experiences for individuals as they interact with others and with society. Dr. Buchanan contextualized this understanding of intersectionality in its origins, asking audience members how long they thought the concept had existed. Since Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex” was published in 1989, since Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a woman?” speech, or, that intersectionality is as old as humanity. All three answers, according to Dr. Buchanan, are correct. Intersectionality describes a social reality that has existed as long as individuals have interacted with each other—and Dr. Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality named this construct and unified a long history of scholarship and activism by Black feminists before her who developed the practice of intersectionality.
Dr. Buchanan further outlined the tenets of intersectionality theory for the audience and walked through extensions of the theory that can, and should, shape intersectional practice. She returned to the concept of social justice as the root of intersectionality repeatedly, underscoring its importance not just to intersectional theory but to its application in research. She said: “Intersectionality requires that our activism and our scholarship is grounded in social justice and in moving the needle towards a more just and equitable society for all members of society—that is our first priority.”
In helping her audience understand the nuances of intersectional theory underutilized in academia and beyond, Dr. Buchanan highlighted the theory of multiple jeopardy and the often-ignored complementary theory of multiple advantage. She emphasized that intersectionality must be used not only to investigate how multiple, marginalized identities shape individuals’ experiences but also how privileged groups can better understand their positionality through their intersecting identities and how this shapes their participation in systems of power and oppression.
Dr. Buchanan connected this understanding with the theory of intersectional invisibility and her work to dissect the experiences of invisibility, visibility, and hypervisibility. The concept of intersectional invisibility hinges on an individual’s distance from what is considered the ‘standard’ person—in our society, often a heterosexual, white man. White men are allowed to dominate our social and cultural narratives, and while white women’s narratives are less important, they are still widely accessible. However, the narratives of Black queer men are increasingly inaccessible, and even more so for queer women of color.
Through the concepts of visibility, hypervisibility, and invisibility, Dr. Buchanan teased apart these experiences. The dominant group can achieve visibility—it is often positive to be visible, lending credibility and implying value. Hypervisibility, a state over being extremely visible, is predominantly not a positive experience: being defined through stereotypes, being surveilled, and the erasure of individual identity favoring the stereotype. Invisibility often holds a negative connotation: being not fully valued or recognized, being disadvantaged, and being denied power and voice. These states confirm and support existing social hierarchies and social constructions of value, which intersectional theory and practice can help us to reveal, understand, and act against.
Dr. Buchanan closed her talk by reiterating that intersectionality hinges on action—it is not a theory to be applied in academic work without the intent of meaningfully changing the conditions of people experiencing oppression and the systems that perpetuate this oppression. She emphasized that intersectional research must include a call to action and recognize itself as being an intentionally political, not neutral, effort.