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Making sense of the crossroads of theory and experience

08 August 2012, 10:31

Inga Dale is a 22 year old Honours student at the University of the Western Cape. She aspires to work for the United Nations in New York City. She has her sights set on doing her Masters in 2013.

Theory can be painfully abstract. Yet when I got introduced to the word intersectionality it changed my approach to thinking. Hearing this word for the first time was a bit confusing and Microsoft Word empathically declared a spell check for it. The word intersectionality is not something that can be found in a dictionary. It is used to explain how different forms of oppression interact. For example, race, class and gender are always connected. Thinking about intersectionality led to think about how fixed categories such as gender, sex or class are always fluid and unsettled. I appreciate the works of the critical legal theorist, Kimberly Crenshaw, who explains how race oppression and gender oppression interact in the lives of Black women.

When we speak of intersectionality, we can paint a picture of an intersection of a busy crossroad with north, south, east and west as directional points. Each directional point can be classified as a type of social category. However, these are not fixed categories-different types of oppression occupy different directional points. So, what happens when an individual comes across this crossroad?

I will use Caster Semenya-who has been relentlessly categorized and labeled-as an individual who faces this crossroad.

As Caster walks towards the northern part of the crossroad, the agents of “categorization” stop her and demand that she picks a category, either male or female. Caster suprises them all when she announces that she does not fit into either category and insists that her “non-category” is biologically normal. The agents at this point disagree, they insist that sex is categorized into either male or female. The agents then question Caster about her gender. Caster explains that she has her own sense of “being” therefore she does not feel the need to “act like lady” or “act like a man”. Horrified by this answer, the agents declare that only two categories exist-masculinity and femininity. This leads Caster to consider deep soul-searching about her identity, her relationship with her body and her relationship with the world.

Caster then heads South towards class where the agents at class give her specific categories to choose from. However, having grown up poor and then becoming a world class athlete, Caster moves freely among these castes and she identifies on the basis of where she is-whether on an international flight or in a local taxi.

Caster then heads East where she faces probably one of the biggest issues facing any country-race.  As a black woman, Caster faces the challenges of being a woman of colour in numerous ways. Wherever she may go and whatever she may do, being a black female would always play a role within her societal context, whether it is a positive role or a negative role.

Lastly, Caster faces West. Caster is not disabled in any way and definitely not in the conventional sense in which society defines “disability”. However, the agents declare that certain bodies are normal while others are somewhat inferior. Even Caster, who is considered to be intersex is in fact socially defined as disabled-not normal, someone who needs to be fixed. For example, intersex babies undergo sex reassignment surgery so that they can fall within the fixed categories of either male or female.

Intersectionality has shown me how different types of oppression in society do not act independently of one another furthermore I have also learnt that we each have intersectional identities that are shaped through systems of power relations, and through experiences of oppression and how this results in social inequalities and marginalization.

Place yourself in the neighbourhood of patriarchy, in the town of capitalist, in the suburbs of able bodied people, in the country of race and in the world of class. What intersections are you faced with? What impossible journeys has society mapped out for you?

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