Diversity Demands Intersectionality

Author: Margarite Sullivan

August 12, 2019 1:52pm

In 1851, Sojourner Truth brought to life the rallying cry of American feminists with the now-prolific phrase, “Ain’t I a Woman”.  While feminism has embraced the sentiment that being a woman does not exclude a person from achieving and accomplishing feats generally reserved to men; it has failed to acknowledge the underlying message of Truth’s declaration.  When Truth started toward the stage at a Women’s Rights Conference in Akron Ohio, white feminists attempted to keep her from speaking, arguing Truth’s message would highlight the need for emancipation, as opposed to women’s liberation.  168 years later, the hypocrisy in the attempt to silence Truth remains present in our discourse concerning race and sex discrimination.  “Contemporary white feminists inherit not the legacy of Truth’s challenge to patriarchy, but instead, Truth’s challenge to their forbearers.  Even today, the difficulty that white women have traditionally experienced in sacrificing racial privilege to strengthen feminism renders them susceptible to Truth’s critical question.  When feminist theory and politics that claim to reflect women’s experiences and women’s aspirations do not include or speak to Black women, Black women must ask:  ‘Ain’t We Women?’  If this is so, how can the claims that ‘women are,’ ‘women believe’ and ‘women need’ be made when such claims are inapplicable or unresponsive to the needs, interests and experiences of Black women?”[1]

Intersectionality:  A Primer

Kimberelé Crenshaw introduced intersectionality as a framework for analyzing discrimination and inequality in her 1989 article published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum, titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex:  A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”.  In the article, Crenshaw shines a light on the gap in legal protection afforded to Black women due to the multi-faceted experience of racism and sexism, among others, encountered by Black women.[2]  Crenshaw’s criticism of understanding oppression and domination based singularly on race, class, etc. is encapsulated in the following excerpt from her 1989 landmark article:

[The] single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification, and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group.  In other words, in race discrimination cases, discrimination tends to be viewed in terms of sex- or class-privileged Blacks; in sex discrimination cases, the focus is on race- and class-privileged women.  This focus on the most privileged group members marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened and obscures claims that cannot be understood as resulting from discrete sources of discrimination.  I suggest further that this focus on otherwise-privileged group members creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism because the operative conceptions of race and sex become grounded in experiences that actually represent only a subset of a much more complex phenomenon.[3]

Braided Hair and the Disenfranchisement of Black Women in the Workplace

On December 1, 1981, the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York issued its opinion in Rogers v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 229 (S.D.N.Y. 1981).  The Plaintiff, Renee Rogers, an African American woman employed by American Airlines, challenged American Airlines’ policy prohibiting employees from wearing all-braided hairstyles.  Ms. Rogers challenged the policy on the basis it violated her rights under the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and under 42 U.S.C. s 1981, “in that it discriminate[d] against her as a woman, and more specifically as a black woman.”[4]

The Rogers Court dismissed the argument that American Airlines’ practice of banning braided hairstyles, including corn-rows, was discriminatory based on both sex and race.  The Court reasoned the policy applied to both men and women and was therefore not discriminatory.

As to the discriminatory nature of the policy based on race, Rogers argued corn-rows have a special cultural significance for Black American women as they have been “historically, a fashion and style adopted by Black American women, reflective of cultural, historical essence of the Black women in American society.”  The Court disagreed, finding her claim was not founded on an immutable characteristic, and was instead based on choice.  The Court further supported its finding by pointing to American Airlines’ assertion that Plaintiff began wearing corn-rows after Bo Derek, a white actress, donned the hairstyle in the film “10”.  In advancing this position, the Court implied there is no relationship between Black women and the cultural roots of braided hair.  Paulette M. Caldwell demonstrates the Rogers Court’s erasure of Black women’s experiences (i.e. the intersection of race and gender) in her article, “Black Women’s Hair and the Law:  When Race and Gender Intersect”, in the following excerpt:

Wherever they exist in the world, black women braid their hair.  They have done so in the United States for more than four centuries.  African in origin, the practice of braiding is as American- black American- as sweet potato pie.  A braided hairstyle was first worn in a nationally-televised media event in the United States- and in that sense ‘popularized’- by a black actress, Cicely Tyson, nearly a decade before the movie “10”.  More importantly, Cicely Tyson’s choice to popularize (i.e., to ‘go public’ with) braids, like her choice of acting roles, was a political act made on her own behalf and on behalf of all black women.

The very use of the term ‘popularized’ to describe Bo Derek’s wearing of braids- in the sense of rendering suitable to the majority- specifically subordinates and makes invisible all of the black women who for centuries have worn braids in places where they and their hair were not overt threats to the American aesthetic.  The great majority of such women worked exclusively in jobs where their racial subordination was clear.  They were never permitted in any affirmative sense of the word any choice so closely related to personal dignity as the choice- or a range of choices- regarding the grooming of their hair.  By virtue of their subordination- their clearly defined place in the society- their choices were simply ignored.

The court’s reference to Bo Derek presents us with two conflicting images, both of which subordinate black women and black culture.  On the one hand, braids are separated from black culture, and, by implication are said to arise from whites.  Not only do blacks contribute nothing to the nation’s or the world’s culture, they copy the fads of popularization, become- like all ‘pop’- disposable, vulgar, and without lasting value.  Braided hairstyles are thus trivialized and protests over them made ludicrous.[5]

In sum, and in the words of Crenshaw, “The court’s refusal […] to acknowledge that Black women encounter combined race and sex discrimination implies that the boundaries of sex and race discrimination doctrine are defined respectively by white women’s and Black men’s experiences.  Under this view, Black women are protected only to the extent that their experiences coincide with those of either of the two groups.” [6]

Diversity Demands Intersectionality

We are entering what can easily be perceived as a progressive age in the inclusion of diversity as an important aspect in policies and procedures adopted by businesses and corporations nation-wide.  In addition to adopting policies that foster a diverse workplace environment for its own sake, proponents of such policies argue diversity benefits businesses’ bottom line by providing unique perspectives and talents.  However, unless we acknowledge the intersection of race, sex, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic status, and religion,[7] our attempts to diversify the workplace fall flat.  Instead, we create rigid categories that invalidate and erase the experiences of those whose identities intersect.  Diversity is only as effective as our ability to challenge the normative framework upon which we decide oppression occurs.  As Audre Lorde said in her keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1981, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”


[1] “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex:  A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum:  Vol. 1989:  Iss. 1, Article 8, at pp. 153-154.  Available at: https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1052&context=uclf

[2] This list is not exhaustive and is ever-changing based on the general consciousness of society and the ability for subordinate groups to bring widespread attention to their unique oppression.  That is, oppression can and does exist even when it is not understood, accepted, or validated by society as a whole.

[3] See “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex:  A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum:  Vol. 1989:  Iss. 1, Article 8.  Available at:  https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1052&context=uclf

[4] Rogers v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 229, 231 (S.D.N.Y. 1981)

[5] Black Women’s Hair and the Law:  When Race and Gender Intersect, Paulette M. Caldwell.  https://racism.org/articles/intersectionality/gender/1554-blackwomenshair

[6] Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex:  A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum:  Vol. 1989:  Iss. 1, Article 8, pp. 142-143.  Available at:  https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1052&context=uclf

[7] This list is not exhaustive.

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