On the Depoliticisation of Intersectionality Talk. Conceptualising Multiple Oppressions in Critical Sexuality Studies

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by Erel, Umut; Haritaworn, Jin; Rodríguez, Encarnación Gutiérrez and Klesse, Christian

Queer theory ofers itself as a radical epistemology to uncover pervasive forms of power, not only around sexuality but also around ‘race’ and transgender. Queer of colour theorists and some trans theorists have re- mained sceptical about these grand claims, and pointed out the notorious silence about racism and transphobia in the mainstream of queer theorising (Helen (charles) 1993, Cathy Cohen 2001, Jin Haritaworn 2007). Their critique echoes an older tradition of theorising multiple relations of oppression that has been particularly advocated by lesbians of colour like Audre Lorde (1984), Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith (1982; 1983). While the anti-racist feminisms of the 1980s have produced their own silences, especially around transgender and dissident sexualities, we will here argue that their call to positionality is vital in developing a queer theory and research practice that addresses the silences around raciality subject to this volume. This article is an attempt to ind a language for our dissatisfaction with the silencing of the knowledge productions and political activisms of trans people of colour, queers of colour, women of colour and migrant women in the UK and Germany, as at the same time it is about exploring the possibilities and limits of the concept of ‘intersectionality‘. In nearly two decades of critical debate about how multiple oppressions around gender, ‘race‘ and class interlock, ‘intersectionality‘ has emerged as a concept which promises a comprehensive theorising of various power relations. In this article we explore the potential of an ‘intersectionality perspective‘ for critical queer theorising and research practice. We argue that the concept has been used as an umbrella term for divergent debates and political projects, both radical and hegemonic ones. This is relected in its reception and dissemination in diferent political, cultural and historical contexts.

Our[1] transnational experiences in Britain and Germany have prompted us to relect on how the concept of ‘intersectionality’ has travelled between these spaces and how some of its potential for critique and resistance has been diminished in this process. In both countries there is a tendency to disavow the roots of the concept in anti-racist struggles. his problem is particularly pronounced in Germany where critical migrant, Jewish and researchers of colour have much more tenuous access to the institutional- ised knowledge production of academia.

The German case, for example, demonstrates how the concept of ‘race‘ can be adopted for purely academic purposes without considering local practices, histories and epistemologies of resistance. he notion of ‘in- tersectionality’ has been used as a historically disembodied cipher which serves to erase home-grown anti-racist feminist struggles and theoretical debates which go back to the 1980s and 1990s. We consider these proc- esses of translation and transfer by (a) showing the pitfalls in academic discourses of neglecting and neutralising the theoretical input of political movements; and (b) critically interrogating the concept of ‘intersectional- ity’ as a tool for understanding the complexity of the social. We will do this in four steps. First, we will retrace the feminist debates in the UK and the USA that gave rise to the concept of ‘intersectionality’. Second, we will examine the exclusionary efects of the ‘intersectionality’ concept towards other social diferences, especially sexuality, transgender and trans- sexuality, and the limiting ways in which it has been translated into queer discourse. hese exclusions also shed light on the failure of the concept to give progressive impulses to the current debate around ‘multiculturalism’,where women’s and gay rights are interpreted to contradict and invalidate migrant rights. hird, we will demonstrate with the German case how the anti-racist theories have often been appropriated without considering their relevance on the historical, geographical and political levels. his act of depoliticisation is frequently masked by a conceptualisation of ‘intersec- tionality’ that ignores the analysis of diferences as an outcome of power relations through which hierarchies are marked between diferent groups and actors in the ield. Fourth, we explore the methodological implications of a research perspective which focuses on interconnected webs of power. Finally, we consider the lessons of the feminist-anti-racist struggles of the 1980s and 1990s for queer theory. A radical queer project, we conclude, cannot do without the critical notion of positionality, if it is to fulil its promises of multiple inclusion.


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*Erel, Umut; Haritaworn, Jin; Rodríguez, Encarnación Gutiérrez and Klesse, Christian (2008). On the depoliticisation of intersectionality talk: Conceptualising multiple oppressions in critical sexuality studies. In: Kuntsman, Adi and Esperanza, Miyake eds. Out of place: Interrogating silences in queerness/raciality. New York: Raw Nerve Book, pp. 265–292. https://www.academia.edu/

[1] We are a collective of authors who share experiences of living and working academically in both Britain and Germany. While sharing a political, theoretical and empirical interest with multiple oppression, inluenced by anti-racist feminism, Black, Chicana and hird World feminism, our political engagement and research diverged along the axes of gender, transgender, ‘race’, class and sexuality, spanning such diverse research areas as gender and migration, ‘race’ and labour, racialised genders and sexualities, and gay male and bisexual non-monogamy.