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9.4: Intersectionality

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    Intersectionality is an analytic tool that gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves (Collins & Bilge, 2020). This section provides a more nuanced understanding of whiteness in the context of the intersecting structures and identities of race, ethnicity, social class, gender, and sexuality. Using an intersectional lens, the reader unfolds the multifaceted layers of whiteness, unpacking how our social location and different placement in systems of racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism differently shape our experiences and our frames. Hence, while all white people benefit from white privilege and white supremacy, they certainly do not all benefit equally or in all social locations.

    Immigrant Women

    As explained by Joseph Healey, Andi Stepnick, and Eileen O'Brien, immigrant women from Western Europe were among the most exploited segments of labor in earlier U.S. history, and they were involved in some of the most significant events in labor history. For example, consider 1909, New York City. One of the first victories of the union movement, the uprising of 20,000 people was a massive strike of mostly Jewish and Italian women (many in their teens) against the garment industry. The strike lasted 4 months despite attacks by thugs hired by the bosses and abuses experienced at the hands of police and the courts. The strikers eventually won recognition of their union, a reversal of a wage decrease, and a reduction in the 56- to 59-hour week they were expected to work (Goren, 1980, p. 584).

    One of the great tragedies of labor history in the United States also involved European immigrant women. In New York City in 1911, a fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a garment industry shop located on the 10th floor of a building. The fire spread rapidly, with little chances for escape. About 140 young immigrant girls died, while many others chose to leap to their deaths rather than be annihilated by the flames. The disaster outraged the public, and a quarter of a million people attended the funerals of the victims. The incident fueled a drive for reform and improvement of work conditions and safety regulations (Amott & Matthaei, 1991, pp. 114–116).

    European immigrant women also filled leadership roles in the labor movement, although usually in female-dominated unions. One of the most memorable union activists was Mother Jones, an Irish immigrant who worked tirelessly to organize miners. An activist until she was nearly 100 years old, Mother Jones went where the danger was greatest— crossing militia lines, spending weeks in damp prisons, incurring the wrath of governors, presidents, and coal operators; she helped to organize the United Mine Workers with "convictions and a voice," the only tools she felt she needed (Forner, 1980, p. 281).

    Many immigrant women came from cultures with strong patriarchal traditions in Europe, and they had much less access to education, high-paying occupations, and leadership roles. As is the case with women of virtually all marginalized groups, the voices of immigrant women have not often been listened to or even heard. However, the research does show that immigrant women played multiple roles both during immigration and during the assimilation to Americanization process. As would be expected in patriarchal societies, the roles of wife and mother were central, but immigrant women have always occupied multiple roles in their communities. In general, male immigrants tended to migrate prior to women, and it was common for the males to send for the women to migrate only after they had secured some degree of stability, lodging, and jobs. Female immigrants’ experiences varied, often depending on the economic situation and cultural traditions of their homeland. During the 19th century, a high percentage of Irish immigrants were young single women who came to the U.S. seeking jobs and often wound up employed in domestic work, a role that allowed them to live in a respectable, family setting. In 1850, about 75% of all employed Irish immigrant women in New York City worked as servants, and the rest were employed in textile mills and factories (Healey et. al, 2019). As late as 1920, 81% of employed Irish-born women in the United States worked as domestics (Healey et. al, 2019). Factory work was the second most prevalent form of employment (Blessing, 1980). Because the economic situation of immigrant families was typically challenging, it was common for women to be involved in low paid, wage labor. The type and location of the work varied depending on the white ethnic group. Whereas Irish women were concentrated in domestic work and factories and mills, this was rarely the case for Italian women. Italian culture had strong norms of patriarchy, and “one of the culture’s strongest prohibitions was directed against contact between women and male strangers” (Alba, 1985, p. 53). Thus, acceptable work situations for Italian women were likely to involve tasks that could be done at home (e.g. cleaning laundry, boarding others, and doing piecework for the garment industry). Italian women who worked outside the home were likely to find themselves in women-only settings among other immigrant women. Thus, women immigrants from Italy tended to be far less assimilated and integrated than those from Ireland.

    As refugees, Eastern European Jewish women and their families sought relief from religious persecution. According to Steinberg (1981), “Few were independent bread-winners, and when they did work, they usually found employment in the garment industry; often they worked in small shops as family members” (p. 161). Generally, immigrant women, like most working-class women, worked until they married, after which time it was expected that their husbands would support the family. In many cases, however, immigrant men could not earn enough to support their families, and their wives and children were required by necessity to also work to support the family budget. Immigrant wives sometimes continued to work outside the home, or otherwise found ways to earn a small income (e.g. gardening, sewing, cleaning laundry, etc.), jobs which all allowed them to perform their roles as caretakers in their own homes. A 1911 report on Southern and Eastern European households found that about half kept lodgers and that the income from this activity amounted to about 25% of the husbands’ wages (Healey et. al, 2019). Women were seen as working only to supplement the family income, a reality which was used to justify their lower wages. Evans (1989) reports that in the late 1800's, “whether in factories, offices, or private homes . . . women’s wages were about half of those of men” (p. 135).

    T-shirt with the words We Are Here Because of Immigrant Women
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Immigrant women t-shirt. (Design by Jakobi Oware)

    White Male Privileges

    Acclaimed author of Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry white Male and White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Tim Wise explains the privileges associated with the status of being a white male in the U.S., yet he also exposes the societal myth that is passed to white people that their race makes them superior to all other racial groups. He explains that rich white men have convinced poor white men that all of their problems are the result of Black and Brown people. Rather than poor white men aligning their interests with poor people of color, they instead align themselves with the elite white men who control the country. His mantra is that white men particularly have engrained racial superiority, white supremacy, and white privilege, yet he also projects that this racism can be unlearned in pursuit of anti-racism which is discussed in the final section of this chapter.

    The elite white men that Wise examines find themselves over-represented in the upper echelons of society: Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), technology sector, and Congress. Approximately 70% of all Fortune 500 CEOs are white men (Jones, 2017). The technology sector employs white males more than any other group, with nearly 50% of Google's leadership positions held by white men (Levitsky, 2020). Of all full-time college professors, more than 50% are white men (NCES, 2017). While the current U.S. Congress (House and Senate) is the most diverse ever, Congress is still 78% white with the majority being white men.

    Though it has narrowed over the past few decades, the wage gap has been a persistent measure of gender inequality and male privilege throughout U.S. history. As shown earlier in Chapter 1.5, men of all race-ethnic groups on average fare better than women of all of these groups with Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) men as the highest income earners followed by white men. Due to their high education levels on average, AAPI men and women outperform all other race-ethnic, gender groups. Still, the wages of white men are generally the yardstick by which all others are measured.

    White males and LGBTQIA+

    Yet, not all white men experience privilege the same. Harvey Milk, a white, gay San Francisco politician spoke freely and openly about transcending racism; yet, his life was taken by a bullet at the beginning of his career. His sexuality served as a barrier for his life. Similarly, the murder of gay college student Matthew Shephard in 1998 resulted in federal hate crime legislation.

    Shirt with the likeness of Harvey Milk
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Harvey Milk. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Chris via Flickr)

    Still white men, in general, enjoy the experience of sitting at the top of the racial-gender hierarchy in the U.S. DiAngelo (2018) identifies that white men's experience of fragility shows up as "very informed, of dominance and intimidation." In their control of conversations, speaking first, last and most often, white men tend to push race off the table which ends up helping them to retain control of discussions. In their effort to reassert their dominance, they tend to stop challenges to their positions.

    White male privilege shows up in the LGBTQIA+ community. Let's consider the history of the LGBTQIA+ movement. The people who were working within the system to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights were predominantly gay, white males - yet trans activists spearheaded the Stonewall Riot in New York City, kicking off the LGBTQIA+ movement. Still, white gay men used their privilege to primarily frame the agenda as LGBT, but mainly focused on the G (gay experience). As Kittu Pannu, an Indian-Malaysian, Southern, Sikh, gay male, explains:

    As a result, many milestones reached during this time were central to this subsection’s own focus. I say this neither commending nor condemning it – there are many positives that came out of this, but there were many causes ignored. Due to this privilege, much of the conversation regarding the LGBT Rights movement is still controlled by this prominent group. As a result, even the celebrations of Pride and gayness cater predominantly to this group. That’s not to say lesbians or even people of color don’t have their own spaces – these more nuanced spaces exist in major cities like New York City and San Francisco. But, on average, the major events and those with the greatest reach and engagement tend to be spaces created for gay, affluent, and white males (2017).

    White Women & Feminism

    In her historical analysis of slavery, Stephanie Jones-Rogers points to the disposition of white women in upholding the peculiar institution of slavery. Rather than resisting this dehumanizing system, Jones-Rogers points out that white women were not only complicit but were active players in this caste economic system of slavery as many white women owned enslaved people. While many rights were denied to white women during this time, they could buy, sell and own slaves. Further, slave-holding parents and slave-holding family members "gave" their young daughters enslaved people as gifts — for Christmas or birthday. White female identity was tied to the home and also connected to ownership, control, and management of enslaved people.

    Often stemming from their involvement in the abolition movement, suffragists began pushing for the women's vote even before the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Suffragists such as Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth had their roots of political activism in the abolition movement. Though, white suffragists were split on their support for Black women's vote. In essence, some white female suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony were willing to sacrifice Black women's right to vote in order for white women to achieve suffrage; many used racist tactics to convince white Southern men that the suffrage vote would offset the African American male vote, attributed to the 15th Amendment and passed in 1869. When the vote was achieved with the 19th amendment in 1920, it was won for all women; yet, due to Jim Crow laws, Black men and women faced tremendous challenges when even registering to vote.

    This split between white and Black women has often played out in U.S. history. While widely accepted in mainstream society today, "the pill" was first used to control the births of poor women, particularly poor women of color as Margaret Sanger declared "more from the fit, less from the unfit." Angela Davis explains eugenics and this divisive U.S. history in Women, Race and Class., highlighting the forced sterilization of poor women, particularly women of color. While white women advocate for reproductive rights (e.g., abortion rights and contraception), women of color advocate for reproductive justice, the right to reproduce. This Bridge Called My Back, an anthology of women writers of color including Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Cherrie Moraga, is largely directed towards the mainstream white feminist movement, exposing the affront women of color have experienced from white women when trying to lift their voices, share their experiences, and present their vision for gender equality.

    On a similar note, in her book White Fragility, DiAngelo (2018) set aside an entire chapter for the self-indulgent tears of white women. These tears serve to redirect any discussion of racism and what people of color experience to white women's feelings about the legacy of racism. To encourage white women to de-center themselves, DiAngelo cautions white women to judiciously regulate their crying so as to not divert important, challenging discussions about race and racism onto white women and their emotions.

    White Trash

    It must be emphasized again that not all white people experience white privilege the same. Poor white people, the largest group of U.S. adults and children living in poverty, are sometimes racialized as "white trash." An oxymoron, the term white trash is built upon the notion of white supremacy; it contradicts the very stereotype of whiteness being associated with purity and cleanliness vs. dirty and poor. In fact, poor whites living and schooling in a low income community of color may be stigmatized because of their very existence in this community, as it simply doesn't match the "white" stereotype. Yet, this is part of the fallacy of whiteness. As Michael Eric Dyson and Tim Wise have explained, the success, the trickery, the manipulation of "whiteness" as a category has been achieved at the expense of building solidarity between poor people - across racial lines. Instead, poor whites, convinced that their skin is of greater importance than their class, find themselves aligning with elite whites rather than challenging the very (economic) forces that serve to oppress them.

    Redneck, Multiple Meanings
    • Patrick Huber, in his monograph A Short History of Redneck: The Fashioning of a Southern White Masculine Identity, emphasized the theme of masculinity in the 20th-century expansion of the term, noting, "The redneck has been stereotyped in the media and popular culture as a poor, dirty, uneducated, and racist Southern white man."
    • Also, the term "redneck" in the early 20th century was occasionally used in reference to American coal miner union members who wore red bandanas for solidarity.
    • By , the political supporters of the Mississippi Democratic Party politician James K. Vardaman—chiefly poor white farmers—began to describe themselves proudly as "rednecks", even to the point of wearing red neckerchiefs to political rallies and picnics.
    • The term redneck characterized farmers having a red neck caused by sunburn from hours working in the fields.
    • Similarly to Earth First!'s use of "rednecks for wilderness," the self-described "anti-racist, pro-gun, pro-labor" group Redneck Revolt have used the term to signal its roots in the rural white working-class and celebration of what member Max Neely described as "redneck culture"
    • This section licensed CC BY-SA. Attribution: Redneck (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The stigma associated with Appalachian whites promotes the stereotype of the ignorant hillbilly, similar to white trash (Scott, 2009). Appalachian whites are regarded in a binary fashion: simple and pious or backwards and ignorant, Scott further explains. Ruth Frankenberg (1993) identified Appalachian whiteness as "marked" whiteness, referencing them as "white but also something more - or is it something less?" (p. 198). Poor whites, Appalachian whites, and white trash are marginalized white people. Considering these marginalized white Americans helps to further deconstruct whiteness, yet it may also serve to uphold whiteness - as these groups all seemingly diverge from the social construct of white. By the very nature of analyzing such marginality, white hegemony is also upheld. Whiteness is recentered without a deeper analysis of the psychological wages of whiteness, the privilege of whiteness that poor white folks experience versus the racial strife that poor people of color live day in and day out. The analysis of white trash has generally focused on the negative (trash) with little emphasis on the white (Scott, 2009). Intersectional analysis would remind us to consider the interplay of race, social class, gender, sexuality and an assortment of other structural categories which would help to illuminate the human condition and its complexity - as well as the possibility for social change.

    Thinking Sociologically

    On the one hand, whiteness confers dominance. On the other hand, white people who are called white trash, rednecks, or hillbillies are the opposite of dominant, the opposite of white supremacy. The trickery of whiteness, as noted above, prevents the coalescence of solidarity movements between poor people. Yet, the video below illustrates the great potential, and sometimes historical, realization of this solidarity.

    Video \(\PageIndex{3}\): 'Rednecks' and 'Hillbillies' Defend Black Lives. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; NowThis News via YouTube)

    What do you think would need to happen for poor people of all race-ethnic groups to unite in solidarity to challenge the concentration of wealth and power in just a few hands, quite often only in a few white hands?

    Key Takeaways

    • Intersectionality explains the differing frames that are needed to more fully understand white experiences in the context of our social structures and social institutions, particularly with regards to race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and sexuality.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Content on this page has multiple licenses. Everything is CC BY other than Redneck, Multiple Meanings which is CC BY-SA.

    • Hund, Janét. (Long Beach City College)
    • Johnson, Shaheen. (Long Beach City College)
    • Minority Studies (Dunn) (CC BY 4.0)
    • Redneck (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0) (Contributed to Redneck, Multiple Meanings)