Last spring, February 17-19, Michele Tracy Berger visited the Penn State campus. While here she gave two public talks (one co-sponsored by REI and the other a keynote address for the Women’s Studies Graduate Student Organization Conference). She also participated in a luncheon discussion with the members of the Global Approaches to Intersectionality (GAI) reading group and other friends of the Rock Ethics Institute (REI).

I was lucky enough to sit down with Dr. Berger on Friday morning to discuss some of the major themes of her on-campus talks:

In her first public talk, “The Intersectional Approach Across Disciplines: Transforming Teaching, Scholarship, and Public Policy”, Berger discussed the 2009 volume she co-edited with Kathleen Guidroz, The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class and Gender. The book, which was one of the principle texts for the GAI reading group, consists of 17 original essays and two reprints on the topic of intersectionality. This collection, according to Berger, was conceived as a way to move the conversation on intersectionality beyond questions of what it is or why it’s necessary in order to consider how intersectional work might be carried out within different disciplines and activist pursuits.

As Berger explained during the talk and in the above interview, the intersectional approach emerged from the work of activists and multiracial feminists. While it has been/become a border-crossing concept in terms of academic disciplines, it can be said to have developed with/within and to have formed/transformed Women’s and Gender Studies. Indeed, as Berger notes, familiarity with intersectionality and intersectional approaches has become a matter of social literacy for serious practitioners of Women’s and Gender Studies. One must be familiar the idea of interlocking systems of oppression which include (but are not limited to) race, class and gender. One must be capable of using intersectionality as an interpretive tool for the critical examination of the operations of power within society.

Berger also made an effort to point out that intersectionality has its roots much earlier than Kimberl� Crenshaw’s pivotal text, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (University of Chicago Legal Forum 139, 1989). Berger cites Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South (1892) as one of the first examples of an intersectional approach to power and oppression and recommends Anna Julia Cooper: Visionary Black Feminist by Vivian M. May (Routledge 2007) as a way to understand Cooper’s work and influence. Berger also recommended Bonnie Thornton Dill’s Emerging Intersections (Rutgers University Press, 2009) and Michelle Fine’s work on intersectionality.

For our lunchtime discussion with Berger, we were given three readings as a way to begin thinking through different possibilities for intersectional approaches:

1.       Elizabeth R. Cole, “Coalitions as a Model for Intersectionality: From Practice to Theory,” Sex Roles 59 (2008): 443-453.

2.       Yiu Fai Chow, “Moving, Sensing Intersectionality: A Case Study of Miss China Europe,” Signs 36 (Winter 2011): 411-436.

3.       Michele Tracy Berger, “The Politics of Intersections Stigma for Women with HIV/AIDS” in Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journal of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS (Princeton University Press, 2006).

The discussion began with a chance for each attendee to consider and share how s/he was grappling with intersectionality in her/his own work. Some concerns that were mentioned included: the potential (or possibly artificial) conflict between intersectionality and identity politics; the connection between intersectionality and a variety of other theories that treat power, oppression, race, class and/or gender; and how exactly to operationalize intersectionality for particular projects within particular disciplines.

Berger offered us a way of thinking about intersectionality in terms of four important interventions it allows into other scholarship and five different analytical tools that might be employed for in interventions. The interventions involve looking to the lived experiences of marginalized communities, exploring ideas of inter- and intra-group sameness and difference, recognizing the interconnected structures of power that maintain inequality and domination, and connecting theory and practice in order to bring about social change.

The three analytical tools with which Berger was most familiar were the individual experiential/embodied approach (taking embodied experience seriously in our theories as either a critique or a starting point), the use of relational/interactional frameworks to understand power, and the use of a social/structural analytic to understand oppression. She also mentioned two additional tools identified by Nancy Naples – the epistemological approach and an intersectional feminist praxis rooted in activism.

Berger urged us not to see the existence of a variety of different approaches and/or disagreements among intersectional scholars and activists as compromising the theoretical coherence of intersectionality. Rather, we should reject the need for mastery of the concept and celebrate the existence of such a rich set of practices and debates to explore.

In her keynote address to the WSGO conference, Berger discussed the findings of her new co-written work on graduates of undergraduate programs in Women’s and Gender Studies (Transforming Scholarship: Why Women’s and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and the World, Routledge 2011). Berger spoke there of the need to gather empirical data to answer the question of what one can do with a women’s studies degree. In sharp contrast to the stereotype of such a degree as impractical, Berger argues that WGS graduates act as change agents in their communities and in the world. They frequently report that their WGS educations were powerful and transformative both personally and professionally. They are able to follow many different paths and to find fulfilling work.

 

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