Keisha Lindsay, an associate professor in the UW’s Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science, researches the relationship between race and gender to demonstrate how identity and difference affect the distribution of power. She instructs courses such as Feminist Political Theory and African American Political Theory, teaching power dynamics through the lens of intersectionality.
Having a father who was involved with Jamaica’s Democratic Socialism project in the ’70s, Lindsay took an interest in politics from an early age. She grew up hearing about the black power movement; her family talked politics and encouraged the children to participate. Those open, political conversations continued when they moved to the U.S. when Lindsay was nine.
Lindsay went on to major in political science as an undergrad, and she became interested in power. “What is [power],” she asks. “Who has it, and are people willing to give it up?” She had been fascinated by intersectionality her whole life because of her own experience as a black woman, and she was formally introduced to the concept when she took a grad school class about race, gender, and politics with Cathy Cohen, a political scientist and feminist who focuses on the black experience in America.
The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw LLM ’85, who defines it as “a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality, or disadvantage, sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism, or whatever social justice advocacies/structures we have.”
When explaining intersectionality to her students, Lindsay asks them to picture a road for each disadvantage a person may have. Then picture all those roads intersecting: at the center of that intersection, these disadvantages will collide with or become compounded by one another. For instance, women tend to earn less than men for the same job, and men of color tend to earn less than white men. Being a woman and a person of color compounds disadvantages — the pay gap is worse for those who live at that intersection.
Lindsay explores intersectionality, gender, race, and politics by breaking those subjects down into smaller, more approachable topics. One such topic is all-black male schools (ABMS), which is the focus of her first book, In a Classroom of Their Own. Based loosely on her dissertation, the book is an “interrogation of the pros and cons of single-gendered schooling for black boys,” she says. It is a starting block for the complex framework of experience and power.
Lindsay takes a deeper look into the ideologies around ABMS, including teaching black boys how to be black men. Such efforts may ignore or perpetuate the struggles of black girls. A positive aspect of ABMS is that teachers provide more support — such as after-school activities and pro-black attitudes — to counteract possible problems at home and the damage done by racist teachers at previous schools. But teaching such an ambiguous topic as manhood could reinforce attitudes that are antifeminist.
Which is a more important issue: feminism or racism? This is a common question across a variety of social movements that believe only one can be addressed at a time. Lindsay prefers to avoid the oppression Olympics and take another route. “Listen to what other flavors of discrimination other people might be experiencing and take in the nuance of it,” she says, encouraging the acknowledgment of people’s intersectional experiences.
The concept of intersectional experiences can be difficult for some people to grasp, Lindsay believes, because we are trained to think in silos. “It’s either hot or cold, gay or hetero, man or woman,” she says. Typically, an individual can’t file a racial and gender discrimination claim; a court would tell her to choose one. In siloed thinking, people believe that they or others are either oppressed or not. They have trouble wrapping their heads around simultaneously oppressing while being oppressed. Intersectionality muddies the waters, but it pushes Lindsay to be open to new information.
“People don’t always experience oppression in the same ways,” she notes, and simply acknowledging another’s intersectionality is a step toward creating stronger bonds within and across communities.
Lindsay continues to be interested in the rhetoric and theories of Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, a social theorist specializing in race, class, and gender. And she’s currently working on a book that will investigate traditionally feminine black women and how they use their femininity politically to challenge gender norms.
“As a political scientist, I believe that politics pervade all human and social relationships whether we want them to or not,” she says. “That being said, it is possible for differing political orientations to have shared values. The current political climate is challenging that view, but I remain optimistic.”