Intersectionality: An Underutilized but Essential Theoretical Framework for Social Psychology

Lisa Bowleg

Police Brutality in the News: An Introduction to Intersectionality

F.B.I. Investigating Police Accounts of Black Womans Death in Custody. (Rogers, 2015a)

Questions After Unarmed Ohio Man Is Killed in Traffic Stop. (Rogers, 2015b)

Jarring Image of Police’s Use of Force at Texas Pool Party. (Cole-Frowe & Fausset, 2015)

Texas Police Fatally Shoot Unarmed College Football Player (The Associated Press, 2015)

These grim US newspaper headlines—from July and August 2015 alone!— reveal the disturbing frequency of excessive police force against Black people in the USA. Three common threads link these cases: White male law enforcement officers as perpetrators, unarmed Black people as victims, and cell phone or dashboard camera images of the violence. The focus on Sandra Bland, the woman who died in police custody in Texas (Rogers, 2015a), and the “jarring” image of a White male police officer violently tackling a young Black woman in a bathing suit at a pool party in Texas (Cole-Frowe & Fausset, 2015) notwithstanding, the media and policymakers have framed excessive police force against Black people primarily as a

L. Bowleg (*)

The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA © The Author(s) 2017

B. Gough (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Social Psychology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51018-1_25

Black male problem (Crenshaw & Ritchie, 2015). Consequently, critical gaps exist in the public’s consciousness about police brutality against Black girls and women and, in turn, in the ability to develop empirical and policy responses to the problem.

Social psychology, “the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another” (Myers, 2010, p. 5), has substantially advanced understanding about social issues and problems such as racial stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, and how they influence social problems such as the police brutality captured in the aforementioned headlines. Prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination are forms of biases against members of other social groups. Prejudice involves (mostly) negative emotional attitudes toward a group, stereotypes involve cognitive attributions or generalizations about groups, and discrimination is negative behavior toward a group or its members (Dovidio, Hewstone, Click, & Esses, 2010; Fiske, 2015). Social psychologists use systematic and rigorous research methods to examine social psychological phenomena such as stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. For example, a rich body of social psychological research on social categorization explains why people tend to perceive and categorize police brutality as a Black male problem—people tend to pay more attention to individual members of groups that they deem to be prototypes of the entire group (see, e.g., Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008; Sesko & Biernat, 2010; Zarate & Smith, 1990). Thus, most people see men as exemplars of human groups. Cue the group Black people, and most people will think Black men. Cue White people, and most people will think White men. But as is often the case in mainstream social psychology, where the individual is the primary unit of analysis, social-structural fac- tors—social, political, and economic factors, beyond the individual level, that influence and constrain the health of individuals, communities, and societies (Blankenship, Bray, & Merson, 2000)—are often neglected as explanations. Instead, mainstream social psychological research often presents results about social categorization as natural and neutral, neglecting the role of power and social inequality. Critical social psychology counteracts this mainstream stance with an emphasis on “challenge[ing] social institutions, practices and power relations—including the discipline of psychology—that contribute to forms of inequality and oppression” (Cough, MacFadden, & McDonald, 2013, p. 4), making critical social psychology and intersectionality natural allies.

Intersectionality is a critical, theoretical, and analytical framework that highlights how multiple social identities such as race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status (SES), and disability (to name a few) intersect at the micro level of individual experience to reveal interlocking systems of privilege and oppression (i.e., racism, sexism, heterosexism, clas- sism) at the macro social-structural level (Collins, 1991; Crenshaw, 1991). Intersectionality represents a radical departure from “single-axis” thinking— race or gender primarily or only—toward a “matrix” perspective (Crenshaw, 1989) that renders the notion that social identities or oppressions could be merely added or ranked, nonsensical. Social identities and the social inequality based on them are interlocking and mutually constituted such that experiences based on one identity (e.g., race) cannot be fully understood without its intersection with other key social identities (e.g., gender, class) (Collins, 1991).

Thus, whereas mainstream social psychologists perceive the tendency for people to think of Black males when they think of police violence against Black people primarily in terms of cognitive processing—social categori- zation—a social psychologist using an intersectionality-informed perspective would also emphasize the role of social power. Social psychologists Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach (2008), for example, highlight how ideologies such as androcentrism—the notion that men are or should be the norm for humans; ethnocentrism—the ideology that one’s own group and its norms are universal; and heterosexism—the ideology that heterosexuality is or should be the prototypical norm of human sexuality—function to erase the experiences of people with multiple and intersecting subordinate social identities. Intersectional invisibility is the term that Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach coined to describe the failure to recognize people with multiple subordinate and/or stigmatized social identities (e.g., Black girls and women, Latino gay and bisexual men) as core members of their constituent groups.

This invisibility has real-world implications for interventions, public policy, and social justice because you can’t research or develop solutions to social problems that you can’t see. This is the impetus behind #SayHerName, a recent US campaign that aims to end the intersectional invisibility surrounding Black girls’ and women’s experiences with police violence (Crenshaw & Ritchie, 2015). The campaign aims to expand understanding about the structural context and impact of law enforcement in Black US communities with a gender-inclusive focus on girls, women, and transgender people. This is also the aim of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement (2015), which was created in the USA in 2012 after a volunteer patrol officer was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager on his way home from a convenience store. #BlackLivesMatter describes itself as a movement that “affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”

But whereas intersectionality has been central to the work of social justice activists and disciplines such as women’s and gender studies and critical legal studies, social psychology has been relatively slow to adopt intersectionality as a critical analytical lens. This slowness is puzzling because social psychology has long been in the vanguard with theory and research about the cognitive and social processes that undergird stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Moreover, social psychology is applied; the field has a long history of applying social psychological theory and research to everyday real-world problems. Gordon Allport’s (1954) The Nature of Prejudice, for example, remains one of the most influential works on prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination within social psychology. This remains the case despite criticism of several of Allport’s key posits: namely, that prejudice is rooted in cognitive factors such as erroneous generalizations and that prejudice can be reduced through intergroup contact under favorable conditions (see, e.g., Pettigrew & Tropp, 2000); that racism is universal to human psychology rather than grounded in the historical exploitation of groups of people (Gaines & Reed, 1995); and that difference rather than prejudice explains intergroup conflict (see, e.g., Yueh-Ting, 1996). Nonetheless, social psychologists remain at the forefront of some of the most pioneering work in this area. For example, in 2014, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University in the USA, earned a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship—often called a “genius grant”— for her research on how racial stereotypes about Black men as criminals influence visual processing in ways that prompt people to more quickly associate Black men’s faces with objects such as guns and basketballs (Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004). Dr. Eberhardt and colleagues have also conducted research that demonstrates that more stereotypically Black male defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death than their less stereotypical counterparts (Eberhardt, Davies, Purdie-Vaughns, & Johnson, 2006). Philip Atiba Goff, another social psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity (CAPE), an institute that facilitates research partnerships between social scientists and law enforcement agencies to improve racial and gender equity in policing (Center for Policing Equity, 2015).

These exemplars notwithstanding, intersectionality remains within its infancy within social psychology. But this is changing as a small but growing number of social psychologists have begun to advocate for intersectionality as a critical framework for social psychology (see, e.g., Bowleg, 2008; Earnshaw,

Smith, Cunningham, & Copenhaver, 2013; Ghavami & Peplau, 2013; Goff & Kahn, 2013; Goff, Thomas, & Jackson, 2008; Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008; Zucker, Fitz, & Bay-Cheng, 2015). They join the ranks of multidisciplinary intersectionality scholars who have posited intersectionality as vital analytical lens for “identifying paradoxical outcomes (as meaningful and not just as anomalous or accidental)” (May, 2015, p. 5), “challenging] fundamental assumptions about psychological processes, and methodology” ... and [providing] “different interpretations of the same facts” (Clarke & McCall, 2013, p. 350). Intersectionality is thus an essential theoretical framework for social psychology because it offers a more nuanced, complex, complete, and critical understanding of historically marginalized or understudied groups and experiences, such as policy brutality against Black girls and women.

Contemporary intersectionality scholars have begun to transcend discussions of defining intersectionality in favor of an emphasis on what intersectionality “does or can do ” (May, 2015, p. 19). Intersectionality invites “both/ and” thinking; identifies hidden gaps in theoretical, empirical, and everyday knowledge; challenges conventional thinking; and spotlights power, privilege, and social structure. I’ll use another set of recent US newspaper headlines as an example. It involves one of my pet peeves, the conventional and ubiquitously used phrase, “women and minorities.” Recently, a spate of World Wide Web, newspaper, and radio stories described the diversity initiatives and employee demographics at large technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Intel. The main finding was (surprise!): White men represent the vast majority of employees at these companies despite the companies’ well-touted intentions to increase diversity. Article after article reported the news relevant to “women and minorities” as if these were two mutually exclusive groups. Here’s a flavor of some of the reporting: “Intel Pledges $125 Million for Start-ups that Back Women, Minorities” (McBride, 2015) and, “The numbers confirmed the doubters’ worst suspicions: Minorities accounted for just a tiny fraction of most of the companies’ workforces and no company could say that women made up 50% of its employees” (Jones & Trop, 2015). Other reports discussed the tech companies’ racial/ethnic data separately from the gender data, which presumably replicated how the tech companies presented the demographic data in their reports. The Wall Street Journal’s website posted a nifty interactive graphic that allows viewers to sort companies’ leadership or technology jobs by “Women vs. Men” or “Minority vs. White” (Molla & Lightner, 2015). All of the reporting perpetuated the invisibility of racial/ethnic minority women employees, and neglected to mention the role of power in maintaining the intersectional invisibility status quo.

I’ll show how intersectionality illuminates this subject beyond the conventional presentation ofsingle-axis demographics with a series ofintersectionality- informed questions: What demographic data exists for racial/ethnic minority women at these companies? Why was that information not presented? Why is intersectional data mentioned for White men, but no other group, and what does orienting the story around that demographic reveal about power and privilege? What social-structural factors explain these disparities (e.g., historical legacies of institutionalized discrimination in education and employment, in-group biases where employers are more likely to hire within their own social networks, workplace climate, presence or absence of formal and informal mentorship opportunities). Who benefits from the stark disparity? Critical questions such as these form the crux of intersectionality.

Nuances, complications, and complexities abound in the real world. Intersectionality actively embraces these with an analytical framework that “without doubt, complicates everything” (Hankivsky & Christoffersen, 2008, p. 279). Intersectionality uses a matrix—versus single-axis—perspective to investigate “how power and privilege operate on several levels at once (experiential, epistemological, political, and structural) and across (and within) categories of experience and personhood (including race, gender, sexuality, disability, social class, and citizenship)” (May, 2015, p. 23). Intersectionality is thus vital to social psychology’s ability to empirically address many of the grave and understudied social issues and problems that disproportionately buffet people from historically marginalized groups. The failure to think inter- sectionally has important and substantial implications for all aspects of the social psychological research process including but not limited to: what social groups and/or issues are deemed important to study, how research problems are framed (or not), the types of research questions posed and/or hypotheses tested, research methods and analyses used, interpretations made, conclusions drawn, and the types of applied solutions, interventions, or public policies developed to address social psychological issues and problems.

To this end, the goal of this chapter is to demonstrate why intersectionality is such an essential analytical framework for social psychology. I have organized the chapter into four sections. In the first section, I provide a historical overview of intersectionality. In the second section, using some of intersec- tionality’s core tenets as a foundation, I critique some traditional assumptions of mainstream social psychological theory and research. In the third section, I highlight some current trends in intersectional social psychological research. Finally, I conclude with a brief discussion about why social psychology has been so slow to embrace intersectionality, summarize the advantages of a more intersectional social psychology, and recommend some key references for further reading.

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