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Intersectional Criminology: Interrogating Identity

and Power in Criminological Research and Theory

Hillary Potter
Published online: 18 June 2013
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
Abstract Intersectional criminology is a theoretical approach that necessitates a critical
reection on the impact of interconnected identities and statuses of individuals and groups
in relation to their experiences with crime, the social control of crime, and any crime-
related issues. This approach is grounded in intersectionality, a concept developed from the
tenets of women of color feminist theory and activism. To demonstrate how intersec-
tionality is useful in criminology, this article reviews a sampling of feminist and critical
research conducted on Black girls and womens experiences with crime, victimization,
and criminal legal system processes. This research demonstrates the interlaced social
impacts of race, gender, femininity/masculinity ideals, sexuality, and socioeconomic class.
This article also provides a basis for widely deploying an intersectional approach
throughout the eld of criminology across all social identities and statuses.
Identities are socially constructed, uid, and dynamic, and poweror the lack thereofis
situated differentially throughout the many social identities. Identities and power are rel-
evant throughout all social aspects of human life, so they must also be considered within
the contexts of criminality, victimization, and informal and formal responses to crime. The
identities that garner the bulk of the attention in social science inquiries are race, ethnicity,
gender, sexuality, nationality, culture, religion, age, and socioeconomic class; however,
any identity/ies an individual holds should be considered for analysis in criminological
research based on social forces that generate crime and the reactions to crime by victims,
the government, and general society. The concept that captures the multiplicative social
effects of an individuals identities has come to be known by the term intersectionality.
Coined by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in the late 1980s (Alex-
ander-Floyd 2012; Cho et al. 2013; Davis 2008; Nash 2008), intersectionality was initially
presented to recognize the legal dilemmas faced by Black women being recognized as
H. Potter (&)
Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder, UCB 327, Ketchum 219, Boulder,
CO 80309-0327, USA
e-mail: Hillary.Potter@colorado.edu
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Crit Crim (2013) 21:305318
DOI 10.1007/s10612-013-9203-6
facing employment-related discrimination different than that faced by Black men and by
White women. Some feminist social scientists proclaim that intersectionality is now a
buzzword in that the concept is the cutting edge of contemporary feminist theory
(Davis 2008: 69; see also Lykke 2011; Nash 2008) and is deemed essential to incorporate
its concepts in any feminist theory. Feminist sociologist Kathy Davis (2008) asserts, At
this particular juncture in gender studies, any scholar who neglects difference runs the risk
of having her work viewed as theoretically misguided, politically irrelevant, or simply
fantastical (p. 68). However, confusion has ensued among a number of scholars who do
not believe it is clear if intersectionality is a theory, a method for conducting feminist
analyses, or a concept that can only be applied to individuals who have multiple mar-
ginalized intersecting identitiesor if intersectionality is some combination of these or
something else altogether (Cho et al. 2013; Davis 2008; McCall 2005; Nash 2008;
Tomlinson 2013).
Although the antecedents and development of intersectionality, and the research uti-
lizing this framework, cannot be fully explicated within the space provided here, this
article will provide a brief overview of the roots and tenets of intersectionality as theory
and a sampling of criminological research conducted with Black women and girls that is
based in an intersectionality context. The principle and the examples expounded in this
article serve to endorse and advance intersectional criminology, which should prove to be a
signicant contribution of critical criminology and a necessary evolution in criminological
theory generally.
The Materialization of Intersectionality Theory
Although Crenshaw is often recognized as originating what intersectionality is, she indi-
cates that her work has been informed by a broader literature examining the interactions
of race and gender in other contexts (p. 1243, footnote 3), and goes on to cite renowned
Black feminist thinkers such as Frances M. Beal, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Y. Davis,
and bell hooks. Thus, contrary to indications by some writers that an intersectional ide-
ology only surfaced three to four decades ago (see Burgess-Proctor 2006; De Coster and
Heimer 2006; Josephson 2002), the conceptual foundations of intersectionality had been in
development long before Crenshaws seminal articles. As follows, to understand inter-
sectionality, it is important to understand whence it came. Accordingly, in what follows, I
briey trace the U.S. history of Black feminist activism and theory before outlining in-
tersectionality theory and reviewing some applications of intersectionality theory to Black
womens and girls experiences with crime as victims and offenders.
Rejecting the Everywoman Analysis
It is often assumed that Black women were not contributors in the development of feminist
ideology and the efforts toward gender equality (King 1988; Roth 2004). Yet, by reading
the works of Black women who considered themselves to be feminists, or were identied
as such by others, we nd that Black women were undeniably involved in liberation efforts
since the early 1800s (King 1988), and perhaps even dating to the 1600s when African
women who were captured and enslaved in the so-called New World endured multiple
forms of oppression and brutality by their slave masters (Guy-Sheftall 1995). Further, as
Collins (2006) asserts, U.S. feminism is not now, nor has it ever been, the exclusive
property of White, middle-class, or afuent women (p. 195).
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Contemporary Black feminists trace organized Black feminist efforts to the nineteenth
century (at least beginning in the 1830s) when Black women such as Ida B. Wells, Maria
Stewart, Anna Julia Cooper, and Sojourner Truth spoke openly of Black womens affairs
and breaking free from oppressive gender roles (Giddings 1984; Guy-Sheftall 1995). These
womens public declarations of racism, as well as sexismincluding sexism by Black
mendid not go without criticism from men and other women in the Black community
(Guy-Sheftall 1995). Retractors in the Black community did not want the general public to
be privy to their in-group unrest and they felt more energy should be placed on securing
freedom from slavery and on racial justice, as opposed to trying to gain gender equality.
Fear of the Black communitys reaction to Black women advocating for themselves was
often not a concern among these women. One of the most notable illustrations of this
valiance was through the work of slavery abolitionist and woman suffragist Sojourner
Truth. It was Truths 1851 speech at the Ohio Womens Rights Convention that began to
bring White women and all men in the abolitionist and womens rights movements to
acknowledge Black women in their struggles (Davis 1983). Although historian Nell Painter
(1996) has critically questioned that Truth actually spoke the now legendary and widely
used phrase Aint I a Woman?
repeatedly in her speech to the congregation,
recognized that the symbol Truth has come to personify is important to Black, Asian,
Latina, indigenous, and White women feminists alike. This symbol came to mean that all
womens (varied) experiences and struggles were important to consider in the universal
ght for gender justice. These arguments are the basis for an anti-essentialist precept within
much feminist thought today.
As explained by feminists, anti-essentialism asserts that there is not a singular shared
experience among all women. Collins (2000) dened essentialism as the belief that indi-
viduals or groups have inherent, unchanging characteristics rooted in biology or a self-
contained culture that explain their status (p. 299). Journalist and civil rights activist
Frances M. Beal ([1970]1995), in the classic 1970 article Double Jeopardy: To Be Black
and Female, wrote of the burden of the Black womans disadvantaged status based on
gender and race. Beal also discussed the added burden of economic exploitation experi-
enced by Black women (in the United States and within many locations throughout the
world). This third area in the dominationeconomic exploitationof Black women is
included in Black feminist sociologist Vivian V. Gordons (1987) analysis, which she termed
the trilogy of oppression. Gordon proclaimed that Black women are often confronted with
determining which form of oppression is most important. Deborah K. King (1988), another
Black feminist sociologist, went even further and advocated using the term multiple
jeopardy to describe Black womens oppression because Black women often undergo even
more forms of subjugation, and these categories of oppression impact Black women
simultaneously (see also Cleaver 1997; Collins 2000; Gordon 1987; Guy-Sheftall 1995; Hull
et al. 1982; Smith 1983; Wing 1997, 2003). Critical race feminist Adrien K. Wing (2003)
argues that women of color are not merely White women plus color or men of color plus
gender. Instead, their identities must be multiplied together to create a holistic One when
analyzing the nature of the discrimination against them (p. 7; emphases in original text).
Accordingly, Wing (1997) used the term multiplicative identity to capture the identity of
women of color: The actuality of our layered experience is multiplicative. Multiply each of
Sometimes worded as Arnt I a woman? (See Gilbert 1998[1850], Narrative of Sojourner Truth.).
Painter has argued that convention secretary Marius Robinsons records of Truths speech is closer to
Truths actual wording, which does not record any statements of Arnt/Aint I a woman?, than to Harriet
Beecher Stowe and Frances Dana Gages account written 12 years after the convention.
Intersectional Criminology 307
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my parts together, 1 9 1 9 1 9 1 9 1, and you have one indivisible being. If you divide
one of these parts from one you still have one (p. 31, emphases in original text). Further,
regarding Black women, Wing wrote, I am asserting that the experience of black women
must be seen as a multiplicative, multilayered, indivisible whole, symbolized by the equation
one times one, not one plus one (p. 32, emphasis in original text).
In sum, Black feminist theory is the theoretical perspective that places the lived
experiences of Black women, including any forms of resistance to their situations, at the
center of the analysis, considering her as an individual encompassing numerous and
interwoven identities including, but not limited to, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity,
nationality, religiosity, and socioeconomic class. The standpoint is that Black women are
typically oppressed within both the Black community and society-at-large based on their
subordinated statuses within each of these areas of classication, and that research on
Black women should be conducted based on this perspective. Though originating with a
focus on Black womens experiences, many other women of color throughout the globe t
within this characterization. And, further, a review of feminist theorizing and activism by
other women of color over the past few decades demonstrates intersectional views like
those proffered by Black feminists (for example see Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1983; Garc a
1997; Moraga and Anzaldua 2002; Roth 2004; Wing 2003). A review of the literature
related to this concept yields a variety of terms utilized to describe the experiences of
women of color based in multiple interlocked identities, but we now collectively refer to
this idea as intersectionality.
Dening Intersectionality
In her 1989 legal article Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black
Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Poli-
tics, Crenshaw provides examples of U.S. court cases where judges denied the multi-
plicative identity of Black women, refusing that claims could be made based on race
discrimination and sex discrimination. Effectively, the courts argued that Black women
could not demonstrate that these individuals were being discriminated against as Black
women. However, Crenshaw illustrates how discrimination by race and gender can occur
Consider an analogy to trafc in an intersection, coming and going in all four
directions. Discrimination, like trafc through an intersection, may ow in one
direction, and it may ow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can
be caused by cars traveling in any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of
them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her
injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. Black women
sometimes experience discrimination in ways similar to white women; sometimes
they share very similar experiences with Black men. Yet often they experience
double-discrimination the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the
basis of race, and on the basis of sex. And, sometimes they experience discrimination
as Black women not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women.
(p. 149)
In Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, Politics, and Violence Against
Women of Color (1991)more frequently cited regarding the concept of intersec-
tionality, especially in criminology, than Crenshaws 1989 articleCrenshaw expands on
the social underpinnings of intersectionality. Crenshaw describes three forms of
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intersectionality: structural, political, and representational. Structural intersectionality
refers to sociostructural elements and institutions that place women of color at a disad-
vantage. Political intersectionality refers to women of color feminists straddling the
feminist agenda and the antiracist agenda, and struggling to get the voices of women of
color heard and their experiences incorporated into the agendas. Representational inter-
sectionality considers the images of women of color and how the intersections of women of
color are not critically interrogated based on image production of women of color by
Although, as critical race theorist Devon W. Carbado (2013) relays, the genesis of
intersectionality in Black feminist theory limits the ability of some scholars both to
imagine the potential domains to which intersectionality might travel and to see the theory
in places in which it is already doing work (p. 815), intersectionality, as based in
Crenshaws (1989, 1991) conceptualization, has since been adopted in many disciplines
(Cho et al. 2013). A special issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society edited
by Sumi Cho, Crenshaw, and Leslie McCallIntersectionality: Theorizing Power,
Empowering Theory (2013, volume 38, issue 4)provides a timely assessment and
improved understanding about intersectionality. Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall conclude that
intersectionality was introduced as a heuristic term to focus attention on the vexed
dynamics of difference and the solidarities of sameness in the context of antidiscrimination
and social movement politics. It exposed how single-axis thinking undermines legal
thinking, disciplinary knowledge production, and struggles for social justice (p. 787;
emphasis added).
Although Crenshaw (1991) gave credence to the intersecting workings of race and
gender, she did not explicitly address how sexuality, nationality, and class, among other
identities, further compound ones experiences; however, she does state that the concept of
intersectionality can and should be expanded by factoring in [these] issues (p. 1245,
footnote 9). Addressing the misreading of and rampant debate surrounding her original
articles, Crenshaw (2011) recently explicated that because we all exist within the matrix
of power, intersectionality is applicable to all individuals, concluding, Intersectionality
represents a structural and dynamic arrangement; power marks these relationships among
and between categories of experience that vary in their complexity (p. 230). Regardless of
the term used to describe the deployment of intersectionality concepts, Cho, Crenshaw, and
McCall argue that what makes an analysis intersectionalis its adoption of an inter-
sectional way of thinking about the problem of sameness and difference and its relation to
power (p. 795), thus underscoring what intersectionality does rather than what it is.
Furthermore, Davis (2008) argues that it is not necessary that scholarship based in inter-
sectionality be provided with written-in-stone guidelines, but serves to [stimulate] our
creativity in looking for new and often unorthodox ways of doing feminist analysis (p.
79). And just like the intersecting nature of the concept, Swedish feminist Nina Lykke
(2011) echoes that there is no xed denition for intersectionality, but that it is a broad,
open-ended and inclusive conceptual tool for feminist analysis (p. 209; see also Cho et al.
Applications of Intersectionality in Criminology
Variations of intersectionality have been employed for at least the past two decades in the
social science research generally, and particularly in sociological, feminist, and gender
scholarship. Social science criminologistsespecially feminist criminologistshave also
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incorporated intersectional theoretical analyses to their research, though not as long and as
expansive as other social scientists. As noted earlier, a variety of names have been used to
describe the intersectional approach in addressing how interconnected identities affect the
lived experiences of individuals. Similarly, criminological research that is sensitive to an
intersectional approach has not always been referred to as intersectionality, particularly in
earlier works. Accordingly, the research to be emphasized in this section is that done in the
spirit of intersectionality, even if the criminologists did not refer to their conceptualization
using the term.
Criminologist Christy A. Visher (1983) provided one of the earliest applications of an
intersectional approach in criminology with her article Gender, Police Arrest Decisions,
and Notions of Chivalry. In analyzing data from 1977, Visher not only sought out to learn
the differential impact of arrests of Black women and girls, but also was acutely aware of
the unique experiences and stereotypes of Black females that affected their propensity for
arrest. Although she does not explicitly reference Black feminist theory in explaining the
Black womans plight, Visher is mindful that the experiences of Black females in the
criminal legal system are likely to be different than the experiences of Black males and
White females. Visher determined that women and girls who violate typical middle-class
standards of traditional female characteristics and behaviors (i.e., white, older, and sub-
missive) are not afforded any chivalrous treatment during arrest decisions (pp. 2223).
That is, young, black, hostile women were not provided the same protections as older,
White women.
Although Vishers article appeared three decades ago in Criminology, the journal that is
deemed by some standards to be the top journal in the eld of criminology, it is bewil-
dering that many criminologists still do not hypothesize and theorize that arrests and other
criminal legal system procedures may differ across race and gender due to the social
construction of racial and gender identities. Nevertheless, a strong collective of critical and
feminist criminologists have made attempts to bring the impact of intersecting identities in
criminology to the fore. Although still fairly marginalized in relation to other theoretical
observations, the work of criminologists who have incorporated an intersectional analysis
is becoming more widely disseminated and recognized. Some of the most recognized work
in this area is that conducted on the lives of Black women in the United States. A selection
of these works will be reviewed in this section.
Utilizing a feminist and intersectionality perspective, Regina Arnold (1990) considered
the social forces of patriarchy, racism, and economic marginality that lead some Black girls
and women to engage in activities deemed criminal or delinquent. In her study of 50 Black
women in a city jail and 10 Black women in a state prison, Arnold discovered that gender-
and class-based oppression, along with criminal legal system ofcials blaming the women
for their own victimization, was a pattern among the women she interviewed. This
criminalization, while the women were young girls, was exacerbated by the womens
structural dislocation from their families and their schools during their formative years.
The womens young lives were beleaguered with sexual abuse and other physical abuse,
poverty, and inadequate educational experiences. This dislocation and lack of a stable
familial alternative propelled the women into deviant and delinquent behaviors early in
their lives, such as running away from home, thievery, and truancy. Criminal labels were
applied to these women from their youth through adulthood.
As the women in Arnolds study continued engaging in criminal activity when they
became adults, addiction to drugs became another obstacle to overcome. To be young,
Black, poor, and female is to be in a high-risk category for victimization and stigmatization
on many levels (p. 156). When Arnold asked the women to complete the statement
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Crime is, the women employed racialized comments and shared that they had not
been prepared to participate in anything else. For instance, Arnolds informants indicated
that crime is black peoples support, if theyre not working for a living and the ultimate
source of survival in the world of those who are black (pp. 161162). These enlightening
statements demonstrate the potency of race, socioeconomic status, and other identifying
factors in the womens lives.
In Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women (1996),
Black feminist criminologist Beth E. Richie also examined the circumstances that lead
women to engage in criminal activity. Like the existing studies on women who engage in
criminal activity at the time Richie conducted the research for Compelled to Crime (in
1991 and 1992), studies on abused women had predominantly been trained on the expe-
riences of White women. To address this gap in the research, Richie, who had long worked
as a feminist activist in the antiviolence movement, collected the life histories of 26
battered Black women, ve non-battered Black women, and six battered White women. All
of these women were detained at the Rikers Island jail in New York City at the time they
were interviewed.
In not solely viewing the gender of the informants of her study, Richie found that
racism, poverty, inaccessibility to human services programs, and aggressive crime policies
compounded the womens lives and situations, ultimately steering them to participate in
criminal or criminalized activities. Referring to this conceptualization as gender
entrapment, Richie explains that this gender entrapment is the socially constructed
process whereby African American women who are vulnerable to mens violence in their
intimate relationship are penalized for behaviors they engage in even when the behaviors
are logical extensions of their racialized gender identities, their culturally expected gender
roles, and the violence in their intimate relationships (p. 4). Further, Richie identied six
stigmatized identities among the women who experienced gender entrapment. These
identities comprised being women, being Black women, being low-income women, being
battered women, being criminals, and being incarcerated women. Linking these stigmas,
Richie concludes, The African American battered women who are in jails for crimes that
resulted from gender entrapment are among the most stigmatized group in contemporary
society (p. 161).
The research detailed in my book Battle Cries: Black Women and Intimate Partner
Abuse (2008) was conducted to expand upon Richies Compelled to Crime. I enlisted a
cross-section of heterosexual Black women (living in the United States) by class and
education level who had been in abusive intimate relationships, and it was not necessary
for the informants to have involvement with the criminal legal system, either as offenders
or as victims. The study emphasized how Black womens identities impact their responses
to intimate partner abuse and how others respond to Black women subjected to intimate
partner abuse.
Regarding common terms used in criminology and the criminal legal system, such as
offender and victim, the 40 informants of my study did not readily embrace the terms even
though they were certainly victimized and some of them were arrested for physically
retaliating against their abusers. Never viewing themselves as passive, because of their
propensity to ght back most of the time and because of their self-identication as a
strong Black woman, the women were unable to see themselves as victims, and being a
battered woman was not part of their identity. In addition, in using violence to respond
to the violence committed on them by their boyfriends and husbands, the women did not
view themselves as engaging in masculine behaviors; they simply believed themselves to
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be responsible for protecting themselves, their children, and their property, as they felt they
were left to ght their battles without assistance from others.
Although the term survivors is an accurate way to describe women who endure, and
live through, intimate partner violence, I concluded that because battered Black women
continue to confront racial, class-based, and other struggles, such as the need to avoid
entering subsequent abusive relationships, the use of the term survivor assumes that their
struggles have concluded (p. 191). Here is where I employ the term resisters to focus
on the womens fervent responses to abuse and utilize what I call dynamic resistance to
capture the womens distinctive life-chances, inuenced by race, gender, sexuality, class,
violence, abuse, and other characteristics, and their dynamic responses to these life-
chances (p. 191). Many Black women, regardless if they have been subjected to intimate
partner abuse, are resisters of racism, colorism, sexism, heterosexism, and sexualization
in the Black community and in general U.S. society which solidies their identity as
strong Black women (p. 191). This is not to degrade the grievous offense of abuse against
Black women and girls, but to demonstrate that an (intersecting) identity differentially
situates women (and men) in society, thus resulting in varied and unique experiences with
In Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence (2010),
Black feminist criminologist Nikki Jonessimilar to Arnold (1990) two decades earlier
provides an exploration, rich description, and explanation of inner-city Black girls man-
agement of the transgressions they encounter in their homes, schools, and neighborhoods.
The violence and resultant street justice (Anderson 1999; Jones 2010) that is often
inescapable in many distressed inner cities across the United States is not solely directed at
and experienced by boys and men; girls and women also live within these spaces and are
confronted with multiple oppressive, abusive, and violent circumstances. Further, girls and
women navigating in these multifarious violent environments are faced with complex and
conicting expectations for expressing their intersecting identities. Joness treatise adds to
the small body of criminological research that has explicitly considered Black womens
identity, particularly the salience of the strong Black woman maxim. Again, to simply
have a sample of Black women in a study and to only mention their gender and race in a
descriptive manner, but to not critically incorporate the social effects of Black womens
identity is not likely to result in an exhaustive exploration.
Joness study involved conducting a 3-year ethnography in Philadelphia that included
participant observation in a healthcare-initiated violence reduction program and in-depth
interviews with youth she met in the program. Jones strongly situates her examination of
Black girls responses to and use of violence within a Black feminist and an intersectional
context, sure to include obligatory gender performance of girls and women in the United
States. Jones declares:
The intersection of gender, race, and class further complicates the degree to which
girls measure up to gender expectations. African American, inner-city girls in the
United States are evaluated not only in light of mainstream gender expectations but
also by the standards of Black respectability: the set of expectations governing how
Black women and girls ought to behave. (p. 8)
In what Jones refers to as situated survival strategies, the girls in Joness study
adapted to their environments by delicately balancing unrealistic physical and behavioral
expectations of the good African American girland the behavioral expectations of the
code [of the street], which encourages the adoption of aggressive postures or behaviors that
are typically expected of boys and men (p. 53). In inner-city settings such as the one
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where Jones conducted her research, it is important even for the good or pretty girls
who attempt normative feminine displays to be identied as one who is willing and able to
ght. Indeed, Jones reminds us, Violence is generally considered femininitys polar
opposite (p. 76); however, as demonstrated by the girls narratives, [s]ometimes you got
to ght (p. 7). The girls lives were compounded by racialized, gendered, and classed
canons, leaving Jones to conclude that this negotiation of overlapping and, at times,
contradictory survival and gender projects emerges new forms of femininity that encourage
and even allow girls to use physical aggression when appropriate without sacricing any
and all claims to a respectable feminine identity (p. 155).
In her book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and Americas Prison Nation
(2012), Richie continues in her tradition to communicate important intersectional con-
ceptualization that should be considered in criminological research. As with Compelled to
Crime (1996), in Arrested Justice Richie incorporates the interlocking forms of oppression
and violence that Black women encounter. Two major contributions of this recent work are
the critical assessment of the outcomes of the violence-against-women movement in the
United States and the male violence matrix.
Richie details and revamps the history of the political implications of the movement to
combat violence against women in the United States. Richie transports us from the
grassroots feminist anti-violence movement to the mainstream acceptance of government-
based efforts to combat violence against women. Richie outlines this development in eight
stages, starting with the 1960s activism and self-help by women personally affected by
male violence and ending with great public awareness and the institutionalization of efforts
to combat male violence toward women. The public discourse that ensued was that every
woman has the potential to become a victim of male violence. Making this argument aided
in neo-liberal and conservative action for implementing policies to broadly address vio-
lence against women, including the initial enactment of the U.S. Violence Against Women
Act in 1994.
Contrary to the intentions of making women safer with the institutionalization of
intervention services for women victims of male violence, Richie argues that the conser-
vative and governmental co-opting of the anti-violence movements advocacy failed to
benet all women. She concludes: We won the mainstream but lost the movement (p.
97). Even though violence came to be thought of (in general public discourse) as a problem
that could affect any woman (the everywoman analysis), Richie asserts that women of
color and poor women remained obscure. The representation of this everywoman
became that of a white, middle-class woman who can turn to a counselor, a doctor, a
police ofcer, or a lawyer to protect her from abuse (p. 92), and this everywoman was the
emphasis in research investigations, social and legal support procedures, and public
advertising campaigns. In effect, Black women and other women of color were outside the
purview of the innocent or true victim.
Richies male violence matrix aids in understanding how the unique social position of
Black girls and women factors into male violence toward Black girls and women and
highlights the intersectional relationship between male violence and ideology around
race, gender, sexuality, and class (p. 132). The matrix, comprising nine cells, demon-
strates how physical assault, sexual assault, and emotional manipulation occur within the
milieux of intimate households, the community, and the State.
The common pattern strewn throughout my research (2006, 2008) and the research
conducted by Arnold (1990), Richie (1996, 2012), and Jones (2010) is the way in which
Black girls and women utilize a variety of tactics to survive the violence and abuse they
encounter, while simultaneously faced with many other forms of oppressions and
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conicting gendered and raced social expectations. These investigations are representative
of an intersectionality approach to criminology. Evidenced throughout our works are the
interlaced impacts of race, gender, femininity/masculinity ideals, sexuality, and socio-
economic class. Additionally, we situate the lives of the Black girls and women in our
studies within an historical context. Black women in the United States have had to endure
multiple forms of oppression since the start of the slave trade and colonialism. Although
some of the responses by Black women to exploitation and abuse have changed over the
past four centuries, contemporary intersectional research, theorizing, and activism dem-
onstrates that Black women and girls continue to utilize so-called unconventional methods
to survive their circumstances. Indicative of these long-fought battles of the Black female
in the United States is Joness conclusion about the experiences of the teenaged girls in her
study who were no less concerned with survival than were strong Black women and girls
in earlier periods. However, in todays inner city, where poverty is deeply entrenched, and
the culture of the code organizes much of social life, what a girl believes she has to do to
survive has changed (p. 153).
Intersectionality theory is strongly tied to real-world activism. The social justice work
of many activist groups is steeped in intersectionality (Chun et al. 2013; INCITE! Women
of Color Against Violence 2006; Tomlinson 2013). And many scholars utilizing inter-
sectionality in their research design and/or theoretical development are solidly embedded
in effecting change in communities. Over two decades ago, Arnold (1990) provided a
prolic summary of the necessary goal for connecting theory and research with policy
change: If we are to witness a drop in the numbers of imprisoned women, legislators and
policymakers need to reevaluate what happens to young girls who are victimized by
gender, class, and race, and stop blaming the victim by processing and labeling her as
deviant and/or criminal (p. 163). Intersectional investigations on Black girls and women
involved in criminal activity as offenders or victims indicate that it is more useful to center
on their lives and not view them through deviant, delinquent, or criminal lenses.
While the studies reviewed here focus on Black girls and womens experiences with
and responses to violence, other criminological studies have also demonstrated the
importance of incorporating intersectionality. Cherokee feminist scholar and activist
Andrea Smith (2005) considered sexual violence and state violence against Native women.
Hoan Bui (2004) and Roberta Villalon (2010) incorporated immigration into the inter-
connecting identities of women of color in their investigations of intimate partner violence
and compounding legal factors, providing examinations of women who immigrated to the
United States from Vietnam and Latin America. Other research has investigated women
who have participated in criminal activities, but, as is often found in feminist crimino-
logical research, interpersonal abuse and state abuse against offending women persists
as a major factor in the womens lives. For instance, Juanita Diaz-Cotto (2006) details the
impact of draconian and increasingly punitive U.S. drug laws and policies on the lives of
heroin-addicted Latinas and their families and communities.
Because intersectionality theory is based in Black feminist theory (and, by extension,
women of color and multicultural feminist theories), certainly, it has been natural that a
signicant amount of the criminological research conducted on women of color by feminist
criminologists employs an intersectional approach, such as that detailed above. However,
as summarized above in the development of intersectionality theory in the social sciences
generally, many scholars argue that this standpoint can be applied beyond those who are
situated within oppressed or subordinated identities. As follows, because of intersection-
alitys strong emphasis on the social construction and ensuing differential treatment of
individuals, from this viewpoint, intersectionality can be seen in criminological research on
314 H. Potter
1 3
those positioned at the pinnacle of societal hierarchies. In this vein, intersectionality can be
seen in the work of James W. Messerschmidt (1993, 1997). In his consideration of boys
who participate in criminal activities, Messerschmidt (1993) has been mindful that
[b]oys will be boys differently, depending upon their position in social structures and,
therefore, upon their access to power and resources. Collectively, young men experience
their daily world from a particular position in society and differentially construct the
cultural ideals of hegemonic masculinity (pp. 8788; emphasis added). Further, Mess-
erschmidts applications include the impact of role expectations surrounding masculinity
and sexuality for males. Although White women face subordination and degradation
because of their sex/gender identity, their racial identity typically provides them with
privilege over that of women of color (and men of color, in some circumstances). As with
males of any race, however, White womens criminal activity or victimization can also be
considered within an intersectionality framework. This can be seen in my work on White
women subjected to intimate partner abuse by men of color (Potter and Thomas 2012).
Social scientists attention to the effect of intersecting identities and oppression on lived
experiences is not a new phenomenon. Intersectionality theory is rooted in women of color
feminist theory and activism developed in the United States. In particular, Black feminist
theory is the major strain of feminist theory that led to the intersectionality approach
(Alexander-Floyd 2012; Crenshaw 1991; Nash 2008; Tomlinson 2013). The (relatively)
new push is to get scholarsspecically, criminologists, in the case of this articleto
recognize the salient effects of these intersections. Feminist criminologist Kathleen Daly
(2010) declares that even though there have been a few attempts at applying intersec-
tionality in criminological research, intersectional analyses are more an aspiration for the
future than a research practice today (p. 237). Nevertheless, there is evidence that
intersectional approaches are increasingly being deployed in criminological research. In
crime-based studies, feminist researchers have been at the forefront of incorporating an
intersectional approach in their investigations. Since this approach is situated in feminist
thought, it has been natural for many feminist criminologists to reject essentialism and
embrace the importance of interlocked identities and diverse experiences. However, as
Crenshaw (2011) recently opined, the role of black women [in the development of in-
tersectionality] has sometimes troubled those seeking to grow intersectionality beyond its
discursive origins (p. 224). As the buzz about intersectionality continues to ourish, it is
time for intersectional criminology to be taken seriously and more broadly incorporated
within the academic discipline of criminology.
While there are many studies in criminology that include a diverse population based on
the common identities considered in the social sciences, most of these studies do not take
care to factor in the social consequences of the varying identities. Even some research
conducted by feminists is not mindful that, for instance, a Black womans involvement
with crime may be different from a White womans involvement with crime, both of which
may be different than a Latina womans involvement with crime. Employing an inter-
sectional analysis in research does not simply involve assuring a diverse study sample has
been arranged, as there are many criminological studies that are sufciently representative
of the general population (although improvement is still needed in this area, especially in
assuring individuals identied as other than Black/African American or White/Caucasian
are included in the sample). Intersectionality theory can also be applied with a sample of
Intersectional Criminology 315
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individuals who belong to the same racial and sex/gender group (for example, a study
investigating Asian-American mens experiences as victims of violence, where only
individuals who identify as Asian-American men participate in the study). An intersec-
tional analysis involves a critical analysis of the experiences of individuals or groups based
on their social positions. Under these conditions, it is important that regardless of the
makeup of the samplewhether considering one group representing similar identities or
multiple groups of varying identitiesor the research design (qualitative, quantitative, and
so on), it is imperative to assess the salience of identities and statuses of these individuals
and groups in relation to their experiences with crime, the social control of crime, and any
crime-related issues.
As argued by Crenshaw (2011), the indication by some observers that intersectionality
is simply a buzzwordthat is, a term or concept that is currently in vogue but is fated to
have a short lifeis a misrepresentation. Deeming intersectionality as a passing fad does
not recognize that women of color feminists and others have been conducting academic
analyses under a similar framework for many years. Further, as Crenshaw argues, char-
acterizing intersectionality as a buzzword does not do justice to the academics and
activists who use intersectionality to illuminate and address discriminatory situations that
would otherwise escape articulation (p. 233). Aside from much of the work done by
critical and feminist criminologists, I believe the general eld of criminology has too often
and for too long ignored or disregarded the importance of power dynamics in socially
constructed identities and how they effect or are affected by crime, criminality, and formal
sanctioning of acts deemed criminal. Instead of keeping such revered theorizing to our-
selves (that is, only feminists theorizing only about women of color), and since there has
already been some necessary, though still small, movement toward employing intersec-
tionality theory on others experiences, I encourage and welcome its expanded use in all
forms of inquiry and most certainly in any form of criminology that designates itself as
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