Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House

Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House

Berkeley Women’s Law Journal [now Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice]
Volume 10 (1995)
pages 16-30

Trina Grillo (1948-1996), Professor of Law
University of San Francisco

I am pleased to be here today to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Berkeley Women’s Law Journal (“BWLJ”). From its inception, the BWLJ has devoted itself to giving voice to underrepresented women and has continued this mission even through difficult times. In preparing for this talk I reviewed a number of past volumes of this journal. I was impressed with how often articles published in the BWLJ foreshadowed controversies that were later discussed in more traditional journals.

I want to begin my talk with a quote from the late poet Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” was asked to speak today about anti-essentialism and intersectionality. I am glad to do so, for I believe both concepts are indispensable tools for dismantling the master’s house. I will begin by briefly describing these concepts to you. I will suggest that it is time to turn inward, to use the tools of intersectionality and anti-essentialism to guide our own academic, political, and spiritual work, and I will give you a few examples of how we might do so.

My thesis today is that sometimes the governing paradigms which have structured all of our lives are so powerful that we can think we are doing progressive work, dismantling the structures of racism and other oppressions, when in fact we are reinforcing the paradigms. These paradigms are so powerful that sometimes we find ourselves unable to talk at all, even or especially about those things closest to our hearts. When I am faced with such uncertainty and find myself unable to speak, anti-essentialism and intersectionality are to me like life preservers. They give me a chance to catch my breath as the waves come crashing over me and they help me sort through my own confusion about what work I should be doing and how I should be doing it.

The basis of intersectionality and anti-essentialism is this:

Each of us in the world sits at the intersection of many categories: She is Latina, woman, short, mother, lesbian, daughter, brown-eyed, long-haired, quick-witted, short-tempered, worker, stubborn. At any one moment in time and in space, some of these categories are central to her being and her ability to act in the world. Others matter not at all. Some categories, such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, are important most of the time. Others are rarely important. When something or someone highlights one of her categories and brings it to the fore, she may be a dominant person, an oppressor of others. Other times, even most of the time, she may be oppressed herself. She may take lessons she has learned while in a subordinated status and apply them for good or ill when her dominant categories are highlighted. For example, having been mistreated as a child, she may be either a carefully respectful or an abusive parent.

I am going to talk now about intersectionality and anti-essentialism and will begin by talking about them separately. I believe these two concepts embody what is essentially the same critique, but made from two different starting points. For simplicity’s sake, as I continue I am often going to talk about them together.


Above, I described a single, whole woman. Yet if we turn the traditional tools of legal analysis upon this woman, we find she is someone entirely different. She is fragmented, capable of being only one thing at a time. For example, under a traditional legal approach, when her situation is analyzed as a woman, it is not analyzed as a Latina. She is a mother or a worker, but never both at the same time. Her characteristics are not connected one to the other, instead, they exist separately, suspended in time and space. This fragmenting of identity by legal analysis, a fragmenting entirely at odds with the concrete life of this woman, is the subject of the intersectionality critique.

The intersectionality critique is described succinctly in the title of a book on Black women’s studies: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. Kimberlé Crenshaw explodes the discussion of race and gender discrimination in her work on intersectionality. She notes that women of color stand at the intersection of the categories of race and gender, and that their experiences are not simply that of racial oppression plus gender oppression. One case she uses for her analysis says it all: When a group of Black women faced discrimination, they were held to have no legal cause of action because neither white women nor Black men were discriminated against in the same way. Therefore, they were recognized as victims of neither race nor gender discrimination. Makes perfect sense. And, of course, you have all seen the many newspaper articles talking about the progress of “women and Blacks”; Black women are completely lost in this description…


Essentialism is the notion that there is a single woman’s, or Black person’s, or any other group’s, experience that can be described independently from other aspects of the person—that there is an “essence” to that experience. An essentialist outlook assumes that the experience of being a member of the group under discussion is a stable one, one with a clear meaning, a meaning constant through time, space, and different historical, social, political, and personal contexts…


Now that I have summarized the anti-essentialism and intersectionality critiques of feminist legal theory, I want to talk about at least three lessons they bring to our own work.

Lesson One

The anti-essentialism and intersectionality critiques teach us to look carefully at what is in front of our faces. When things are being described in ways contrary to our sensory experiences, we must pay particular attention. We must look at the evidence of our bodies, and we must believe what our bodies tell us. They teach us to check for the deep, internal discomfort we feel when something is being stated as gospel but does not match our truth. Then they teach us how to spin that feeling out, to analyze it, to accept that it is true but to be able to show why that is so. They also teach us to be brave.

My father was born in Tampa, Florida of Cuban Black parents. Much of his life was spent firmly claiming his place among American Blacks. My mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants. I was born in 1948 and soon thereafter moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. There were four children in my family. At times it seemed to me that we were half the biracial population of the Bay Area. We were stared at wherever we went, although it took me awhile, probably until I was five, to realize that the stares were not always ones of admiration. Of course, we did not define ourselves as biracial then. Instead, we were considered, and considered ourselves, Black, or Negro as we then said. Still, our skin color and our parents’ interracial marriage were always causes for comment. My race and my skin color have been issues that have preoccupied me for a good part of my life, and I see little prospect of this changing anytime soon.

When I began teaching at Hastings Law School in 1977, I knew that I wanted to write about multiraciality. I did a little research, and proceeded to write nothing. At that time there was little interest in the popular culture in that subject, and virtually nothing in the legal literature, so it is easy to see why I gave up on my project. Multiraciality did not seem to matter to anyone but me.

But now I cannot turn on “Oprah” without seeing a segment on multiraciality, right in between the shows on incest and the shows on weight loss. There is a movement (I think a misguided one in the particular form it takes) on the part of some people of mixed race to have a separate census category. We are everywhere, in numbers hard to ignore. But one thing has not changed. No one knows how to talk about us.

I looked at two newspapers yesterday, and saw the racial descriptions of the jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial. One paper said there were “eight Blacks, one Anglo, one Hispanic and two persons of mixed race.”  The other paper said there were eight Blacks, two Hispanics, one Anglo, and one person who identified himself as half white and half American Indian. There were four items about each juror described in the paper: gender, age, occupation, and racial background. From a more complete description of the racial backgrounds of the jurors, I found out that one of the Hispanics was a Hispanic/Black, classified as mixed race by one paper and as Hispanic by another. Interestingly, neither paper classified this juror as Black, although that would be my “first” classification of myself.

So we have no stable conventions for describing multiracial persons, at least none that match what we perceive to be reality. However, that someone is of mixed race is a fact now being noted and thought to be of enough importance to be mentioned separately in a news story.

There have also been hundreds of articles and a number of books on multiraciality written in the past five years. This is an important topic to me, one that affects my life, and the lives of my children every single day. Still, seventeen years after I first decided to write in this area, I am silent. My one, feeble attempt to write about issues of multiraciality was abandoned the first time my tentative musings (which, now that I think of it, were actually put to paper by one of my co-authors, such was (my state of paralysis) were criticized. And I am not alone; I have talked to two multiracial colleagues who have described to me similar experiences.

I explained yesterday to my friend Catharine Wells that I had abandoned my original plan to talk a little bit today about multiraciality. “It is too much,” I said, “to describe anti-essentialism and intersectionality and also get into this other complicated terrain. I feel so unsure about what I think anyway. Besides, there really just isn’t time. They only gave me an hour.” She saw right through my excuses, and convinced me that I would be lacking in courage if I spoke about intersectionality and anti-essentialism and yet was unwilling to speak about the place in my life where these concepts have the most meaning. She also convinced me that my example is a good one for showing the silencing effect of essentialism and the role that an intersectional, anti-essentialist analysis can have in permitting us to talk. She told me that it would be enough to just tell you about the problems I am having figuring this out and that I didn’t have to provide you with any conclusions.

To begin with, we must fully understand that race is not a biological concept, but a social and historical construct. The reason that I grew up considering myself, as we then said, Negro, is that a racist system described me in that way. Most Blacks in the United States are persons of “mixed blood,” if such a thing can be said to exist, and have both white and Black ancestors. If there were such as thing as a biological white, I would be at least half that, and so would many other Blacks. However, the fact that race is an historical and social construct certainly does not mean that it does not exist. Experiences, histories, and communities have all developed around this concept; so if we abandon race, we abandon communities that may have been initially formed as a result of racism but have become something else entirely.

All the scientific literature says that biological races do not exist. Instead, races were created as a mechanism for the oppression of certain groups of people. But once created, they remain. We are then left with these questions: How should we regard people of mixed race? How is it possible to take our experiences seriously without having them turned into a means of separating ourselves from other Blacks or into a means of ranking people of color, with those of mixed race given more power than  other Blacks? (I should say that my focus is on mixtures which include Black because that is the experience with which I am familiar; because the history is different, the issues are surely different for persons of mixed race who are, for example, Asian and white).

If we accept the definition of Black which we have been given—a definition which historically defined anyone with “one drop of Black blood” as Black—we ignore the existence of multiracial people. We ignore people whose experiences may be different from those experiences which have been defined as constituting the Black experience—that is, the “essentialized” Black experience. By so essentializing, we assume that the taxonomy of race proposed by nineteenth-century white supremacists—that human beings can be classified into four races and everyone fits neatly into one slot—is a valid one. On the other hand, if we do classify multiracial people as Black, the potential for group solidarity is much greater. “We are all Black,” we say. “You cannot divide us.”

The move for a “multiracial” category, both on census and other forms, and in terms of how we talk in daily life, is in part an attempt to recognize what is in fact the case—that some people have parents of two races, that even people who have parents of the same race may have other ancestors of a different race. A multiracial category would permit children to claim a racial relationship to both, or all, their parents, rather than being forced to choose. Moreover, even though over the years many Black leaders have been biracial, today some multiracial people, especially those with very light skin or who have been raised only by a white parent, may not feel completely comfortable or accepted in Black groups.

But the move to define people as multiracial has serious risks. How would we distinguish between those who are multiracial because they have one white parent, such as myself, and the general Black population of the United States, many of whom in one way or another have a similar amount of white ancestry? Why would we want to make such a distinction? Echoes of the way people in “colored” categories have been used in other countries—as mediators, enforcers, the secret police—make many Blacks fear that the multiracial movement has to do with establishing a higher category in the social hierarchy for multiracial people than for Blacks. There is a fear that multiracial people want to “get out of” being Black, that it is a new form of passing. The history in this country of colorism—the discrimination even within communities of color against those with darker skins—makes the attempt by multiracial persons to leave the Black category more stinging still.

The multiracial movement is not helped by the fact that some of those pressing most vigorously for a multiracial category are the white mothers of children whose fathers are Black. I went to a conference on multiraciality a few years ago that included time for discussion in small groups. There were a number of white mothers of biracial children in my group. The refrain I heard from these mothers was this: “My child is not Black. My child is golden.” So it is not simply because of paranoia that some members of the multiracial movement are perceived as wanting to dissociate from Blacks. (Other members of the movement, of course, have a completely different set of motivations.) We have to acknowledge that if we count people as mixed race rather than Black when the census is taken, it is going to mean that social services to Black communities will be decreased even further than they have been already.

What does anti-essentialism teach about this situation? Does it help me struggle with my dilemma? Perhaps. The confusion that a biracial child feels does not derive from being classified as Black, but from essentialist notions that being Black is one particular experience, and that this experience is not hers or his. Take for example a family, my family in fact, where one child appears so essentially “Black” that he sees no reason to look further for an identification, and the other is so fair, and so blond, that identity issues for her are a constant struggle. Some of her Black friends are bothered if she presumes to call herself Black and suspicious if she does not. Given the history, this is a perfectly coherent reaction on their part, but it is a hard one for her to deal with. Of course, multiracial people will try to find a place to call home if they cannot be at home being Black.

At the conference I previously mentioned, a Black man chastised those in the group pressing for a multiracial designation. “Black,” he said in a booming voice, opening his arms wide, “is the ocean into which all rivers flow.”

I wonder if it is possible for that to be true. Is it possible to create a Black-identified biracial identity? Can one be biracial or multiracial and also be Black? Or is the historical freight still too great for that to be possible? One thing I am sure of: The fact that a person is biracial is an important piece of who she is. It is something I would find of interest if I were reading her work or listening to her speak. We need a way to say that, a way which does not compromise the community of Black people…

Read the entire article here.

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