In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw published Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, an article that drew explicitly on Black feminist criticism, and challenged three prevailing frameworks: 1) the male-centered nature of antiracist politics, which privileged the experiences of heterosexual Black men; 2) the White-centered nature of feminist theorizing, which privileged the experiences of heterosexual White women; and 3) the “single-axis”/sex or race-centered nature of antidiscrimination regimes, which privileged the experiences of heterosexual White women and Black men. Crenshaw demonstrated how people within the same social group (e.g., African Americans) are differentially vulnerable to discrimination as a result of other intersecting axes of disadvantage, such as gender, class, or sexual orientation.
This essay builds on that insight by articulating a performative conceptualization of race. It assumes that a judge is sympathetic to intersectionality and thus recognizes that Black women are often disadvantaged based on the intersection of their race and sex, among other social factors. This essay asks: How is that judge likely to respond to a case in which a firm promotes four Black women but not the fifth? The judge could conclude that there is no discrimination because the firm promoted four people (Black women) with the same intersectional identity as the fifth (a Black woman). We argue that this evidentiary backdrop should not preclude a finding of discrimination. It is plausible that our hypothetical firm utilized racially associated ways of being—performative criteria (self presentation, accent, demeanor, conformity, dress, and hair style)—to differentiate among and between the Black women. The firm might have drawn an intra-group, or intra-intersectional, line between the fifth Black women and the other four based on the view that the fifth Black woman is “too Black.” We describe the ease with which institutions can draw such lines and explain why doing so might constitute impermissible discrimination. Our aim is to broaden the conceptual terms upon which we frame both social categories and discrimination.