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27 June 2016

Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality: why intersectionality of power relations matters

Dr Benita Moolman - Senior Research Specialist, Human and Social Development, HSRC Dr Olga Bialostocka - Research Specialist, Africa Institute of South Africa, HSRC
Press Release

Our South African laws institutionalised the idea of race. Because of this past, we have been using race to declare who is in or who is out, to pit one group against the other. In addition to skin colour, ethnicity, language, culture, or religion can also be used to reinforce differences between groups. In this way, we speak of multiple forms of racisms. How we see and understand our position and role in society, how we are socialised, the language we use, the places we frequent, where we study, the way our bodies are perceived are all subconsciously informed by these filters of skin colour, ethnicity, religion and so on. They will also often demonstrate the prejudice within our attitudes and can be expressions of racism(s) we perpetuate.

Racism is fundamentally bound together with global structures of power that coalesce in the ‘capitalist/patriarchal/Western-centric/Christian-centric/modern/colonial world system’ to produce class, gender and sexual inequalities along a particular racial hierarchy. Race cuts across all other power relations. Thus, gender, class and sexual oppression will be experienced differently depending on the body being racialised. For instance, economic inequalities in South Africa have divided the society into ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ and created fault lines which, because of the racialised history of dividing people into groups, take on a racial character. Generally, the privileged ‘haves’ live in particular places (affluent suburbs) and prosper, enjoying material wealth while being provided with opportunities to amass even more of it (land, income, etc.). The ‘have nots’, meanwhile, structurally subjected to racial oppression, live in townships, informal settlements and segregated communities, earn low wages or struggle to find employment at all, and endure high levels of violence. These racialized communities have vastly different living conditions and access to health care, education, housing and social protection. We see these differences and their effects in our matric pass rates at the end of the year, the use of public transport, in violence in informal settlements, access to tertiary education and in the service delivery protests. The changes in the country since 1994 have weakened these fault lines, but their form remains largely the same.These fault lines don’t stop here. Our society is further divided according to social differences such as gender or sexuality, which add another level of inequality to our highly racialised communities. Just last year, the Millennium Development Goals report demonstrated that black women have the least access to secure paying jobs and are excluded from positions of leadership. As a group, black women continue to bear the brunt of violence; domestic violence and sexual violence against black lesbian women being prevalent in townships.

As can be seen, social and economic inequalities are shaped by and through each other. We cannot address one without addressing the other. Racial hierarchies complicate the picture even more, by introducing qualitative difference between how these inequalities are lived – from whiteness, meaning within the space of racial privilege, or from blackness, under racial oppression. We live in a world that foregrounds white, masculine, and heterosexual privilege. This dominant worldview determines whose voice is being heard and what socio-economic problems are given priority. While overt racism, classism and sexism are clearly oppressive and thus easier to combat, it is their subtler, ‘hidden’ forms that continue to pervade our lives. These invisible articulations of power relations, that sometimes feel as if they are imagined, continue to influence our choices when we decide which lives and bodies matter, what knowledge, competence, beauty standards or beliefs and their expressions matter. Our group identity together with the individual aspects of our self, developed through years of different experiences (our dynamic perspectival location and orientation), structure the norms and values by which we live and which further shape our engagements with each other, often hindering the way we navigate our worlds.

Racism cannot be addressed in isolation, for it is structurally bound together with multiple other types of oppression. The way social differences are interconnected means that it is necessary to challenge the social matrix of power and domination in order to achieve economic and political change. We have to be aware of these interconnections and different ways in which racial hierarchies are constructed and be sensitive enough so as to ‘see’ the invisible articulations of intersectional oppressions of gender, class and sexuality. We also need to understand the diverse levels at which racism exists in our society and stop essentialising the many identities that come with group characteristics. Finally, we should understand that social identity is a product of history. Thus, our interpretation of new events in our lives is always affected by our previous experiences. Acknowledging this historical perspective should make us more aware of our biases that may lead to discriminatory attitudes and practices. By recognising the existence of invisible power relations that are being reproduced by our institutions, and subconsciously by ourselves, we stand a chance of challenging ‘white’ mentality and becoming more conscious of our being human in unconditional ways.


Dr Benita Moolman – Senior Research Specialist, Human and Social Development, HSRC

Dr Olga Bialostocka – Research Specialist, Africa Institute of South Africa, HSRC

This is the last of the 4-part HSRC Racism Dialogue Series. Tuesday, 28 June 2016. The HSRC hosts the last-leg in PE at the Summerstrand Hotel.