Intersecting Identity Politics: How the Oppressed Can Also Be the Oppressor

Updated on January 8, 2018
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Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

What is The Matrix of Domination?

Patricia Hill Collins introduced the Matrix of Domination model in her book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990). The Matrix of Domination model of oppression recognizes that oppression based on different characteristics such as gender, race, and social class are interconnected. The rise of identity politics, such as feminism and the LGBT movement are rooted in marginalized groups fighting back against identity-based oppression and domination.

Hill Collins originally applied her Matrix of Domination model to African American women, but this idea can be easily applied to every other marginalized group that faces oppression. The feminist movement is rooted in the oppression of women, and the LGBT movement is rooted in the oppression of sexual minorities. Issues related to identity-based oppression are much more complex than an individual’s singular identities. The intersection of an individual’s different identities (such as race, gender, and sexual orientation) interact and create different experiences of oppression based on multiple levels, according to Hill Collins (1990). “The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity (Hill Collins, 1990).”

Patricia Hill Collins during a conference in Brazil. Photo by Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil - CCBY3.0
Patricia Hill Collins during a conference in Brazil. Photo by Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil - CCBY3.0 | Source

How the Oppressed Can Also Be the Oppressor

Hill Collins (1990) writes “[d]epending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.” On the surface it can be difficult to understand how an individual can be both oppressed and an oppressor, but by analyzing these interlocking systems of oppression outlined by the Matrix of Domination model, one can see how different characteristics of an individual interplay.

One such group that exemplifies this apparent contradiction of simultaneously being both the oppressor and the oppressed is the Log Cabin Republicans, which is a group made up of gay members of the political party that traditionally opposes equal rights for the LGBT community. This phenomenon seems contradictory at first. How could any gay person support a party that seeks to oppress the LGBT community? To make sense of this, we must look at the other intersecting identities of the members of this group.

According to Rogers & Lott (1997), “Age, race, sex, and social class are as central to a social portrait of the LCRs as is their sexual orientation.” Most the Log Cabin Republicans’ members are white, male, and middle- to upper-middle-class. These other identities inform the individual members’ political leanings just as much, if not more, than does their sexual orientation. Rogers and Lott (1997) go on to say “People like those attracted to the Log Cabin Republicans have considerable privilege in their lives and seem insistent on claiming its full weight.” These individuals are unwilling to give up the power afforded to them by their race, gender, and social class. These other characteristics minimize the oppression they face due to their sexual preferences, causing these individuals to be less invested in changing the status quo. Their reaction to domination of one of their core identities is to cling to their other identities, while rejecting the LGBT movement. This rejection of identity politics allows them to remain in positions of power in society.

Gay white men campaigning for an anti-gay candidate at at Bellingham Pride Festival, July 11, 2016. Photo by Robert Ashworth, CC 2.0
Gay white men campaigning for an anti-gay candidate at at Bellingham Pride Festival, July 11, 2016. Photo by Robert Ashworth, CC 2.0 | Source

Feminism and Intersectionality: Multiple Levels of Oppression

Resistance to change is common amongst oppressed individuals and groups because of the complex intersections of identity politics. Because of the negative stereotypes of feminists created by those in power, many women resist aligning themselves with the feminist movement. The problem with feminism persists, in part, because of the many differing definitions of feminism, as well as the negative stereotypes of women who describe themselves as “feminists.” Feminism can be defined by a wide variety of differing definitions. Certain types of feminism are defined by specific issues, such as abortion or pornography, while other types are concerned with fighting “patriarchy,” (the term “patriarchy” itself has multiple differing definitions.) To compound these issues, those in positions of power attribute negative stereotypes to feminists, such as “feminists lack a sense of humor,” “feminists are anti-family,” or even “feminists are all man-haters and/or lesbians.” Because of the disagreement of what feminism is, and the negative associations attributed to the feminist movement and to feminists, many women resist identifying with feminism (Johnson, 2009).

In addition to the negative associations of feminism created by those in power, a failure by those who describe themselves as feminists to recognize intersecting forms of oppression can also hinder the goals of feminism. “Many women of color are put off by feminism because they associate it with the interests of white middle-class women to the neglect of other classes or races (Johnson, 2009).” According to Kyoo (2012), “intersection enables and disables, allows and hinders, does and undoes: it is a hinge, a point of convergence.” Experiences of gender-based oppression may be much greater for women with other marginalized identities based on race, sexual orientation, or social class. For example, Patricia Hill Collins focused most of her discussion on the Matrix of Domination on African American women, whom, she claims, are one of the most marginalized groups in America. “Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more groups than Black women (Hill Collins, 1990).”

Conclusion

The Matrix of Domination model explores identity-based oppression following multiple levels of oppression. Because of the interlocking nature of oppression based on gender, race, social class, sexual identity, etc, an individual may be both an oppressor and the oppressed at the same time. These intersecting identities create a social environment where oppression is experienced in vastly different ways by different marginalized individuals and groups.

Sources

Hill Collins, Patricia. (1990) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 221–238 Retrieved from http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/252.html

Johnson, Allan G. (2009). Feminists and Feminism. In Ferber, A. L. The Matrix Reader: examining the dynamics of oppression and privilege (pp. 523-543). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Kyoo, L. (2012). Rethinking with Patricia Hill Collins: A Note Toward Intersectionality as Interlocutory Interstitiality. Journal Of Speculative Philosophy, 26(2), 466-473.

Rogers, M., & Phillip B. Lott. (1997). Backlash, the Matrix of Domination, and Log Cabin Republicans. The Sociological Quarterly, 38(3), 497-512. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/stable/4121156

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    © 2018 Jennifer Wilber

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