Tension in intersectional agency: A theoretical discussion of the interior conflict of white, feminist activists’ intersectional location

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In this article I question the wholeness of the agency of white, feminist activists. Drawing on intersectional theory, I problematise the multiplicative character of their location in order to be able to understand how intersectional agency operates. This location reveals three layers of intersectionality; the junction of axes of social signification (gender and race); the junction of manifestations on these axes (female and white); and the junction of, subsequent, positions in power relations (disadvantaged and advantaged). I argue that this is specifically important and complex when we explore how whiteness can operate intersectionally. This results in three observations. First, this intersectional junction is conflictive in its interior; race as advantage and gender as disadvantage can operate as opposite structuring forces in power relations. Second, feminist activism is characterised by gendered action and aims at social transformation in the realm of gender. Whiteness, on the other hand, is often marked by racial passivity and omission via which it can invest in the maintenance of the racial status quo and nonchange; this contradicts feminist objectives. Third, contra the conflation of agency with action, I agree that not every action is agentic. If not every action is agentic, then not all agency generates action. In turn, this means that agency can also result in omission; 'something' which is not action, i.e. an absence or void of action or, what I call, inaction. We can say that inaction is a familiar manifestation of hegemonic processes as whiteness. In turn, we can see that gender and race as structuring forces, subsequently, shape agency contradictorily, which can generate action and inaction simultaneously. The differentiation of layers in intersectional theory suggests that the agency of white, feminist activists is mobilised within a conceptual opposition in power relations that, consequently, questions the 'wholeness' of intersectional agency. Keywords: Intersectional theory, Agency, White women Introduction Racism affects both black and white people, but the effects are different; racial discrimination has disadvantageous consequences for black people, but secures (the maintenance of the system of) race privilege for the latter. (Bento, 2003, p. 147). Whiteness, argued Frankenberg (1997, pp. 8-9), expresses "the idea that there is a category of people identified and self-identifying as 'white', situated within this simultaneous operation of race and racism. White, then corresponds to one place in racism as a system of categorization and subject formation, just as the terms race of Manchester. Her project concerns the intersectional agency of racially privileged young, feminist activists from Sao Paulo. Relying on a phenomenological methodology, she aims at understanding how, in the context of opposite positions in power relations, intersectional agency is experienced, negotiated, mobilised and (re)produced by the individual who aims at social change. This research is grounded in her activist background in the women's movement in the Netherlands and Brazil. privileged and race dominant name particular places within racism as a system of domination.". Intersectional agency, as I suggest in the title, is--at least on an analytical level--intrinsically tensional in the case of white, feminist activists; it is their whiteness, as an advantageous location in relations of power that complicates their agency. I argue that it is important to develop a more complex model of intersectionality in order to include the working of whiteness in its analysis. Consisting of three layers of analysis, this model draws attention to intersectionality as a framework of power relations. With white feminist activism in mind, this model demands, subsequently, the consideration of two possible manifestations of agency, namely action and, what I name, inaction--the void or absence of action.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-18
Journal Journal of International Women's Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • Intersectionality
  • Agency
  • White women

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