Conference Proposal: Intersectionality and the Ethics of Recognition

bell hooks Institute
bell hooks,

I’ve copied my recent and conference proposal for the meeting of the Kentucky Political Science Association in early March, 2022. My long-term goal is to develop a chapter on intersectionality for a book project on “Multicultural Democracy in America.” Over the next six weeks, I want to lay out the intersectional concept of identity as primarily defining complex kinds of “social position” and the black feminism of authors like the late bell hooks as obliging readers to recognize to recognize and account for the full humanity of black women. As I indicate, the imperative to recognition can be juxtaposed in interesting ways to the prototypical 17th century liberalism of English philosopher John Locke. However, intersectional concepts like privilege also contain imperatives for self-recognition that are already part of multicultural culture in the United State but go well beyond what is contemplated by Locke.

Originally developed within black feminism, the concept of intersectionality addressed the issue of black women being discriminated against for both being black and being women. Intersectional ideas begin appearing in black feminism as early as the 19th century, but a black feminist literature featuring concepts of intersectionality coalesced in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the writing of Angela Davis, the late bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term), and Patricia Hill Collins. The concept of intersectionality currently occupies a curious position in the U.S. cultural and ideological firmament. Intersectionality has become an important enough element of popular culture, corporate ideology, and Democratic Party policy agendas that intersectional ideas have in some ways become hegemonic. However, intersectionality has rarely been a topic of national public discourse and has gone largely unexamined in relation to political theory traditions outside Black American Thought. This paper examines intersectionality in relation to the political philosophy of John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government. In Locke, the creation of men as free and equal in the state of nature creates an imperative to recognize others as similarly free and equal and an obligation to refrain from harming or tyrannizing over them. Black writers have engaged with Lockeian-style ideas on natural rights since at least the 18th century narrative of Olaudah Equiano and Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Locke on the punishment of those who enslave others at the beginning of “The Case for Reparations.” My paper will examine the ways in which the original black feminist literature entailed an imperative to recognize the full humanity of traditionally disadvantaged populations, how the imperative for recognition was universalized as the intersectionality literature expanded to address sexual orientation, disability, immigrants, and transnational perspectives, and finally the ways in which intersectional concepts of privilege have come to obligate various forms of self-recognition.

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