Home > 20 (3), 16

Rethinking Intersectionality and Whiteness at the Borders of Citizenship

by Bridget Byrne
University of Manchester

Sociological Research Online, 20 (3), 16
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3790

Received: 30 Jan 2015 | Accepted: 3 Aug 2015 | Published: 31 Aug 2015


This article critically engages with the concept of intersectionality, beginning with an account of its roots in Black feminist' theorizing and critical legal studies. The article argues that it is important to understand the origin and roots of the term in order to track its radical potential. Whilst intersectionality as a concept has been perhaps one of feminism's most successful exports, the article also considers some of the potential pitfalls in the widespread usage of the language. It asks: has intersectionality lost something in its travelling and re-interpretation? The article argues that there is a risk that intersectionality has, in some contexts of its usage, lost its critical, anti-racist and feminist edge. Considering the campaigns against changes in the spousal visa regulations in Britain, the article tracks the production of whiteness and of citizens and non-citizens in Britain. This example is used to argue for the maintenance of a more flexible and complex range of vocabularies with which to examine exclusion and oppression.

Keywords: Intersectionality, Citizenship, Britishness, Whiteness, Feminism, National Identity


1.1 Over the last 30 or so years, intersectionality has become a central buzzword in feminist scholarship and research. It has been seen as a 'gold standard multidisciplinary approach for analyzing subjects' experience of both identity and oppression' (Nash 2008: 2), with the use of the term taken as a 'signifier for good research' in European and American gender studies (Carbin and Edenheim 2013: 234). Intersectionality is arguably one of feminisms' most successful exports. The idea of the need to think of identities and experiences as being shaped by 'intersecting' vectors of race, class and gender (the three most often named) has become almost mainstreamed with increasing awareness beyond feminist scholarship and activism – including at the international level such as the United Nations. Despite this success, this article calls for a rethink of the concept, beginning with attention to its origins in Black feminist theorizing and critical race studies. The article will consider why the term intersectionality has travelled so far, and question the implications of such travelling. It will question whether the dominance of the language of intersectionality aids the critical analysis of dominant power structures and ask what we might lose by failing to mobilize a broader set of terms and concepts. In order to consider whether the intersectionality lives up to the political critique and complexity of these debates, I would argue that there are three questions which need to be explored. The first is the potential problem of the flatness of the language of intersectionality – which I will argue is also connected to the very conditions of its mainstreaming. This flatness results in the second issue – that of the potential for intersectionality to become an enfeebled consensus builder, rather than a critical (and political) analytical tool. Related to this is the third consideration of the impact of the focus of much work which is labelled as intersectional being centred on an iconic subject of the 'woman of colour'. Intersectionality loses its critical power when race becomes something only relevant to women of colour rather than also being used to examine the construction and maintenance of structures of power, including whiteness . In order to draw out these conclusions, the article finally considers the whiteness of the production of British citizenship and the 'right to love' in campaigns around rights to bring spouses and dependants into Britain. In this way, the article makes a critical intervention into the use of intersectionality in both race studies and feminism and additionally draws out the dominance of ideas of whiteness and heteronormativity in ideas of the British citizen.

Intersectionality and Black feminism

2.1 Intersectionality has several possible origins and roots: as Nira Yuval-Davis (Yuval-Davis 2007) suggests, perhaps it was a good idea that different people came to around the same time. The most commonly cited 'origin' is that of Kimberle Crenshaw's powerful article published in 1989 (Crenshaw 1989) which is widely regarded the first use of intersectionality in feminist writing. However, Crenshaw explicitly draws on a range of scholarship of Black feminists in her arguments about the inadequacies of both antiracist and feminist politics and the marginalization of black women. This provenance is important and worth reiterating (Lewis 2013). From the 1970-80s, Black feminists in both Britain and the US were concerned with questions of difference within feminism and criticised white feminists for lacking an analysis of racism – in both their scholarship and activism (Carby 1992). The central position given to gendered experience within (white) feminism served to marginalise the gendered, classed and racialized experience of black women (Bhavani and Coulson 1986). Black feminists argued that their experience was complex and needed more than gender to analyse, resist and change it (James 1985, James 2012).

2.2 Calls for an analysis of social relations that could grapple with this complex experience had been explicit for some time. For instance, the collective authors of the Combahee River Collective had asserted in 1977 the need for 'an integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking', stating that 'the synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives' (Collective 1983: 210). The authors stress the need to examine the 'multilayered texture of Black women's lives' and referred to racial and sexual oppression as well as 'heterosexism and economic oppression under capitalism' (Collective 1983: 214). This was a call not simply for the complexity of Black women's lives to be understood, but also stood as a critique of the dominance of white middle-class heterosexual feminists. Black feminist critiques in both the US and UK arose at a time when a range of challenges were being made to 'mainstream' feminist practice and theory, including postmodern challenges to the idea of a unitary subject. With the singular focus on gender and patriarchy, white feminists had not developed the conceptual tools for understanding complexities of racialised, classed and gendered power and oppression (see Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1983; Barrett and McIntosh 1985; Bhavani and Coulson 1986; Carby 1992).

2.3 The challenge from Black feminists of this period required not merely a rethinking of the nature of feminist campaigns, for instance around violence or reproductive rights, or of including studies of Black women's lives as well as those of white women. These debates raised the question of difference in such a way as to fundamentally disrupt feminist categories, in particular the unitary concept of 'woman'. They also raise epistemological questions about knowledge and standpoint (see Hill Collins 1990). These challenges prompted a re-conceptualisation of the self, highlighting that the formation of identity through the process of 'othering' was more complex than merely being an opposition between man/woman, but was also - and already - white/black, heterosexual/homosexual. Thus, Black feminists stressed the need to understand and analyse the mutually constitutive, intersecting axes of race, class and gender.

2.4 Those feminists positioned as white were also called on to acknowledge the particularity of their own experiences. This required a critique of structures of power and privilege that were so dominant that they had become invisible (at least to those who benefited from them). The challenge was to mark the unmarked, to be explicit about the racialised experience of those who are white and the unnamed privilege that whiteness often brings with it. The language of intersectionality comes out of these politics of challenge and it is important to be aware of its particular heritage (Cho et al. 2013). It is worth noting here the attention given to sexuality by some of these founding Black feminist writers which, as will be discussed below, often gets omitted from the triad of 'race, sex and class' in much intersectional writing. In addition, I would also draw attention to the varied vocabulary that they use. The risk of the dominance of intersectionality is that our understanding of the interaction between social categories and modes of power is impoverished and lacks a flexible and dynamic vocabulary. Might there be different processes and understandings behind the statement that identities are 'multi-layered', or that systems of oppression are 'interlocked' and 'articulated' or that power is 'multi-axial' (Brah 1996: 190)? Indeed might these differences also imply that our analysis needs to be able to respond differently to particular situations in order to reflect specific processes and contexts?

Caught at the junction: the limitations of the intersection

3.1 There will always be some disputes about where influential concepts comes from but, as mentioned above, an important foundational moment for the theory of intersectionality was the work of Kimberle Crenshaw. It's important to note that she was making a legal argument that sought, for example, to address the situation in General Motors in the US and other cases where anti-discrimination policies failed to cover the needs of black women who found it difficult to establish legally their particular problem of discrimination on the grounds of either race or gender (unlike both black men and white women) (Crenshaw 1989). Crenshaw developed a very specific idea of intersectionality. This pinpointed how looking at the situation of black women in the US through the lens of either gender discrimination or racism alone led to an incomplete and distorted picture. Crenshaw was concerned with the exclusion of Black women from both feminist and anti-racist politics and argued against any kind of additional approach:

[P]roblems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. […] The entire framework … must be rethought and recast. (Crenshaw 1989: 140).

3.2 For Crenshaw, the metaphor of the road intersection was one route to examining this legal predicament (another was that of individuals trying to pull themselves up through a hatch in the ceiling and only able to do so as they stood on the shoulders of others, more disadvantaged but also from the same category, standing below). In terms of the road metaphor, Crenshaw wrote:

Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection […]. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black women is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination (Crenshaw 1989: 149).

3.3 There are two important issues to consider when examining this first definition of intersectionality. The first is that Crenshaw was using the metaphor of intersectionality to make a legal argument within the US legal anti-discrimination system. She was arguing that it was not important to consider if the 'injury' caused to Black women had an origin in sexual or racial discrimination, rather the point was to address the injury:

[P]roviding legal relief only when Black women show their claims are based on race or sex is analogous to calling an ambulance for the victim only after the driver responsible for the injuries is identified. (Crenshaw 1989: 149).

3.4 The legal debate in which Crenshaw was engaged (and contesting) required more cut-and-dried terminology and system of categorisation than would be compatible with many scholarly accounts of power and identity. Whilst Crenshaw is arguing that discrimination may be experienced at the junction where the 'roads' of race, class and sex meet, this metaphor has the disadvantage of potentially tying us in to a notion of gender and gender hierarchies being essentially separable from the hierarchies of race and class – except where they meet. Whilst this may be a useful model for pointing out the problems with anti-discrimination law which requires the precise identification of the sources of discrimination, it is not necessarily supple enough to deal with relations of power and subjectivities which shift and are in flux. The analogy of the road intersection certainly struggles to accommodate an understanding of both subject positions and identities as discursively constructed, of identities as 'points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us' (Hall 1996: 6). These more contingent, fluid notions of the processes of category formation and identification potentially require other metaphors and modes of analysis. The risk of the vocabulary of intersectionality is that it may solidify, rather than interrupt and critique categories of identification and power.

3.5 Certainly there is evidence that the terminology of intersectionality and the junction of roads has been taken up in decidedly unhelpful ways, including within the UN system, where gender advocates have often adopted the term (see Yuval-Davis 2007: 565) for a startling example of this). In addition, the road junction metaphor is commonly taken up in intersectional studies (see McDowell 2008: 492 for examples). Yuval – Davis particularly critiques the 'additive approach' which is, for her, an echo of the notion of 'triple oppression' which posits different categories of discrimination or vectors of power as autonomous from each other, rather than mutually constituitive. This may be a problem inherent in the metaphor – where the notion of a junction does imply the meeting of two separate (and separable) entities, rather than a more complex interweaving and co-production. It is common for researchers using intersectionality to accuse others of being too 'additive' (Harding 1986). However, Sylvia Walby et al (2012) question the extent to which this debate is useful. The either/or of additive versus mutual constitution may over-simplify the complexity of the processes that are being examined. The political consequences of making visible one set of social inequalities to the temporary invisibilisation of others will be different in different situations and may have to be judged at a local and more strategic level. In particular situations, the interweaving of race and class, for example, may be more salient than gender. In others, a form of strategic essentialism may produce the most critical analysis (Spivak 1988).

3.6 A more sophisticated analysis of the complex and shifting interactions between different forms of categorisation, identification and subject production is likely to require more than a single term and metaphor. For Mimi Schueller, the problem with analogies and metaphors is that they 'function by actively suppressing knowledge which challenges the analogy' (Schueller 2005: 66). The dominance of the language of intersectionality potentially shuts out other productive ways of understanding complex social situations which are both historically embedded and subject to social change. Furthermore, intersectionality, understood in rather a two-dimensional fashion, risks being non-performative, in a similar way that Sara Ahmed (2004) has argued for the non-performativity of anti-racism. The act of naming an analysis as intersectional may at times substitute for critical analysis itself (Puar 2012: 53).

3.7 Nonetheless, intersectionality has the potential to be both more subtle and with more critical potential. Momin Rahman calls for a more rigorous application of intersectionality which should be 'disruptively queer':

focusing on both its demand to appreciate difference within oppressed identity categories, and its sociological demand to think across the realms of the social in how identities are constituted (Rahman 2010: 949).

3.8 For Rahman, exploring the lived experience of an 'impossible' category – that of gay Muslims, enables an understanding of how dominant categories 'achieve coherence only through the exclusion of 'others' (Rahman 2010: 953). The question of dominant categories will be explored below. However, the next section will suggest that the lack of precision in what intersectional analysis is can account for some of its strength – a broad church of researchers can claim to be 'doing' intersectionality – yet this uncertainty remains a potential weakness.

Intersectionality as a consensus builder.

4.1 For Kathy Davis (2008), intersectionality has become a scholarly buzzword and the very vagueness or fuzziness of its meaning can account for its success as a concept. Similarly, Maria Carbin and Sara Edenheim (2013) chart the movement of the term from one that was born out of conflict with white feminism to a theoretically vague concept that all feminists can unite behind. In part this is achieved by casting the net of intersectionality both back into the past, so that it is asserted that past writings fall under the rubric of intersectionality even if the exact term was not used and also drawing up into the scope of 'intersectional thinkers' those who have more or less explicitly contested the term.[1] In the role of an all-encompassing umbrella term, intersectionality can lack much-needed critical tools for examining the complexities of power, agency and resistance. In addition, as the term has travelled from the US (and British) contexts arising out of the activism of Black feminists to other geographical and institutional contexts, it can also lose its critical edge (Bastia 2014: 238). Umut Erel et al (2010) show how intersectionality has been taken up in Germany in such a way that disavows its anti-racist routes. Although there has been writing on race and experiences of multiple inequalities by women of colour and migrant women in Germany, Erel et al argue that white feminist academics in Germany have a tendency to take up intersectionality directly from Anglophone debates and thus by-pass the writings and critique of their own colleagues in Germany. Gail Lewis (2013) also observes how intersectionality has been adopted in Europe in a context where race is seen by (white) European feminists to lie somewhere else and therefore not be relevant to them.

4.2 The ways in which the term travels both theoretically as well as geographically is well illustrated by Leslie McCall's influential article on the complexity of intersectionality. McCall's article is a celebration of intersectionality which she identifies as 'the most important theoretical contribution that women's studies […] has made so far' (McCall 2005: 1771). Yet, at the same time, she identifies the very different ways in which studies using intersectionality have approached the complexity of the relationships between different categories. McCall lays out three different approaches to complexity within intersectionality which she terms as 'anti-categorical'; 'intercategorical' and 'intracategorical'. Here it becomes clear that different research with fundamentally different theoretical approaches to notions of identity, subjectivity and social categories are sitting under the single canopy of intersectionality.

4.3 According to McCall, anticategorical approaches to complexity are broadly aligned to poststructuralism and take a deconstructive approach to analytical categories, whilst intracategorical approaches are interested in interrogating processes of boundary making. In contrast, intercategorical analyses are those that use categories strategically, more-or-less without question, in order to map inequalities (McCall 2005). The ontological differences between these different approaches sound important alarms about the usefulness of a term which can have such wide and divergent application. The one is a refusal or deconstruction of analytical categories, whilst the next merely 'interrogates' the boundaries between categories, whilst the third provisionally adopts existing categories, yet the same vocabulary is used by all. Is it a case, as Carbin and Edenheim suggest, that intersectionality has promised too much (and to too many different people) (Carbin and Edenheim 2013: 234)? Perhaps the issue raised by McCall's mapping of the field of intersectionality is that it is inappropriate to consider intersectionality as a single theory (as many do) rather than a metaphor for difference used from a range of theoretical standpoints. This opens up the question of what other metaphors might we also want to employ. The following section explores the ways in which some uses of intersectionality allow the powerful and dominant to remain unchallenged.

Destabilizing whiteness

5.1 As traced out in a previous section, the idea of intersectionality came out of a range of challenges to the dominance of feminism by white women who ignored and were complicit in racism as well as a critique of sexism present in some anti-racist mobilization. In this way, intersectionality set out to highlight the particular experiences of black women in order to destabilize the hierarchies from which they were marginalized. Part of this process was a marking of whiteness which is so often invisible whilst also claiming universality. For Malini Schueller (2005), white feminists continue to universalize their own experience, even where they may include an obligatory reference to, or even chapter on, race. For Schueller, this has the problem of 'incorporation by analogy' in a neo-colonial way which serves to 'elide difference' through constructions of equivalence. Here race is presented as analogous to gender/sexuality – so that, for instance, the main focus may be maintained on gender, with race added in with the assumption that it works in a similar way. This use suppresses the differences and power hierarchies between the different categories. It also risks suggesting, as bell hooks has pointed out, that black women are somehow only black, rather than both black and women (hooks 1981). In addition, it leaves the white subject unmarked and therefore unchallenged. For Jasbir Puar, one way in which the centrality of the subject position of white women can be secured in intersectionality studies is through the focus on the figure of the Woman of Colour. The Woman of Colour is presented as an added extra thus 're-securing the centrality of the subject positioning of white women.' (Puar 2012: 52). In order to explore the possibilities of decentering whiteness, the next section will examine the production of whiteness in campaigns in Britain around citizenship rights of bringing dependents and spouses into the country. This section will show how whiteness and citizenship are 'intersectional' to the extent that they are raced, gendered, classed and heteronormative. However, it will argue that the metaphor of the intersection does not necessarily best capture this complex interrelation.

Making whiteness the object of study: citizenship and the right to love

6.1 One response to the critical interventions of black feminists of the 80s and 90s has been the examination of the racialised experience of white women. The intention here is not to re-center or reify whiteness, but rather to destabilise it by making it the object of analysis (Byrne 2006). Scrutiny of the production of whiteness relies on attention to the ways in which raced, gendered, classed and other norms are used to construct an Other considered unintelligible and unworthy of subjecthood. It involves questioning what technologies of looking, labelling, categorising and failing to see or silencing are utilised to recognise the subjecthood of some people and to cast others into what Judith Butler (1997) calls the 'abject zones of sociality' (Byrne 2006). For the remainder of this article, I want to explore an example of citizen claims in response to changes in immigration regulations in Britain with an eye to examining which kinds of citizens are represented as those who should bear rights. By exploring omissions in campaigns against new spousal visa requirements, I will propose that some British citizens' rights (and relationships) are not considered worthy of defence. This is enacted through the representation of relationships which are deemed 'real' and given recognition, while others are silenced. The example I am focusing on is that of the right of British citizens to bring their non-British spouses to reside in the UK. The changes, which were introduced in 2012, met with a range of contestations which often focused on multicultural, inter-racial marriages. In this example, I want to draw out how a flat language of intersectionality does not necessarily do all the work that is needed to draw out the entanglements of gender, sexuality and racism in notions of citizenship and the 'right to love'. What Mc Call (2005) terms 'intracategorical' intersectional analysis, provisionally accepting social categories, can tell us something about the disproportional impact of policy on certain ethnic groups, on women and on poorer people (see below). However, this approach is insufficient to examine the ways in which campaigns against the changes work to shore up western conceptions of heterosexual 'love' marriages. 'Intercategorical' intersectionality which 'interrogates' boundaries (McCall 2005) comes somewhat closer to opening up the analysis of how the assertion of one group's rights can be dependent on the abjection of others. However, here again, the metaphor of the intersection fails to reveal the extent to which the production of the citizen whose right to love should be defended relies on the silenced other: those relationships which should not be valued. These potential spousal migrants are perhaps seen as incapable of producing 'British' homes which should be defended.

6.2 The citizen does not stand at an intersection. In the context of Western countries, ideas of membership and rights have emerged out of a deeply intertwined racialised, classed and gendered histories of colonialism and post-colonialism that have shaped both nation and migration (Byrne 2014). The formation of the nation-state system and the technological developments that enabled the state's control of movement over state borders emerged within the colonial context. Despite claims of universality, the rights attached to citizenship have not been made evenly available to women, to sexual minorities, to the working class and to colonised and racialised Others (Walby 1996). Citizenship, which is tied so closely to national identity, often contains very normative notions of belonging and loyalty – expected of men and women in different ways. Participation in the military is meant to be the ultimate sign of loyalty for the citizen – yet the gendered rules of participation in the military as well as the gendered and heteronormative construction of the military are clear. The complicated history of women's access to citizenship membership and rights, particularly in the case of married women's rights, demonstrates the continuing impact of second-class citizenship. This is heightened where marriages occur across national boundaries and where citizens of two different states have children. There certainly is no globally universal model of what should happen when citizens of different states marry or have children. Historically, the citizenship of children has often been (and in many cases still is) dependent on their father's, not their mother's citizenship status, at least in cases where their parents are married and citizens of different countries. In many countries, it also depends on the marital status of their parents, with different rights being given to children born in or out of wedlock (see Byrne 2014 for further discussion). Thus, the idea of 'inheritance' of citizenship through birth and family is one mode through which the 'ideal' of the heterosexual family as the model for the creation of the national and the citizen is upheld (Berlant 1997: 19). This ideal is frequently racialized with whiteness (and Christianity) also represented as an essential attribute of the ideal family.

6.3 Of interest here is how certain contestations of state controls of migration demonstrate implicit assumptions of a racialized 'good' citizen (those whose rights should be protected and whose love-across-borders allowed to flourish). The 'Good Citizens' are those who belong to what Bridget Anderson calls the 'community of value', and are defined through their differentiation from both non-citizens and 'Failed Citizens' (Anderson 2013:4). The construction of the Good Citizen in Britain as white has a long history. In the era of decolonization, through a series of Immigration Acts, British citizenship was progressively racialized with full rights of citizenship restricted to residents of the UK and the descendants of white colonial settlers (Anthias and Yuval Davis 1993, Cohen 1994, Goulbourne 1993, Tyler 2013). Migration policy has not only been racialized, but also gendered, with South Asian women migrants and diasporic relationships being subject to particular scrutiny and suspicion (Brah 1996). Perhaps the ultimate expression of this suspicion was shown in the controversy of virginity testing in the late 1970s (Smith and Marmo 2011). The rationale behind virginity testing was that South Asian women could not be 'real' prospective brides unless they were virgins (this test was not performed, for example, on Caribbean women seeking entrance). Here again we see a cultural imposition of what relationships could be read as real and valid. The Primary Purpose Rule which existed from 1985-97 also discriminated against arranged marriages, requiring couples to prove a negative – that the primary purpose of their marriage was not to enable entrance to the UK. Arranged marriages struggled to be regarded as real, as opposed to 'sham' marriages. (Carver 2014). Natasha Carver explores how legal advisors worked with couples to ensure they displayed sufficient 'genuineness' to convince the Home Office that a spousal visa should be given. In this process, certain practices, which fall out of a reified understanding of 'traditional' cultures (for example an arranged marriage found through an agency or friends rather than parents) again failed to convince the state of their validity (Carver 2014). Thus there is a long history of racialized immigration policy which sets cultural limits around normative heterosexual relationships. Irene Gedalof's (2007) study of the 2001 governmental White Paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven shows that:

[w]hile other differences in family form can be accommodated without too much fuss, the arranged marriage stands out as one that still needs to be scrutinised, contained and managed; the accommodation of some differences thus plays a part in maintaining or even extending the exclusion of others (Gedalof 2007: 85).

6.4 The treatment of arranged marriages mirrors a common confusion in public discourse between arranged and forced marriages and has become one mode of expression of official discomfort around family structures and relationships which are deemed 'foreign' to Britishness and suspicious (Pande 2014, Chantler 2014). This is not to deny that there are some situations where the distinction between 'arranged marriage' and 'forced marriage' can become blurred. Particularly where the 'choices' offered to young women (and young men) by their parents are limited or non-existent (Mohammad 2015). Nonetheless, whilst forced marriage and coerced choice should clearly be opposed, it is unlikely that immigration control will be the best location in which to protect gender rights, especially given the complexities and changing nature of social relations (Mohammad 2015)[2].

6.5 Successive governments have tried to restrict family reunion immigration and have often done so in a guise which claims to be protecting South Asian Women. In 2008 the Labour Government increased the minimum age for spouse visas from 18 to 21 which was proposed as a protection against forced or coerced marriages in South Asian communities in Britain. The presentation of young people from ethnic minorities (who are more likely to wish to marry someone from abroad) as particularly vulnerable reinforces prior colonial representations of other less 'enlightened' cultures that are bound to certain traditions which are always constructed as repressive (Mani 1990). A government report argued that raising the minimum age to 21 for marriage visas would 'allow the young people involved to have completed their education as well as allowing them to gain in maturity and possess adequate life skills' (quoted in http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6501451.stm). This suggests a particular infantilization of young people from some ethnic minorities and indeed only 'protects' those who are marrying non-British citizens. The organization Southhall Black Sisters has a long history of campaigning against forced marriage and argues for more government action to protect people from forced marriage. However, they reasoned that that 'there is no evidence to show that raising the age of marriage will prevent a forced marriage' and the organisation called for the issues of immigration control and forced marriage to be 'de-linked' . In 2011, this law had to be changed, and the minimum age reverted to 18 as the result of a Supreme Court ruling.[3]

6.6 After this setback to government control of family reunion, in 2012 the new Coalition government raised the minimum income required for a British citizen to bring a spouse or other family member the UK (and from outside the EU) from £5,500 plus housing costs to £18,600, with additional income required for any step-children. This was presented both as a defence of the welfare state and the taxpayer but was also repeatedly linked to statements about integration. As the Home Secretary Teresa May explained:

British citizens can enter into a relationship with whomever they choose. But if they want to establish their family life in the UK, […] then their spouse or partner must have a genuine attachment to the UK, be able to speak English, and integrate into our society, and they must not be a burden on the taxpayer. […]. If a British citizen or a person settled here cannot support their foreign spouse or partner they cannot expect the taxpayer to do it for them.[4]

6.7 The picture painted by the familiar brushstrokes of a hostility to integration, and inability to speak English, a burden on the taxpayer and an infantile-like irresponsibility is recognisable as the 'anti-citizen' (often Muslim) who has been frequently been taken as a signifier of failed multiculturalism and threat to British culture (Kundnani 2014, Melamed 2006).

6.8 Rather than focus on the classic figure for intersectional analysis of the migrant woman (Erel 2011), I want to consider the ways in which opposition to the 2012 rule became a way of reasserting a notion of Britishness that re-secured its whiteness through particular figurations of the desirable (largely heteronormative) relationship. This could be considered an intersectional analysis – considering race, gender, class and sexuality and which would also require recognition that the construction of the British citizen is also embedded in Christianity (Dyer 1988). However, rather than using the metaphor of the intersection, I would argue that British citizenship and whiteness and heteronormativity are deeply engrained in each other as a result of a long history of mutual constitution. They do not meet at the junction, but have always been intimately interrelated. In the following discussion, I show how a racialised and exclusionary notion of Britishness and 'real' love is embedded in the campaigns which emerged against the policy of the minimum income threshold.

6.9 A possibly unintended consequence of the new requirement was that it did not only affect those Pakistani and Bangladeshi marriages which tended to be the focus of official concern and who made up the largest group of those likely to be affected.[5] The policy also affected other British citizens who wanted to marry someone from outside the EU. The raising of the minimum income meant that, according to the Migration Observatory, 47 percent of British citizens in employment would not qualify to bring in a family member, rising to 58 percent of people 20-30 years old, or 61 percent of women of any age[6]. In the press coverage that covered the campaigns and in the campaigns themselves, the focus was on white British citizens caught by the state's limitations of their international 'love', rather than South Asian families who are more routinely portrayed as problematic.

6.10 In a rare exception, The Economist quoted Asian MP Keith Vaz suggesting that the policy was an 'attack on British Asians accustomed to marrying in their country of origin.'[7] However, the majority of accounts focused on other kinds of Britons whose 'love marriages' are implicitly contrasted to other kinds of relationships, including arranged marriages. The Independent reported that 'thousands of British citizens who previously would have been granted a spousal visa are forced to choose between ending their relationship, splitting up their family or attempting to live abroad'[8]. It used three examples of couples forced to live apart because of the ruling, in which the UK citizen in the couple all appear to be white. Similarly, The Guardian also highlighted the experience of four British citizens: Rachel (who had an Albanian partner); Hannah (who had served in the British army and had a US husband); Sarah an NHS nurse and 'anon' who wanted to return from 43 years of living in Australia with her Australian husband. In these sympathetic accounts, we are given the examples of British citizens whose credentials as citizens with rights would seem unassailable (with even the inclusion of the iconic citizen in the form of a soldier). Similarly, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants produced a document entitled United by love/Divided by Law (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants 2012). The report describes the impact of the new policy on 13 different relationships, none of which included marriages between British South Asians and South Asian partners. These diasporic relationships appear to be the love that cannot speak its name.

6.11 A major group leading the campaign against the 2012 immigration was 'BritCits', BritCits describes itself as 'Defending the rights of international families'[9] and published the book: Love Letters to the Home Office. The extraordinary love stories of people separated by the UK's 2012 Family Immigration Law. In this title, arranged marriages appear to be both invisibilised and negated. In the book, the editors seek to 'touch your heart' and increase understandings of 'what it is to live a life of love' (Ethier 2014: 10). The 41 accounts featured in the book tell of modern, cosmopolitan love matches which are a result of global travel, opportunities working abroad and facilitated by the internet. They are not the diasporic relationships which have been the primary focus of government attention. However, despite these absences, different voices were available. For instance, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration (2013) heard accounts which reflected some of the complexity of relationships which do not fit into the models either of 'love marriages' or 'forced marriage'. Noreen Akhtar, a community worker from Keighley, spoke of British South Asian women who were either divorced or widowed and wanted to remarry to gain companionship and support and where 'marriage to someone from back home would suit them.' Yet these kinds of relationships are not those which can fit within a campaign centred on very particular representations of 'love' (2013).

6.12 Momin Rahman (2010) argues that, in the US, gay rights discourses rely on a culturally specific 'egalitarian' gay identity which is exclusively gay and is troubled by those who are both Muslim and gay and who may be deemed to be 'living a lie' because their relationships do not conform to those imagined for gay couples. In a similar way, only certain relationships (which are all also heterosexual) are held up as worth of defence in these campaigns against the new restrictions. Accounts of the impact of the minimum income threshold policy seem to rely on the idea that the rules must really be wrong because even 'normal' or 'real' - non-racialised, non-Othered - Britons are being affected. These are the Good Citizens (Anderson 2013). Class, sexuality and racialized citizenship are interwoven in complex ways. They do not cross at an intersection, but rather mutually constitute and reinforce each other. The racialized (white) British citizen whose transnational love should be protected is also classed as professional, employed – in contrast to the 'welfare dependant' (and often white) 'underclass'.

6.13 If we consider the intersectional considerations of these representations of relationships which should be valued and citizens whose rights should be defended, it is clear that race, religion, class and gender are important and at play even whilst they are not necessarily foregrounded individually. Yet at the same time, we need a more nuanced vocabulary than that of the junction or intersection to understand the ways in which certain relationships are included within this narrative and others excluded. The ways in which ideas of 'love' marriages are built up in racialized and gendered schema to contrast with arranged or forced marriages are also dependent on classed, gendered and sexualised notions of citizenship and Britishness. Thus the defence of the right to 'love' by British citizens reveals the racialized and exclusive ways in which that citizenship is imagined. A constellation of attributes are here presented as essential: a cosmopolitan openness to love across difference, a 'productive' contribution to society, a sense of being the global citizen but also with unassailable claims to Britishness and the rights of citizenship.[10] The relationships between this cluster of attributes is complex and shifting. It is not necessarily best captured at the junction but through the ways in which they interwoven and laid on top of each other.


7.1 Intersectionality is a widely used and influential model for understanding of how different modes of social inequality and discrimination are related to each other. This article has examined the travelling of concepts of intersectionality in order to be call attention to some of the pitfalls in its success. This article intervenes in the important literature on intersectionality to argue that there is a risk that its radical origins may be overlooked. It has shown that intersectionality was born out of a critique of the normative position of whiteness within the feminist movement (as well as a critique of the sexism present within the black rights movement). This article has called for an understanding of intersectionality which is both more attentive to its origins in legal studies, and to the radical critique which drove its emergence. It also cautions that, in some of its travels, intersectionality risks losing its critical force and becoming an inarticulate cover-all concept. Intersectionality can mean many different things and the article has shown how intersectionality is used in a wide range of often incompatible theoretical projects. Some usages, (particularly the dominance of the metaphor of the 'junction') risk solidifying social categories such as gender, race, class rather than radically interrupting them.

7.2 Returning to the origins of the term underlies how one of the most important legacies of the original debates on intersectionality was the insistence on challenging norms built on whiteness, masculinity and heteronormativity. To maintain this critical focus, the article has called for a move away from overreliance on the single concept of intersecting paths and the development of a more elaborated vocabulary and conceptualization of the multiple production of identities and subject positions. This vocabulary needs to be flexible and alive to the different ways in which race, class, sexuality, gender are co-produced, intertwined, folded in on each other. Taking the example of the legislation and campaigning around the rights of British citizens to bring foreign spouses to live in Britain, I have argued that we can see the production of both the legitimate Good Citizen in genuine relationships and those with suspect relationships and suspect claims to citizenship. Clustered around these imaginations are notions of integration, language and love which rely on shared and interwoven assumptions about race, gender and religion as well as class and sexuality. They do not meet at an intersection, but are co-produced and imagined in ways which are inter-dependent and inseparable. The article has shown how critical analysis requires both theoretically consistent approaches and a range of analytical tools.


1In these, Carbin and Edenheim include Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Bev Skeggs and Gayatri Spivak CARBIN, M. and EDENHEIM, S. (2013) 'The intersectional turn in feminist theory: a dream of a common language?', European Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, p. 233-248..

2See also ANDERSON, B. (2013) for discussion on how immigration policy can increase vulnerability to domestic control and abuse.

3 http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/briefing-papers/SN04927/immigration-the-minimum-age-for-marriage-visas (accessed 20/11/14).

4Quoted in http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/jun/08/immigration-rules-couples-stark-choice.

5In 2010, 30 percent of spousal visas were given to people from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. APPG (2013) 'Report of the Inquiry into new family migration rules'. All-Parliamentary Group on Migration..

6 http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/press-releases/women-young-people-and-non-londoners-are-most-affected-changes-family-migration-polic (accessed 20/11/14).

7 http://www.economist.com/node/21556926

8 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/new-immigration-rules-accused-of-splitting-up-families-8324254.html accessed 26/11/14

9 http://britcits.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/introduction.html accessed 21/11/14

10Interestingly, this openness to difference does not include same-sex partnerships which are also affected by the rules. All the relationships that are narrated in the book, and which feature in press coverage, appear to be heterosexual.


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