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Intersectional Dialogues

Intersectional Pasts Haunt Intersectional Futures

A protester in Washington DC holds a sign featuring George Floyd. Credit: Obi - @pixel6propix/Unsplash, Creative Commons.

October 08, 2022

Few people now dispute the idea that intersectionality is central to understanding social relations, everyday social practices, and how society functions. Its concern with the ways in which everybody is simultaneously placed in multiple social categories such as gender, sexuality, social class, and racialization provides a heuristic for analyzing inequalities, power relations, and the complexity of social positioning. It shows how any social category is decentered by its intersections with other social categories and by their dynamism, relationality, and historical location.

Sociologists are increasingly engaging with historical understandings of how slavery and colonialism have constituted the global history of the present. Yet, while theorizing that intersectionality is historically located enables an understanding of the potentially contradictory processes that underpin social divisions, inclusions, and exclusions, much less is known about the ways in which histories are part of intersectionality. This article argues that the ways in which histories haunt the present are important for theories of intersectionality.

Credit: Thomas Willmott/Unsplash, Creative Commons.

Historical hauntings

The ways in which historical hauntings inflect contemporary social relations and erupt psychosocially in unanticipated ways became evident in 2020 via the global protests against racism and oppressive racist histories following the video-recorded murder of George Floyd by a policeman in the USA. This revitalized, and broadened support for, the Black Lives Matter movement. The fact that racist histories of colonialism and enslavement haunt many societies was demonstrated by reactions to George Floyd’s murder (one of numerous murders of a Black person by White police), which focused on centuries of racist oppression and spontaneously targeted symbols of that oppressive history, including statues of enslavers and colonialists. Histories that appeared long-buried, unconscious, or unthought, came to haunt the contemporary social landscape. These resurfaced histories resulted in campaigns to produce sociostructural change and an outpouring of personal testimonies.

The notion of historical haunting is clearly not new. It has long been explored in novels and academic work dealing with, for example, the ways in which the traumas of the Holocaust and slavery are part of transgenerational communication and disrupt the lives of the descendants of those who suffered them, generally without being identified as doing so. The reactions to George Floyd’s murder illuminate the ways in which collective histories are also individual, and elements from the past return or persist in the present. More than this, collective histories are central to how we imagine the future and the possible futures that are brought into being.

Intersectional haunting can spur new perspectives not only on the past but also on future action. Credit: Hakase/iStock.

From an intersectional perspective, the theorizing of hauntology deepens possibilities for analyzing social categories. It does so by raising questions about how personal and national histories are interlinked and sedimented within all social categories, producing divisions and commonalities between people. Such temporal understandings of, for example, what it means to be a Black, working-class woman in Minority World countries require the bringing together of transgenerational and national histories that avoid implicitly essentialist social categories. Equally, it encourages a focus on how those same histories are also inextricably part of the lives of White, middle-class men in those same countries.

An intersectional focus on hauntology can help researchers to ask more illuminating questions about social issues. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, it soon became painfully clear that gender, nation, migration status, socioeconomic status, disabilities, age, housing, and occupation all intersect to produce unequal rates of morbidity and mortality. It was striking, however, that many explanations were sought in terms of, for example, living conditions, in ways that individualized these differences and highlighted cultural differences. While it is crucial to establish which factors are associated with mortality rates, it is equally important to recognize that the associations found depend on what is investigated, which in turn depends on preexisting understandings. Asking questions about the histories that produced particular positionings and practices, and the socioemotional context in which they are expressed, is more likely to produce analysis that sustains claims for social justice and meaningful interventions. Those questions are also more likely to take seriously the ways in which the intersections of particular social positions exacerbate inequities that already exist in Minority World societies.

Haunting intersectional futures

The intersectional haunting of the present is temporal, not only because it shows how the past is part of the present, but because of how it spurs future action. This is true whether the past erupts into the present, as with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, or whether it remains a melancholic and unnamed presence. In both cases, the haunting produces troubled subject positions that require the production of new stories and hence new visions of the future. Events that become historically significant therefore affect everyday practices and permeate social relations, constraining or facilitating possible futures. The eruptions produced when hauntings emerge into consciousness impel future action and claims for more desirable futures. Intersectionality helps to explain how people in a certain social category may have different reactions, hopes, and visions when haunting histories become conscious.

The Ghanaian Sankofa bird. The word “Sankofa” in Twi means “go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful.” The Akan people depict this either as a heart or as a mythical bird, feet firmly planted forward twisting its beak behind itself, with its precious, future life-giving egg coming from its mouth. Credit: tatadonets/iStock.

 In recent years, various countries have seen new gendered/racialized narratives produced in reaction to murders of different women or of Black people, giving rise, for example, to the popularizing of #SayHerName in the US in recognition of the fact that while the murders of some Black men by police become notorious, the murders of Black women and children by police frequently receive no publicity. It is not, therefore, possible to understand the impact of histories on any one person without knowing the constellation of relations and effects that have been passed down through the generations and sedimented within everyday practices, simultaneously reproducing, for example, racism and sexism. The understanding of which categories are being evoked in any social situation, and the relevance of social locations, emotional attachments, positionings, and power relations, are not necessarily self-evident. This means that it cannot be assumed that social categories are only relevant when they are focused on or visibly in operation. It also means that histories as legitimated by nation states are not sufficient for the understanding of intersectional hauntings, since there is much that is hidden in and from such histories. Silent histories permeate societies, haunting the present through exclusionary/inclusionary everyday intersectional social relations.

Ann Phoenix, University College London, UK <a.phoenix@ucl.ac.uk>

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