Towards a Methodology to Identify
Converging Forms of Everyday Discrimination

Philomena Essed


This statement addresses the problem of intersectionality. I introduce a qualitative analysis that can be helpful to identify how intertwining systems of domination are expressed and experienced in everyday life. The method was initially developed in two cross-national studies of everyday racism, and more specifically, gendered everyday racism, as the studies dealt exclusively with the testimonies of women of color. Everyday racism operates through and interferes with gender and other systems of oppression. As a concept everyday racism has been useful in showing that systemic racism is reproduced largely through routine and taken-for-granted practices and procedures in everyday life. This does not make everyday racism a problem of a more humane kind. Although everyday racism has such an informal ring that it may sound as if it concerns relatively harmless and unproblematic events, the psychological distress due to racism on a day-to-day basis can have chronic adverse effects on mental and physical health. Felt persistently, everyday injustices, including gendered racism, are often difficult to pinpoint, and can be therefore hard to counter.

My approach seeks to contribute, tentatively, to developing a method for intersectional analysis by incorporating the following possibilities:

The nature of everyday racism

The day-to-day realities of racism in the lives of women do not usually receive much attention in politics, legal systems, or societal narratives. This is unfortunate, because everyday life and experiences are a rich ground for demonstrating how convergent dimensions and systems operate simultaneously. In everyday experiences distinctions between the institutional and the interactional, between ideology and discourse, and between private and public spheres merge and form a complex of social relations and situations. In order to qualify the implications of the centralizing of experience in theorizing about systemic oppression, in this case racism, I introduced the concept of everyday racism, originally developed in two comparative studies between the Netherlands and the US (Essed, 1984; 1990; 1991). The concept has been adopted and applied to the study of racism in other countries, including South Africa (Louw-Potgieter, 1989: Essed 1990), Switzerland (Shaha, 1998), Canada (das Gupta,1996), the UK (Twine, 1998), and in specific areas such as public health (Jackson et all 1996) and private business organizations (Human & van Schalkwyck, 1998). The focus on everyday manifestations of systemic inequality extends outside the field of race relations as well, which has contributed to granting 'the everyday' generic meaning: everyday inequalities (O'Brien & Howard, 1998); everyday sexism (Ronai, Zsembik & Feagin, 1997).

Manifestations of racial and gender discrimination have many similarities, such as patronizing, talking down, assuming lack of confidence, hiring token blacks or women, or favoring white men. But there are also differences. A prevalent form of everyday racism is contact avoidance, whereas everyday discrimination against women can take the reverse form: unsolicited intimacies. A serious problem with analogizing is that women of color are made invisible in comparing 'blacks' and 'women'. Furthermore, analogies do not do justice to the fact that racisms and genderisms are rooted in specific histories designating separate as well as mutually interwoven formations of race, ethnicity and gender. I have called intersections of genderism and racism 'gendered racism' (Essed, 1991), a notion that has been adopted and worked out in more detail in a number of studies (Bento, 1997; St. Jean & Feagin, 1998).


Gendered racism

Gendered racism shapes the allocation of resources along racially and ethnically ascribed understandings of masculinity and femininity as well as along gendered forms of race and ethnic discrimination. Women of color, ethnic minority women, are deemed most suitable for jobs in the lowest stratum of the labor market, an area already segmented unequally along gender lines. According to the different ideologies and histories in relation to specific ethnic groups women are sexualized in different ways. European common sense considers African women generally as promiscuous, Asian women as passive and exotic, and women in Islamic cultures as super-exploited. Anti-Islam sentiments are manifest in the demonizing of Islamic cultures as super-sexists, while toning down the persistence of (sexual) violence, gender ceilings and other forms of exclusion in European cultures. The infusion of gender critique with racist images can place a strain on ethnic minority women in their struggles for emancipation on their own terms – internal gender critique can be externally abused in racist ways. Internal silence, on the other hand, reconfirms the perceived legitimacy of the subordination of women within their own cultures.

To date, there is insufficient knowledge about differences and similarities between the experiences of women of color and other ethnic minority women or refugees in the various European countries. Many questions remain to be answered (more fully). To mention just a few: How do remnants of colonialism and madamismo (the phenomenon of concubines) shape present portrayals of women of color? Why has (e)mail order brides taken such a high flight in particular in relation to Asian women. What is the impact of the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands for sex workers of color. How does the political construction of ‘illegality’, the condition of surviving deprived of basic human rights, affect women without documents in particular, many of whom are women of color? How does the common sense idea that women of Islam background are ‘more’ oppressed and ‘passive’ compared to, for instance, women (of Christian or non-religious backgrounds) from the Caribbean, influence the chances and opportunities of the various groups in European societies? Which tools can be made available for women to fight racism against their children in schools?

It seems likely that European images of women of color, on the one hand, and the struggles against racism, on the other hand, are marked by US culture, through the dissemination of information about the US history of race relations. African-American women have historically been tracked into the worst paying semiskilled and skilled jobs defined as (white) woman's work. Gendered and class related forms of racism continue to operate today, also in relation to Latino women and Asian immigrants. Ideological constructions of racially specific femininity and sexuality shape the standard of womanhood and female beauty as a measure of (middle class) whiteness. Many Asian-American women (of economically privileged background) resort to cosmetic surgery in order to look more like the white image of female beauty. Little is known about the possibly lasting adverse effects this can have on their identity as women of Asian background. Contrary to the patriarchal image of white, economically privileged women as vulnerable, dependent, passive and monogamous, black women were historically thought of as hard working, strong, dominant and sexually promiscuous. The post-industrial rise of unemployment and the increase of families headed by black women have contributed to the emergence of another image of black women as ‘welfare queens’. This condescending stereotype combines sexist and racist images of black women, thereby reinforcing cultural explanations of poverty.

Negative images of women of color are reinforced through education, public and political discourse, literature and the media. Racist images of women are detrimental for all women of color, regardless of their economic and educational backgrounds. Images can be used flexibly, to rationalize both the exploitation of women as workers, and the range of discriminatory practices that create glass ceilings and brick walls against women of color college students or professionals who aspire to social and economic mobility.

The degree of exclusion of women of color can be inferred from statistics of (the nature of) their participation in the labor market, schools, political bodies, the media and so on. Statistics are a vital tool for generating and legitimating anti-discrimination policies. In addition, we need a different type of information as well. The question how the marginalization of women of color takes places - the seclusion or openness of those practices, the way in which discriminations of different kinds converge – refers to a world, largely hidden from view. By way of illustration, and as a step towards a methodology of analysis, I discuss a small number of concrete examples of convergent "isms" operating in mutually reinforcing ways, as they come together in the everyday lives of women of color. I had two considerations in mind in selecting these stories. First, the illustrations should concern commonly occurring expression of racism against women of color rather than extremely racist events. I have found that mundane and everyday forms of gendered racism taken from one country often resonate beyond national borders (Essed 1991; 1996). Second, the stories shed some light on a largely unexplored area of concern: how experiences of exclusion and humiliation can impact Diaspora mother-daughter relations. The illustrations - verbal accounts or testimonies - were related to me during data selection for research or informally, at gatherings with other women of color.

The first account is from a woman of Surinamese background, an immigrant to the Netherlands. The context in which the event takes place is gendered: a daughter shopping with her mom. The situation is also racially charged: two women of color shopping in a white neighborhood. And it is a function of an economically divided society - it concerns women with a below average income who are shopping.

One Saturday afternoon a woman of racially mixed descent, age 24, goes shoe hunting with her mother. The woman is a kindergarten teacher. Her mother, an indigenous woman from Suriname (South America) has never had the opportunity to go to school. The family migrated to the Netherlands 15 years ago.

Looking at the variety of women's shoes displayed in the window of one shop the mother suggests: ‘I think we can go inside and try that one’ pointing at a pair of dark blue pumps. As soon as they enter, a white sales woman confronts them. She looks at them with hostile eyes commenting: ‘I don't think there is anything in this shop you can afford to buy’, upon which she opens the door for them to leave. Shocked (why does she say that?) and offended (well, we do not even want their shoes anyway) mother and daughter are out in the street again. As they are casually dressed, not different from other women around, they realize that the saleswoman must have acted upon their skin color.

This is an example of everyday racism: An ordinary event, shopping, which is what people do from day to day, has turned into a racist event, through the language of economic sizing and privileging. Although seemingly trivial, the racist shop experience is not an isolated event in the life of this woman. Hostilities in the shop add to prejudices she encounters at work, where she is the only woman of color. Every new experience of racism resonates and re-configures the accumulation of earlier events, for instance, when she used to be in school, where she experienced rejection from white classmates and where she had to deal with low expectations from her teachers. The shop event has spoilt the fun of shopping together that afternoon, but there is also another side to the story. Experiences with injustice in one area can contribute to the understanding of other forms of discrimination. The daughter used to feel ashamed of her mother, illiterate due to poverty, gender and ethnic discrimination against the indigenous groups in the America's. Today, when the daughter is confronted herself with racial and ethnic discrimination, be it in Europe, she understands and appreciates the love and courage her mother must have had for her children when she urged them to study well in school in order to advance in society.

The second example concerns an African woman, 39 years old. She was born in Gambia and migrated to Italy where she has been living for 10 years. She cleans houses and offices to earn a living, but after hours she coordinates the activities for an organization of Gambian women in one of the larger Italian cities.

The story is about a situation where the woman had to skip work for a few days, because of an illness. Upon her return the white employer does not care to know how she feels, or whether she has recovered well enough to start again; after all, cleaning is heavy work. Instead, the employer blames the woman for not having shown up, while throwing into her face: ‘You should have sent one of your children to replace you. Don't you have a daughter you could have sent’? Picking immediately on the underlying message, the woman challenges her employer: ‘How dare you ask about my daughter! She is supposed to be in school where she can learn, so that she does not have to clean, like me, for the rest of her life’.

This example shows how racial contempt infiltrates gender-segregated work, while operating in such ways as (potentially) to reproduce economic exploitation. From a dominant (white, elite) perspective it may sound quite self-evident: why cannot the daughter take over for the mother? But the account of the mother, the one subjected to gendered, classed, racism, makes immediately clear what is wrong with the proposal that her daughter replaces her. The story underscores that there is a wealth of knowledge, insight, critique, among ordinary women, women of color, who have migrated to other countries. Moreover, I have found that women of color are often particularly astute in defying racism when they speak as mothers, surrogate parents or as adults protecting children against discrimination.

The mirror image of this situation is when a daughter defends her mother. The final example is located in Spain, where I had a conversation with a woman, 31, of Moroccan background, whose family migrated to Spain when she was 4 years old.

The woman shared with me an event that happened when she was ten years old about the immigration police, a place many non-residential immigrants of color have come to hate or fear. When her parents got divorced the children stayed with the mother, whose command of Spanish was minimal. As a result the daughter, who attended school in Spain, had to accompany the mother to the immigration police in order to have their remittance renewed. The officer gets very rude. He yells at the mother, and acts as if she is dirty and stupid. The young girl cannot take it any more: she steps forward, looks at the officer, and says: ‘you can't talk to her like that, she is my mother’. The courage ensuing from her anger made a mark. She told me that it was right there and then that she decided that she would work and study hard in order to become somebody, and never to have anybody treat her or her mother like that again. By the time we meet she is pursuing a university degree.

With these examples – stories behind the statistics - I have tried to show that different systems of oppression come together in the lives and testimonies of individual women of color. I have also tried to point out that testimonies can be a rich source for information about the nature of gendered racism.

In the final part of this statement I introduce a framework for the systematic analysis of race and gender convergencies. By way of illustration I have selected two US testimonies of sexual harassment in a racial context.

Sexual harassment in a racial context

The first example is an account from an African-American student, aged 19, who has a math professor, a white male in his 50s, force himself upon her. The story, as it was related to me, runs as follows:

The student is having trouble with her mathematics exams. Upon her request the professor says ‘it is fine' for her to come to his office and that he 'will help her’. Once she is in his office, he starts making remarks like, ‘You are attractive’ and ‘I would like to see you’. The student does not respond. She continues to come because she really needs the extra help. Then he tries to kiss her. When she resists, he reproaches her ‘Well I know you like this. Don't pretend you don't - you started the whole thing.' Shocked, she asks herself what 'she has done' to 'give this man the impression' that she 'wants to be sexual with him.’ She decides not to go to his office anymore and fails the following exams. Driven to despair, she quits school and registers at another junior college, where she is asked to see the EOP advisor (Equal Opportunity Program)—an African-American man. During that conversation, everything that had happened at the other school comes out. The officer tells her that she shouldn't blame herself ‘because there are a lot of white men who feel that black women are there to be used sexually, and that they can get away with it.’ This information is news to her, but it does ‘sort of click’, she explains to me.

A detailed analysis of this account can be found elsewhere (Essed, 1991). Significant in this story is that the EOP officer employs a larger societal framework in order to interpret the event. In addition, he seems to be a good listener while providing a safe space for the young woman in order for her to unburden her heart. The student, as she told me, grew up in a protected church community. She never had her mother or any other significant family member talk to her about racial discrimination, nor explain to her what she could expect, growing up black and female in the US. Until she went to college, she was hardly aware of sexual stereotyping of black women in the US, and had been hardly aware of the patterns of racial discrimination in the US. Thus she could not perceive of her own experiences in that context. She did interpret the professor's behavior as unacceptable, but without a larger explanatory framework she hardly has any other option than to blame herself in the end. The EOP officer explains the story as an abuse of functional power (dependent student, teacher who gives grades) in a manner that actualizes both the gender and the racial context (white men who think that black women exist for their sexual needs). From this account we can infer that the transmission of knowledge about gendered racism, through family, education, media and other channels, is probably a basic condition for women of color (and others) to understand and counter everyday discrimination.

The second example further illustrates this point. It is a similar story, but this student has been educated at home about the struggles of African-American men and women in US history. The story is about her professor of environmental sciences, a white man:

A group of students has a research project meeting over dinner at his home. Afterward, one student, co-initiator of the project, the only black woman student, is the last one to remain and to help finish up a few things. While they are talking and clearing the table, the professor suddenly begins to kiss her, suggesting that they ‘could spend a nice evening together.’ The student suspects that he thinks that 'this sort of thing isn't anything new for her’, and that he believes ‘because she is black, she is easy to get, like a whore.’ Angry that he abuses the situation, is ‘older’ and ‘not at all attractive,’ she pushes him away with a decisive ‘NO.’ She immediately starts to leave. He gets into a ‘rage’ going on about ‘how dare she reject him’.

In order understand the above situation as one in which race-ethnic-gender factors shape everyday discrimination, a number of knowledge conditions are relevant. At the very minimum, we should have a measure of general knowledge about the cultural context, in order to distinguish acceptable practices from non-acceptable practices. Obviously, discrimination falls under the category of non-acceptable behavior. In case of non-acceptable behavior against women of color, there can be cues within the local or situational context as to how to interpret that particular event: Is there something idiosyncratic about the actor, or are we dealing with racial, ethnic, gender discrimination? In order to make that assessment, you want to make comparisons between that particular situation and other situations, this actor and other actors, and so on. In addition, we need a theoretical framework, a larger societal picture of racial, ethnic, gender (and other inequalities) in order to identify specific practices as perhaps fitting patterns of discrimination.

A systemic analysis of the situation, as suggested below, ensues from the identification of 5 characteristics of accounts of everyday racism, a framework I developed on the basis of narrative theory (see Essed 1991): The Context, (When, where, who were involved?); the Complication (What went wrong, what was not acceptable?); the Explanation (Is there reason to believe that this is racism, gendered racism?); the Argumentation (Why can this be seen as gendered racism, racially charged sexism?) and the Reaction (What did you do about it?). The systematic analysis of the last event could go as follows:

1. Context: Who, what where?

Black female student is the last to leave after a working in the private home of a white male professor.

2. Complication (Unacceptable turn of event)

The professor tries to kiss the student.

3. Explanation: Possible intersection of sexism, racism (combined with age privilege, and functional hierarchy).

In my opinion, the gender dimension cannot be separated from the racial context, because images of women's sexuality are racially/ethnically construed. One cannot perceive ‘women’ as a category without differentiating along class, age, ethnic, and racial backgrounds and identifying how these dimensions are projected into the situation. The student is a woman who is also black, young, in a situation of functional dependence as a student. The other party is a man who is also white, mature, and has a more powerful function. He takes advantage of and then intimidates the young woman.

4. Argumentation: We can probe for situational cues, contextual cues and societal cues:

Situational cues

We can probe for situational clues to discover whether the event is unique or whether it reinforces existing patterns of discrimination, of sexual abuse of women of color, of racially ascribed and gendered abuse of functional power:

Contextual cues

Some answers to the above questions may be found, others not. Therefore it is important to include in the argumentation questions about the context of the event, in this case the institutional context of US colleges and universities. Is the university a friendly, encouraging place for women of color? The nature of probing depends on the criteria to establish what are the indicators of ‘encouragement’ and acceptance. In light of this, I hasten to point out that the following probing questions should not be seen as final criteria, but as a basis for further debate. One can think, among others, of the following questions to qualify the context of the event:

The fewer the answers we can elicit from situational and contextual probing, the more relevant it becomes to include in the argumentation references to the larger societal context.

Societal cues

Societal cues, inferred from statistics, general knowledge sources, studies of gendered racism, stereotypes, historically rooted images, can qualify the socio-political context of the event. What knowledge do we have about sexual harassment of black women by white men (relevant to the particular cultural, national situation)? Does the event resonate in the history of sexual abuse and contemporary representations of black women's sexuality. These and other questions have been addressed in the previous section on gendered racism.

5. Reaction:

Angela pushes the professor away intending to leave immediately, thereby resisting retaliation (abusive language) from his part.

The categories of Context, Complication, and the Reaction are constant elements in the structure of accounts. They represent the facts of the situation, as experienced or established by others, and they form the core of the account. By this I do not mean to suggest that the speaker can always recall all the relevant information at any time. Furthermore, the speaker can decide whether or not to provide certain information. The Explanation and Argumentation categories contain variable information. After all, interpretations and points of view can change in light of other information.


In public discourses there is a tendency to obscure the pervasiveness of racism in the lives of people of color. The concept of everyday racism illuminates the systemic nature of racism. Testimonies by women of color are a useful instrument to defy the claim that those who are exposed to everyday racism are not competent to make sound judgment. Moreover, eye witness and experiential narratives are a rich source of information about the simultaneous expression of different forms of injustices. Hopefully, the suggested method to elicit relevant information about the context of gendered racism can be useful for NGO’s as well as for public officials in monitoring the extent and nature of racial and ethnic discrimination against women of color. The method, though systematic and rational, is also sensitive to interpretative dilemmas. If applied carefully, it can serve as a way of informally preparing lay people for eventual legal action.

The analytical procedure presented here is only a rough framework. Further study can be made, especially on the details of the argumentative structures. It is also important to develop finer methods in order to use memory optimally in the reconstruction of experiences. Finally, the constant elements of testimonies represent more than only qualitative value. They have also been used as a basis for quantitative data collection (McNeilly et al., 1996; Williams, Yu & Jackson, 1997). The first category, the Context, provides a basis for information about the range of situations where discrimination occurs. The second category, the Complication (non-acceptable practice(s), if generalized over many examples, holds information about the patterns of discrimination. The final category, the Reaction, if quantified, gives information about the frequency of protest, who are involved in actions against racism, the relevant conditions to support women of color in recognizing and claiming their rights as human beings, and, last but not least, to identify which oppositional actions have been successful and why.


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