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To my surprise, I came across an article posted on Huffington Post yesterday that mentions “double jeopardy” — here, in the academic sense. The article reviews a study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that leaders of unsuccessful companies in a fictitious news story were more harshly criticized when they were Black women. That is, Black women faced more penalties (in this case, criticism) than Black men, white women, and white men:
In a study conducted by Rosette and Livingston, 228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts — even those of the same race.
What Is “Double Jeopardy”?
I say, “to my surprise,” because a quick search for “double jeopardy” on Google yields site after site about the movie, Double Jeopardy, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd; a search on Wikipedia also yields a page about the film, as well as a few pages about the legal concept of double jeopardy. Ironically, the legal meaning of double jeopardy, in which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, somewhat counters the academic meaning of the term. In this sense, double jeopardy refers to the additional barriers and burdens faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses (e.g., Black women) compared to their singly disadvantaged (e.g., white women and Black men) and privileged counterparts (e.g., white men).
As early as the late 1960s, the term double jeopardy came into use to highlight the unique experiences of Black women, particularly their simultaneous exposure to racism and sexism (and classism). As the second wave feminist movement made progress through the 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights, calls from Black, Chicana, and multicultural feminists, lesbian feminists, and other women who faced other forms of oppression other than sexism to attend to the diverse needs and experiences among women grew louder. Various feminist activists and scholars worked intensely to draw attention to the fact that the category of “woman” and all of its associated experiences and obstacles is not universal; many advocated for a perspective that considers the intersections among sexism, racism, and classism.
Double Jeopardy Versus Intersectionality
Over time, awareness of the full array of systems of oppression that operate simultaneously has evolved to include heterosexism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, xenophobia, and so forth. Obviously, one can be disadvantaged in multiple ways or face “multiple jeopardy,” for example, as a lesbian, woman, Latina, and working-class person. In fact, in my own research, I have found just that: among 15-25 year olds, the more disadvantaged statuses an adolescent or young adult holds (among race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class), the more forms of discrimination one faces (e.g., race and gender and sexual orientation discrimination). And, as a result, these multiply disadvantaged individuals face double or multiple jeopardy in mental and physical health; that is, partially because of their disproportionate exposure to discrimination, they face even more depressive symptoms and worse physical health than more privileged youth.
While the notion of multiple jeopardies — almost easily counted based on the number of disadvantaged statuses one holds — is still used in some research, especially in sociological work on health, it has fallen out of favor among scholars who study the intersections among race, gender, and class. This is, in part, because the idea of adding up one’s statuses, essentially adding one’s exposure to sexism to one’s exposure to racism and so on, misses the ways in which these identities and systems of oppression intersect. Or, said another way, racism + sexism + classism misses how one experiences the world as a working-class Black woman, an experience that is not merely the sum of working-class experiences + Black experiences + woman experiences. These systems of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another in such a way, for example, that homophobic policies like the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy harm Black women more than any other group.
Should We Do Away With Double Jeopardy?
Well, if we meant the literal experience of multiple systems of oppression — yes, we should do away with it. But, what I mean here is, if it seems the notion of “double jeopardy” misses the ways in which systems of oppression intersect, should we stop using it in the way that we understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals? Having used the concept in past and current research, it might seem I have a vested interest in calling for the continued use of the concept.
Like any good researcher, I would say the appropriateness, relevance, and usefulness of the concept depends on your research question. In health research, documenting whether multiply disadvantaged groups are at elevated risk for illness and disease necessarily calls for a comparison with singly disadvantaged and privileged groups. For example, lesbian and bisexual women’s elevated risk for obesity is identified by comparing them to heterosexual women, gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual men. But, what causes that elevated risk — factors brought on or exacerbated by sexism and heterosexism — can be said to be evidence of double jeopardy (sexism + heterosexism) and intersectionality (the intersection of sexism and heterosexism).
As such, in general, I would recommend that we need both perspectives — multiple jeopardy and intersectionality — to fully understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals and their more privileged counterparts. Even if you use only one of these two perspectives, you are contributing to what little we know about the lives and experiences of, and challenges faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses.