Definition and Context
Intersectionality refers to “the way overlapping identities—including race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation”—affect how oppression and discrimination are experienced (Dastagir). The term was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 but the idea itself predates Crenshaw, as seen in the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement. The concept of intersectionality rejects the notion that we can understand someone’s experience simply by adding up separate components of their identity as if it was an equation.
Intersectionality is also “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power” (Crenshaw 2015) that has social, political, economic, personal, and bodily implications. In the late 1980s, Crenshaw demonstrated that the legal system discriminated against black women by assuming that their experiences could be explained by combining white women’s and Black men’s experiences (1989, 143). She broke legal ground by insisting that “any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated” (140). This was true not only of institutions like the courts, but even within feminist and civil rights movements (150).
Intersectionality has not always been easy or comfortable to identify, particularly for those with privilege and cultural capital. However, intersectionality has become an increasingly popular tool in analyzing how to make social change. The term recently “received increased attention in part due to how the Women’s March on Washington came together. The rally, which began organically on Facebook, was initially criticized for failing to include any women of color as organizers” (Dastagir). Ultimately, the march was organized by a diverse group of activists with a mission to “support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities” (Mission and Vision).
People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse—all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more (Crenshaw 2015).
While intersectional bodies/identities have historically been overlooked, silenced, and targeted, they are also argued to offer unique standpoints that are needed to understand and critique society as well as to push the boundaries of human thought.
Sources and Further Reading
Collins, Patricia Hill. “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” Social Problems, Vol 33, No. 6, December 1986. Web.
Combahee River Collective. "Statement." In Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Ed. Barbara Smith. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Inc., 1983.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics." University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Web.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait.” The Washington Post, September 24, 2015. Web.
Dastagir, Alia E. “What is Intersectional Feminism? A Look at the Term You May be Hearing A Lot.” USA TODAY, January 19, 2017. Web.
Isler, Jedidah. “The Untapped Genius that Could Change Science for the Better.” TED Talk. TED Fellows Retreat, August 2015. Web.
“Mission and Vision.” Women’s March, womensmarch.com. Web.
Kristin Novotny, Ph.D.
Professor, Core Division