Have you ever heard the term intersectionality and wondered what it means? Better yet, why is it important when we’re discussing the discrimination that different groups of people face? If so, this post is for you.
What is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a sociological theory about how an individual can face multiple threats of discrimination when their identities overlap a number of minority classes, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, health and other characteristics.
For example, a woman of color may face sexism in the workplace which is compounded by subtle yet pervasive racism. Extending that example further, we know that trans* women of color face exceptionally high levels of discrimination and threats of violence. Looking through the lens of intersectionality, it may not be hard to see why: they face anti-trans prejudice, sexism and misogyny, and racism, and due to the ignorance surrounding trans identity, might also face homophobia too.
While intersectionality is traditionally applied to women, it’s not just women who are affected by this phenomena of overlapping minority status. A man from a Hispanic background could face xenophobia in today’s America despite being a naturalized citizen, which in turn may be compounded by, for instance, a low economic status. If that Hispanic man is in his 50s, ageism might add to the discrimination he could face in trying to secure employment.
More precisely though, intersectionality describes the higherarchical nature of power and how belonging to multiple discriminated classes can mean that one’s issues are ignored.
Who Came up with the Term Intersectionality and Why?
The term intersectionality itself is attributed to legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and her 1989 essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” though the actual notion behind intersectionality extends further back than that, with academics recognizing the problem as early as the 19th century.
Crenshaw coined the term to express the particular problems that immigrant women of color face and, crucially, why their issues were being ignored by both the feminist movement of the time, and the anti-racism movement.
Often, the problems intersectional experiences reveal is not that individual people are overtly sexist or racist, but that the legal and policy mechanisms we have in place to deal with complaints like, for instance, an immigrant woman who doesn’t speak English trying to report her abusive husband, are stacked against people with a multiple minority identity by, for example, not having interpreters on hand, or not understanding enough about the woman’s particular cultural heritage to understand the best way to deal with her situation.
Intersectionality Isn’t Popular With Everyone
Within each separate movement, such as feminism and the anti-racism movement, there are those who say that intersectionality is actually harmful to their individual causes. The arguments against intersectionality tend to focus on a few areas. One is that intersectionality is a nonsense word and in reality doesn’t describe anything. If a woman experiences racism then it is racism. If she experiences sexism then it is sexism. There is no need to overlap these, so the school of thought goes. But there is a strong body of evidence to suggest that discrimination does overlap, so while we might deal with the issues separately, denying that overlap could leave people vulnerable.
That’s not to say that intersectionality as an analytical tool doesn’t have its problems, however, and one of the chief ones is that for both scholars of racism and feminism, it remains a rather murkily defined tool and one that we are still struggling to effectively apply in our discussions of discrimination and how to protect multiple-minority people.
Another more general point is that looking at the smaller problems minorities within the larger movement face could rob the entire movement of its power. Answering that criticism explains quite neatly the role intersectionality can have in today’s civil rights movements, and so we’ll move on to that topic next.
Why Does Intersectionality Matter to Modern Civil Rights Movements?
While accepting that intersectionality needs refining as a tool, a majority of social commentators and mainstream feminist and racial justice groups believe intersectionality does have an important role to play in today’s civil rights movements.
Take the gay rights movement that is often called upon to speak for the wider LGBTQA umbrella. Our figureheads are overwhelmingly white cis-gendered and able-bodied men and women, and while that’s understandable, it can be a problem. This is not to say that they themselves are discriminating against anyone at all, but rather that they are representative of only one aspect of the LGBT community — and in this case, an aspect that is very close to the majority heterosexual experience.
Seen in this way, it becomes obvious why, in particular when the media sees only this face of the LGBT rights movement, the problems that, say, LGBT Asian Americans or LGBT people with physical disabilities face might be forgotten and their goals, like changing laws for better health care or job discrimination protections, may not be achieved because of a lack of attention.
To return us to intersectionality’s main focus, that being the problems that women of color face due to sexism and racism, we see this manifesting today in many ways, not least of which is in the fight for reproductive justice and how the closing of women’s health clinics and the passing of antagonistic anti-abortion measures can disproportionately affect women of color, and particularly those from lower economic backgrounds.
As such, while intersectionality might not be a perfect tool, recognizing its uses and limitations does help us to ensure that we aren’t overlooking the challenges people belonging to multiple minorities face as we move toward the goal of a fairer and more equal society.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.