What Is Intersectionality, and Why Is It Important?

Editor’s note: This Care2 favorite was originally posted on August 21, 2014. Enjoy!

Have you ever heard the term “intersectionality” and wondered what it means? If so, this post is for you.

What Is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a sociological theory describing multiple threats of discrimination when an individual’s identities overlap with 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 pervasive racism. Similarly, trans women of color face exceptionally high levels of discrimination and threats of violence. Looking through the lens of intersectionality, it’s not hard to see why: these women potentially face anti-trans prejudice, sexism, misogyny, racism and — due to the ignorance surrounding trans identity — homophobia.

While intersectionality is traditionally applied to women, a person of any gender may be 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. 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 hierarchical nature of power and the fact that belonging to multiple discriminated classes can mean that one’s issues are ignored.

Who Invented the Term?

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 thought behind intersectionality emerged much earlier, with academics recognizing the problem in 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  anti-racism movements of the time.

Often, intersectional experiences reveal that existing legal and policy mechanisms are stacked against people with a multiple minority identity. And these institutions may fail to account for critical cultural differences.

A Controversial Word

Within each separate movement — whether feminism or anti-racism — some individuals claim that intersectionality actually harms their personal cause. The arguments against intersectionality tend to focus on proving it to be a meaningless term.  If a woman experiences racism then that’s racism. If she experiences sexism then that’s sexism. There is no need to overlap these forms of discrimination, so the school of thought goes.

But a strong body of evidence suggests that discrimination does overlap. While we might deal with the issues separately, denying that convergence could leave people vulnerable.

That’s not to say that intersectionality as an analytical tool doesn’t have its problems, however. A chief concern is that, for both scholars of racism and feminism, it remains a rather murkily defined perspective – and one that we are still struggling to effectively apply.

The Modern Civil Rights Movement

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 community. These figureheads are overwhelmingly whitecis-gendered, able-bodied men and women — and that can be a problem, given that they are representative of only one aspect of the LGBT community.

And in terms of feminism, the closing of women’s health clinics and the passing of antagonistic anti-abortion measures can disproportionately affect women of color — particularly those from lower economic backgrounds.

As such, while intersectionality might not be a perfect term, recognizing its uses and limitations helps to ensure that we don’t overlook the challenges faced by people who belong to multiple marginalized groups as we strive to achieve a more just society.

Photo Credit: Dimitar Belchev/Unsplash


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