Understanding Intersectionality

Understanding Intersectionality

Intersectionality is the idea that identity cannot be fully understood via a single lens such as gender, race, or class alone—what legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) called a “single axis framework” (p. 139). Rather, our identities and the social meaning attributed to them must be understood in their interdependence on one another; identity is multidimensional. For example, one is not just a woman but a white heterosexual cisgender able-bodied woman. All of these identities interact in complex ways that shape how this particular woman will experience gender. Prior to Crenshaw popularizing the term, scholars had been writing


about the problematics of a single axis of analysis for many years. Many of these scholars were and are Black, transnational, and queer feminists who have problematized the idea that there is a singular female experience that feminism speaks to and under which all women can be gathered.

In the mid-19th century, at a time of struggle against slavery as well as patriarchy, abolitionist Sojourner Truth advocated for both the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. In a famous speech she gave in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights convention, known as the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, Truth expressed concern that abolitionists were focused primarily on the issues of Black men to the exclusion of Black women and issues of women’s political rights. Truth was also concerned with property rights, which most women did not have (Brah & Phoenix, 2004). In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, many feminists of Color theorized about intersectionality (though not always using that term). Among them were the Combahee River Collective of Black feminist activist scholars such as Cathy Cohen and Angela Davis, and artist activists such as Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, who examined the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race (Brah & Phoenix, 2004; Collins & Bilge, 2016). Other Black feminists also continued the theorizing and interrogation of lived intersectionality in such institutions as justice, education, and the family (Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1991; hooks, 1994). Transnational feminists such as Chandra Mohanty and Inderpal Grewal challenged the notion that there was an essential experience of womanhood and examined the experiences of women living under colonialism. Among the issues they were concerned with was the fetishizing of non-Western bodies (Grewal & Kaplan, 1994; Mohanty, 1988; Shohat, 1998). Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Norma Alarcón critiqued the nature of borders, nationhood, and belonging under multidimensional axes of difference including gender, sexuality, class, status, and language (Garcia, 1989). Asian feminists such as Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, and Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Indigenous feminists such as Paula Gunn Allen and Lee Maracle, queer feminists such as Andrea Smith and Judith Butler, and crip feminists such as Kim Q. Hall and Nirmala Erevelles all contributed (and some continue to contribute) to our collective understanding of intersectional oppressions.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Our intention is to illustrate how widely the issues related to intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and other identities have been examined, and the role that women—and women of Color in particular—have played in this theoretical examination. This is important because much of class theorizing has been centered on the work of male scholars. Yet


intersectional theorizing has not only informed academia but also contemporary activist movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and Idle No More.

When Occupy, women’s rights, or gay rights activists gather around a single issue, the tensions of intersectionality inevitably arise. For example, in the early AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the programs and outreach created in response did not take into account the barriers different communities faced. Peoples of Color with HIV were dealing with racism as well as homophobia, yet existing programs were based on White cultural norms and networks. Indeed, the sympathetic face of HIV/AIDS is a gay White man. Without an intersectional analysis, peoples of Color with HIV were left out of drug trials, educational campaigns, and support systems. In many major cities they were forced to start their own organizations or be left behind.

As activists who may be part of such movements there are some strategies you can consider, including some of the key tenets of intersectionality:

Social inequality cannot be understood by examining categories such as gender, race, and socioeconomic status in isolation. For example, Sarah is White, cis-female, heterosexual, able-bodied, working class, and middle-aged. To understand her experience under sexism she also has to take into account her experience under racism; while she is female, she is most particularly a White female. Thus, her experience under sexism will be different than a Black female’s experience. While she is disadvantaged under sexism and will face barriers rooted in patriarchy, she still benefits from racism; racism is not a form of oppression she will face. In fact, she will benefit from racism and these benefits may help her get further ahead in male- dominated environments than women of Color. People can experience privilege and oppression simultaneously depending on what situation or specific context they are in. So while Sarah may be paid less than a White man in her workplace, she will likely be paid more than a Black woman in that same workplace. While her clothes and toiletries cost more than a man’s—even though she is likely to earn less than a man in her same occupation— she won’t likely be followed around in the mall under the assumption that she will steal, as her Black coworker more likely will be. Intersectionality is more than a theoretical standpoint. It is intended to build coalitions among diverse groups so that their actions are


more equitable and effective. Imagine what could be accomplished if Mr. Poor White from our opening parable had joined with the Black man to challenge the exploitation by Mr. Rich White.

An intersectional analysis of oppression requires that we attend to the above tenets. When we want to address a particular oppression such as classism, we often seek out statistical data alone to inform our understanding of the issue. But doing so from this single lens limits our understanding. If we add an intersectional analysis, our understanding of classism deepens and becomes multidimensional. This gives us a much more complex and nuanced view and will drive more complex and nuanced interventions.

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