Intersectionality examines how a person’s identities, such as their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, affect their access to opportunities and privileges. First coined in 1989, the theory has since been applied to employment, housing, healthcare, and so on. In this article, we’ll define what intersectionality is, explain the facts everyone should know, and provide examples of the concept in action.
Intersectionality is an analytical framework used to study how societies treat people based on their various social and political identities, such as their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. Depending on those identities, a person may be privileged or oppressed.
What is intersectionality and where did it come from?
To understand intersectionality, we must first discuss feminism. In its first and second waves, feminism focused on the goals of cisgender, white, middle-class women. Priorities like the right to vote and the right to own property mattered, but women of color, women living in poverty, and other disenfranchised women faced other struggles, some more urgent than others. Mainstream feminism tended to neglect these concerns.
While mainstream feminists focused almost exclusively on gender, others wanted to recognize and address how race impacted a person, as well. In the 1970s, a group of Black feminists established the Combahee River Collective in response to how white feminists and the Black Liberation movement (which was dominated by men) ignored this fact. In their 1977 statement, the group wrote that they saw their task as “the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”
In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to define the exclusion faced by Black women. In 1990, academic Patricia Hill Collins introduced the theory of “the matrix of domination” in her book Black Feminist Thought. The matrix describes how social classifications like ethnicity, gender, age, and even religion are interconnected. Thanks to this matrix, people can experience oppression in a variety of ways related to their classifications. Intersectionality and the matrix of domination are closely connected.
Curious about feminism? Here’s our Feminism 101 article.
What five facts should everyone know about intersectionality?
Intersectionality is complex, but here are five of the most important facts you should remember:
#1 The roots of intersectionality go deeper than 1989
The term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989, but people had been experiencing its impacts long before. Consider the story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was a journalist and activist in both the suffrage and civil rights movements. As a Black woman, she was fully aware of how having multiple identities affected her experience in the world. When she began a campaign to elect the first Black alderman in Illinois, some Black men protested the involvement of women. Around that same time, Wells-Barnett also faced opposition from southern women in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. These women were white supremacists, but because they represented a powerful bloc, NAWSA would not publicly denounce their beliefs. Through experiences like these, Wells-Barnett faced both gender and racial discrimination.
#2 Intersectionality is not about a person’s moral superiority
One common misconception about intersectionality is that it defines someone’s value. Some think it means that multiple marginalized identities make a person more moral, credible, and important than those who don’t have as many. Intersectionality starts to feel like a competition where people argue about which identities are more oppressed and therefore superior. This is a grave misunderstanding of intersectionality. The theory is centered on discrimination and oppression by the state. It’s not making any claims about an individual’s or even a group’s worth, credibility, or morality. Rather, it’s a framework focused on how power and discrimination work when someone has intersecting identities. The person is not inherently better or more important; their identities simply affect their access to opportunities.
#3 Critics say intersectionality is oversimplified and divisive
Intersectionality has many critics. Some argue that categorizing people based on different identities oversimplifies how power and discrimination work. Others say that emphasizing identity will inevitably lead to divisions and tension within human rights movements, as some will feel certain identities are prioritized over others. The more extreme criticisms, often from people who want to deny the existence of widespread sexism and racism, go so far as to call intersectionality a cult or even a religion. It can be difficult to parse the good-faith criticisms from the bad-faith ones, but in general, it seems that most people won’t deny that characteristics like race and gender do affect how oppression works. What they disagree with are its “implications, uses, and most importantly, its consequences.”
#4 As it becomes more well-known, intersectionality becomes more watered down
For years, the term “intersectionality” was restricted to the scholarly and legal world. As its prominence increased, the definition became warped and watered down. In an article for The Cut, Kory Stamper wrote that when words meant for a specific purpose enter the mainstream, they can get “a little flabby: their sharply delineated corners blur a bit as the word is passed down a long line of speakers.” While intersectionality once specifically described discrimination against Black women, it now covers a vast array of identities such as sexuality, class, age, and so on. Kimberlé Crenshaw agrees that intersectionality can be used to examine identities beyond race and gender, but she’s noticed that people often use intersectionality as shorthand for “it’s complicated.” In her mind, that can be an excuse to not act. When words lose their meaning, they also lose their power.
#5 Intersectionality is not a theory of everything
When certain critics call intersectionality a cult or religion, they’ve misunderstood the concept’s purpose. Intersectionality is a lens, and while it can be used to make sense of society in general, it was designed for lawyers arguing discrimination cases. In an interview, Kimberlé Crenshaw says, “Some people look to intersectionality as a grand theory of everything, but that’s not my intention.” Intersectionality is a tool, and like all tools, we can decide what situations it’s most useful for.
What are examples of intersectionality?
Where can we apply an intersectional lens? Here are four topics where intersectionality brings clarity:
#1 Workplace discrimination
A lot of discrimination happens in the workplace. In fact, the theory of intersectionality came out of a specific workplace discrimination case. In DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1976), five Black female auto workers accused their employer of discrimination. The courts claimed that because General Motors hired Black male factory workers and white female officer workers, no race or gender discrimination was occurring. The courts did not consider that Black women were being targeted because they were both Black and female. They instead said the lawsuit must be viewed for “race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, not a combination of both.” The plaintiffs were not allowed to “combine statutory remedies.” The five auto workers were told to choose between being Black or being women, while in reality, their experiences were shaped by both identities.
#2 The gender pay gap
The gender pay gap remains a persistent issue, but if we only consider gender, we miss the full picture. In the United States, Black women make just 67 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the gap costs Black women $907,680 over a 40-year career. Education only helps so much. Black women working full-time with a bachelor’s degree earn less than white, non-Hispanic men who don’t have a college degree. It’s only until they earn a Master’s degree do Black women earn more than what a white, non-Hispanic man makes with an associate’s degree. The wage gap becomes more complex when looking at other ethnicities, such as Asian American or Pacific Islander. Within this group, the wage gap varies significantly as multiracial Asian women earn 98 cents for each dollar, but “Asian women alone” earn $1.01 for every dollar. Complexities like this support the need for an intersectional lens.
#3 Discrimination against people experiencing homelessness
People experiencing homelessness face layers of discrimination. They’re most likely experiencing poverty, which can be exacerbated by mental health issues, addictions, disabilities, and more. When governments create harsh laws surrounding homelessness, they’re essentially criminalizing – and discriminating – based on poverty, health, ability, and so on. According to OHCHR, people experiencing homelessness have their political, economic and social rights threatened, such as the right to work, the right to access social benefits and the right to vote. When examined with an intersectional lens, we can see issues related to socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, and much more.
Homelessness is a complex issue. Here’s our article on its root causes.
#4 Health and healthcare
Race, gender, sexuality, and health collide. According to research, Black women exposed to racism in employment, housing and police interactions could be up to 26% more likely to develop heart disease. The study tracked 48,000 women from 1997 to 2019, and while the study was observational, it supports other research regarding the impact of racism, stress, and health. Black women are also more likely to die in childbirth. According to 2021 data from the CDC, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 2.6 times the rate for white women. The reasons are complex, but other data shows a prevalence of systemic racism and bias in the healthcare system. Black women are more likely to have their health concerns dismissed, while many doctors still believe the myth that Black people have higher pain tolerances. The disparities widen when Black patients are also members of the LGBTQ+ community. Research shows that trans people of color experience worse health outcomes, more stigma, and more discrimination.