When we talk about equality or about protected characteristics, we often talk about one characteristic at a time. So we think about gender, about the pay gap between women and men, sexism, or the glass ceiling. We think about race, about the lack of people of colour in senior positions, about educational attainment gaps for young BME (black and minority ethnic) young people, and about the Black Lives Matter movement. We might think about class and wealth, for example, the fact that working class boys are least likely to attend university (see Educated Pass) or that four million children are still living in poverty in the UK (DWP, 2017).
But we know inequality doesn’t happen one characteristic at a time. Different aspects of our identity overlap and entwine to make up who we are – we are gendered AND classed AND raced. Intersectionality, at its simplest, is a way of understanding how these different characteristics ‘intersect’ and how this contributes to inequality.
Intersectionality was coined by lawyer and academic Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. While not exactly new – feminists and activists had been writing about overlapping markers of identity for many years (McCall, 2005) – intersectionality was not formally named as such until Crenshaw’s paper (Crenshaw, 1989).
Crenshaw argues that a focus on “subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis” (i.e. gender OR race OR class) “marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 140). Currently a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University, Crenshaw based her definition on several legal cases, including DeGraffenreid v General Motors (1976), a case in which five black women (including the lead plaintiff Emma DeGraffenreid) alleged that General Motors was discriminating against black women.
Now, the judge in question dismissed Emma’s suit, and the argument for dismissing the suit was that the employer did hire African-Americans and the employer hired women. […] [W]hat Emma was actually trying to say, [was] that the African-Americans that were hired, usually for industrial jobs, maintenance jobs, were all men. And the women that were hired, usually for secretarial or front-office work, were all white. Only if the court was able to see how these policies came together would he be able to see the double discrimination that Emma DeGraffenreid was facing. (Crenshaw, 2016)
Crenshaw ultimately points out “that Black women can experience discrimination in ways that are both similar to and different from those experienced by white women and Black men” (Crenshaw 1989, p. 149).
So it occurred to me, maybe a simple analogy to an intersection might allow judges to better see Emma’s dilemma. So if we think about this intersection, the roads to the intersection would be the way that the workforce was structured by race and by gender. And then the traffic in those roads would be the hiring policies and the other practices that ran through those roads. Now, because Emma was both black and female, she was positioned precisely where those roads overlapped, experiencing the simultaneous impact of the company’s gender and race traffic. The law […] is like that ambulance that shows up and is ready to treat Emma only if it can be shown that she was harmed on the race road or on the gender road but not where those roads intersected. (Crenshaw 2016)
Thus, the term intersectional was born.
Applications and uses of intersectionality
Intersectionality is simultaneously simple and difficult to define. While Crenshaw’s explanation makes sense, the widespread use of the term in different disciplines over the past 25 years has resulted in ambiguity. Patricia Hill Collins and Valerie Chepp summarise the various definitions of intersectionality as theory (including as a theory of identity, theoretical contribution and paradigm), as perspective, concept, or type of analysis, as a methodological approach or analytical perspective, and as something people ‘experience’ (Collins & Chepp, 2013, p. 2). They conclude that “while this ambiguity and inconsistency likely result from a well-intentioned effort on the part of scholars to advance the promise of intersectionality, the slippage in terminology can feel imprecise and foster uneven outcomes” (Collins & Chepp, 2013, p. 2).
In an essay, Crenshaw (1991) set out three categories or arenas for intersectionality:
- structural intersectionality – the way race and gender intersect and mean women of colour experience inequality (rape, domestic violence) fundamentally differently than white women.
- political intersectionality – how women of colour have been marginalised from liberation politics.
- representational intersectionality – that women of colour are either invisible or problematically represented in popular culture.
These are the key areas on which intersectional thinking has focused in the past 25 years. In a 2008 article exploring the usefulness of intersectionality, Kathy Davis indicates that intersectionality has been useful in a wide range of feminist areas, including postcolonial theory, diaspora studies, and queer theory (Davis, 2008, p. 71). Leslie McCall, in a 2005 article ‘The Complexity of Intersectionality’, writes that “one could even say that intersectionality is the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies […] has made so far” (p. 1771). Certainly, it is almost unimaginable in 2017 that any examination of lived experience would not take into account intersecting categories of identity.
The broad understanding of intersectionality has led to much debate about the application of intersectional theory and its usefulness for studying society. Some have criticised the way intersectional approaches that begin with Women of Colour (WOC), like Crenshaw’s, are in danger of reproducing black women as the Other, and reifying sex/gender as the foundational identifier: “that is to say, sexual and gender difference is understood as the constant from which there are variants” (Puar, 2011). Furthermore, Puar argues that “the centrality of the subject positioning of white women has been re-secured through the way in which intersectionality has been deployed” (Puar, 2011). Puar defines intersectionality and then offers an overview of critiques of intersectional theory, drawing on Donna Haraway’s cyborg/goddess distinction.
However, Davis ultimately concludes that it is “precisely the vagueness and open-endedness of ‘intersectionality’ [which] may be the very secret to its success” – its wide applicability and the ease with which it can be incorporated into any analytical approach.
Intersectional thinking is certainly evident at the University of Edinburgh. In Philosophy, teaching staff created a Diversity Reading List to help lecturers diversify an overwhelmingly white male curriculum to include people of colour and women (read more about the project on Teaching Matters: http://edin.ac/2hRkYP6). In History, a postgraduate student created an online tool to help others teach more inclusively (find out more via Teaching Matters: http://edin.ac/2iaQ1oU). The University’s LGBT+ staff network (University of Edinburgh Staff Pride Network) works proactively to improve the experiences of LGBT+ staff at the intersection of other identities.
There is certainly a need for a measured and careful approach when thinking about how different aspects of identity overlap and intersect, but it’s clear that the fundamental need to think intersectionally about people’s experiences is not going away. On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly important: and there is plenty we can do.
Find out more about intersectionality
Videos, talks, blog posts
Crenshaw TED talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality
A recording of a 2014 Lecture by Crenshaw, ‘Justice Rising: moving intersectionally in the age of post-everything’. http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2360
Intersectionality Matters – a series of short videos by MenStoppingViolence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBb5TgOXgNY&list=PL809F7D5DF51ED9CE
Buzzfeed. (2015). What is Privilege? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hD5f8GuNuGQ&feature=youtu.be
An Intersectional Gaze at Nationalist Projects: Prof Nira Yuval-Davis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiOAdou8B9o
Thinking Gender 2010: Race-ing Resistance in Queer and Trans Politics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF3n7bOeUUA
Everybody Belongs: A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. http://criaw-icref.ca/sites/criaw/files/Everyone_Belongs_e.pdf
Bowleg, L. (2008). When black + lesbian + woman [not equal to] black lesbian woman: the methodological challenges of qualitative and quantitative intersectionality research. Sex Roles, 59, pp. 312-325.
Brah, Avtar and Phoenix, Ann (2004). Ain’t I a woman? Revisiting intersectionality. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5(3), 75-86. http://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol5/iss3/8 [A historical approach examining class, imperialism, and postcoloniality in nineteenth-century feminist anti-slavery discourse.]
Collins, P. H. (2008). Black feminist thought.
Erevelles, Nirmala; Minear, Andrea (2010). Unspeakable offenses: untangling race and disability in discourses of intersectionality. In Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 4(2), pp. 127-145. DOI: 10.1353/jlc.2010.0004 [Looks at the experiences of those at the intersections of race, class, gender, and disability.]
Ilmonen, K. (2017). Identity politics revisited: on Audre Lorde, intersectionality, and mobilizing writing styles. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 1–16. http://doi.org/10.1177/1350506817702410