On intersectionality

Intersectional feminism is a phrase that has been thrown around a lot recently. It can be a confusing concept, but it’s important to understand.

Intersectionality is a theory or study of intersecting social identities and how they relate to systems of oppression or discrimination. Translation: things like race, orientation, identity, etc create a bunch of different layers of discrimination. The term was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 when she was the professor of law at UCLA in a paper titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimintion Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antirasict Politics”. She started to use the term after she heard the story of Emma DeGraffenreid and a few other black women who sued General Motors for discrimination. The company hired black people and the company hired women, so the claim was dismissed. The court wasn’t seeing a vital part of the picture. The only black people hired were men and the only women hired were white. DeGraffenreid and the other women were caught in the intersection of the two factors of gender and race. This experience she called intersectionality.

According to Crenshaw in her powerful TED Talk, the problem was one of frame. The courts didn’t have a frame through which they could see DeGraffenreid’s problem, and no word to use when talking about it. When there is no way to discuss an issue, those affected fall through the cracks and are forgotten. It can be assumed that if an issue effects black people and women, then black people who are women and women who are black people will be protected by the solution. She refers to this as a “trickle down approach to social justice”.  This one size fits all approach to feminism is harmful and ineffective. If the problem isn’t viewed with concern for ALL members of the targeted group, then the problem won’t go away. The attempt at inclusivity erases the specific group of issues that face different subgroups of the movement. It is the #AllLivesMatter of feminism.

Here’s a quick example of how this would work. A company sets a goal of hiring more women. 70% of the applicant pool are women of color. The company reaches their goal of hiring more women, but only 10% of the new workforce is made up of women of color. The male portion of the workforce has equal employment for different races. The company doesn’t discriminate in terms of gender or race, but when you combine race and gender there is discrimination. That is where intersectional injustice can be seen and fought against.

This problem of intersectionality has grown from a race issue to an issue that effecting every woman who experiences multiple levels of social injustice. Crenshaw brings up issues of homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, and xenophobia. There are countless others she doesn’t list.

Some people don’t experience intersectional social injustice in their lives. That doesn’t mean that it is not an issue. For feminism to be effective and inclusive, it has to be intersectional. Women of color, trans women, women of a low socioeconomic status, gay women, disabled women, older women, women with mental disabilities, and others experience discrimination for things other than gender. Ignoring their struggles only sets everyone back.

Intersectionality isn’t the thing that will magically make discrimination and oppression disappear. Intersectionality will bring those who are forgotten back into the eye of the public so they can finally be helped. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be an easy change. With work and effort the concept of intersectionality won’t be foreign and policies will finally reflect and work in favor of everyone.

Every good wish,


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