Whilst the fundamental concept has been articulated in one way or another in academic and social change discourse for at least 100 years, the term intersectionality was first coined by lawyer, civil rights advocate, and philosopher Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, in her 1989 article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (access her article in full for free here).
She used the term to describe the problematic tendency in antidiscrimination law to only consider discrimination on a single axis, that is, to only consider gender, or only consider race. Crenshaw argued that having multiple characteristics that are discriminated against, in her articles examples, being Black and a woman, requires more complex consideration because the lived experience is more complex: the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of the single axis discriminations. It’s a unique experience that can’t be described by just describing each single type of discrimination. Crenshaw describes it best:
Black women can experience discrimination in ways that are both similar to and different from those experienced by white women and Black men. Black women sometimes experience discrimination in ways similar to white women’s experiences; sometimes they share very similar experiences with Black men. Yet often they experience double-discrimination-the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex. And sometimes, they experience discrimination as Black women-not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women [my emphasis]. (Crenshaw, 1989, pg 149)
Crenshaw argues that anti-discrimination law has been discriminatory because cases of gender discrimination will generally only be successful for women without other characteristics of discrimination (so mostly white, native English speaking, middle and upper-class cis-gendered women, without disabilities) and racial discrimination cases will generally only be successful for Black men and men of colour without other characteristics of discrimination.
Black women are protected only to the extent that their experiences coincide with those of either of the two groups [white women and Black men]. (Crenshaw, 1989, pg 143)
If the concept isn’t making enough sense yet, I recommend reading the case analysis of DeGraffenreid v General Motors on page 141 of Crenshaw’s article – I thought it demonstrated the concept well and the language isn’t too dense (although I didn’t know what “adduced” and a couple of other legal terms meant but I could glean enough meaning from the rest of the words to make sense of it).
Since Crenshaw’s coining of the term, the concept of intersectionality has broadened beyond an analysis of intersecting gender and race discrimination and has become a widely used framework to analyse power, extending to all social categories and how they impact disadvantage, but also how they impact advantage.
For example, a white cis-gendered man has the structural advantages that come with being racialised white, as well as the structural advantages that come with being a cis-gendered man. BUT these two categories of advantage work together, they intersect, in a way that gives advantages beyond just being white or just being cis-gendered male. Layer (intersect) this with advantages of class, education, citizenship, native English speaking, sexuality, ability, body size, and appearance, and you’ve got one hell of an advantaged player! And most of them unearned advantages (check out the video on Power for more on this).
If you’re keen to learn more about structural discrimination, grab the free guide Analysing Structural Disadvantage (on the home page).
The challenges of becoming more aware of intersectionality
Thinking about our own intersecting experiences of disadvantage and advantage can be a confronting and distressing activity.
It can bring awareness that challenges our existing identity as either someone who’s suffered a lot (but also has lots of structural advantages) or someone who’s indestructible and powerful (but also has a lot of structural disadvantages).
For example, sometimes, if home life wasn’t safe enough when someone was growing up, they can be strongly connected to their experience of suffering and may develop a rigid identity as someone who’s suffered a lot. This can make it hard to notice the advantages they get if, for example, they are racialised white, able-bodied, and a native English speaker. In the other direction, developing a rigid identity of being powerful, strong, and capable of anything, (sometimes in reaction against discrimination, sometimes just from a great childhood) can make it hard to notice the ways one might be impacted by discrimination.
It’s also challenging to reflect on our own experiences of intersecting advantages and disadvantages because it can set us up for comparison and competition – who’s suffered the most – the victim Olympics – where only transgendered women who are bi-racial (Black and indigenous), orphans, non-English speaking, stateless, lower class, with visible disability, facial differences, chronic illness, and large bodies, are the ‘winners’.
In my therapeutic work, I tend to notice this comparison happens most commonly as a way to minimise and therefore protect the person from really connecting with their suffering (others have it worse than me so I don’t have a right to feel bad).
Sometimes it happens the other way (no one understands how bad it is for me, I suffer more than everyone else) which most often means one of two things: a) the person themselves is struggling to validate their own suffering enough and so looks to others to do it but no one can ever do it enough because the person themselves can’t do it, or b) the person is using their ‘victim experience’ as a way to feel power (I suffer a lot so do what I tell you) because they don’t know how else to feel powerful (and feeling some kind of power is essential to the psyche).
Why become aware of intersecting advantages and disadvantages?
Becoming aware of how harm is happening in our cultures helps identify what needs attention and transformation. Understanding the complexity of how harm is caused and how harm is experienced helps stop us from jumping to quick-fix solutions that 99% of the time replicate harm rather than relieve it. Harm is complex and there are no easy solutions but I tend to think the process at least involves being able to sit in complexity, with directness, compassion, and relatedness.
This isn’t a bad recipe for how to explore your own experiences of intersecting advantages and disadvantages – with inner directness, compassion, and relatedness, and holding off on jumping to quick fixes.
One last implication of intersectionality
The concept of intersectionality also suggests that eliminating discrimination in society doesn’t really work if we only focus on one type/axis of discrimination and exclude others.
What else would you add to this description of intersectionality?
What did it stimulate in your own reflections on society, discrimination, advantage, and your own experiences?
Share your thoughts in the comments below and let’s learn together.