What exactly is “intersectionality”?

Intersectionality” has become something of a buzzword, similar to “diversity” and “inclusion.” It seems to be a shell of a concept. Worse yet, “intersectionality” is often misused as merely a tool for identifying individuals. Some believe that having an intersectional perspective means acknowledging that some people have multiple marginalized identities. Intersectionality is so much more than that.   We need to retreat to the source of the term “intersectionality” to understand its meaning and import.





In her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) argued that Black women are excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that usually does not reflect the intersection of race and gender. She explained that the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism. Crenshaw followed this groundbreaking article in 1991 with her article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color,” in which she explained that intersectionality should not be conceived as “some new, totalizing theory of identity” (1991, 1244). 

Rather, “Mapping the Margins” illustrated how multiple identities come together to shape the social world. Crenshaw demonstrated this when she explained the relationship between “structural intersectionality” and “political intersectionality.” Structural intersectional refers to a “convergence of ‘race, gender, and class domination’ wherein social interventions designed to ameliorate the results of only racism, or sexism, or poverty would be insufficient to address the needs of a woman of color marginalized by the interaction of all three systems of power.” (Cooper, 2015, 2; Crenshaw 1991, 1252). Political intersectionality, however, looks outward to “highlight that women of color are situated within at least two subordinated groups that frequently pursue conflicting political agendas” (Crenshaw 1252).
Much research assumes that combining marginalized social categories results in an additive effect, that multiple marginalized identities will necessarily produce multiple jeopardy (i.e., the intersection of two or more low status positions) or multiple advantage (i.e., the intersection of two or more high social status positions). (Bowleg 2008). However, this conceptualization of intersectionality directly contradicts Crenshaw’s formulation of the concept. She wrote that the intersectional experience is more than the sum of racism and sexism. Instead, intersectionality examines how various social power relations intersect and interact to shape experiences. Intersectionality is not just that social hierarchies exist.  (Bowleg 2008, 313; Collins 1998).
Intersectionality is not merely a naming tool, nor is it a tool for categorizing. It is meant to be a theory which may be used to understand how identities interact with structures and institutions.
How do you incorporate intersectionality into your diversity and inclusion efforts? How do you think it can be used?
Bowleg, Lisa. 2008. “When Black + Lesbian + Woman ≠ Black Lesbian Woman: The Methodological Challenges of Qualitative and Quantitative Intersectionality Research.” Sex Roles 59:312–325.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1998. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Cooper, Brittney. 2015. “Intersectionality.” Pp. 385-406 in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, edited by Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracial Politics” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989: 139–167.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–1299.