The Meaning of Intersectionality

Part 2 of Intersectionality series

By: Takeia R. Johnson

Scholars have offered various definitions of “intersectionality.” I will focus on the definitions put forth by Kimberlé Crenshaw (see first post in series) – credited with coining the term, Patricia Hill Collins – foremost scholar on intersectionality as theory and praxis, and Leslie McCall – often cited critic of intersectionality.

In her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” Kimberlé 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 intersectionality 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). 

Intersectionality is important because it takes into account the particular ways in which Black women are subordinated. (Crenshaw, 1989). It demonstrates “the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed” (Crenshaw, 1991, 1245). Intersectionality, however, has been treated as an account of identity, even though Crenshaw was clear that it was not meant to be. (Crenshaw 1991, 1244). Intersectionality is not merely a tool for categorizing.

It is meant to be used to understand how identities interact with structures and institutions. Intersectionality is not merely a naming tool.

Collins, along with co-author Sirma Bilge (2016), generally define intersectionality as: 

“a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways. When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other. Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves” (Collins and Bilge 2016: 2).

It is a learning device that illuminates power — how power is organized and its relationship to structures and systems. The very essence of intersectionality is that the relationship between power and oppressive structures is intersecting and mutually constructing.

In its essence, intersectionality revolves around six core ideas: 

  1. Social inequality;
  2. Relationality (which rejects either/or binary thinking and embraces both/and frame);
  3. Power (a) through lens of mutual construction (interlocking) (b) power relations must be examined both via their intersections (e.g., racism and sexism) and across domains of power;
  4. Social context;
  5. Complexity; and
  6. Social justice.

Collins (2015) offers the general understanding of intersectionality that refers to “the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities” 2. She further makes an important insight about the task of defining intersectionality: “definitions constitute starting points for investigation rather than end point analysis” 3. Investigation is never finished.

Intersectionality has been used in three ways: (1) as a field of study; (2) an analytical strategy; and (3) as critical praxis (Collins and Bilge 2016; Collins 2019) Field of study relates to “intersectionality’s history, themes, boundaries, debates, and direction” (3). Leslie McCall (2005) and Jennifer Nash (2019, 2017, 2008) engage intersectionality as a field of study. Field of study examples include studying the institutionalization of intersectionality. Typically, ubiquity of a sociological theory is deemed a positive reception to it. Black feminists like Collins investigate this ubiquity by questioning which voices and narratives are accepted positively and which are not.

Analytical strategy refers to how intersectional frameworks provide new angles of vision on social institutions, practices, social problems, and other social phenomena associated with social inequality” (3). 

Critical praxis explores “how social actors use it for social justice projects” (3). Collins argues that critical praxis is where intersectionality needs to focus more attention. I will discuss this argument and how it applies to the legal profession in a later post.

References

Bilge, Sirma. 2013. “INTERSECTIONALITY UNDONE: Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10(2):405–24.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1993. “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection.” Race, Sex & Class 1:25–45.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2009. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.

Collins, Patricia Hill. n.d. “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas.” Annual Review of Sociology (Vol. 41 Issue 1):1–20.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989:139.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6):1241–99.

Hill Collins, Patricia and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality.

McCall, Leslie. 2005. “The Complexity of Intersectionality.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30(3):1771–1800.

Nash, Jennifer C. 2018. Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Duke University Press.