Written by on October 29, 2017

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UC Davis Glossary

A term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s to describe the way that multiple systems of oppression interact in the lives of those with multiple marginalized identities.  Intersectionality looks at the relationships between multiple marginalized identities and allows us to analyze social problems more fully, shape more effective interventions, and promote more inclusive advocacy amongst communities.

Wikipedia Term: Intersectionality

Wikipedia Entry

Intersectionality is the idea that social identities, related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination, and multiple group identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather … reciprocally constructing phenomena”. The theory proposes that individuals think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity. The term was coined by the American feminist legal scholar, critical race theorist, and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

This framework, it is argued by its proponents, can be used to understand systemic injustice and social inequality in many ways. Proponents claim that racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and religious or other belief-based bigotry and persecution—do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.

Under this hypothesis, identities usually are not addressed or mapped out in normal social discourses and often come with their own set of oppression, domination, and discrimination. Laws and policies usually only address one form of marginalized identity. The overlapping of multiple oppressed identities often go overlooked. Since these identities are ignored, there is a lack of resources needed to combat the discrimination, and the oppression is cyclically perpetuated.

Intersectionality proposes that all aspects of one’s identity need to be examined as simultaneously interacting with each other and affecting one’s privilege and perception in society, and that these facets of identity cannot simply be observed separately. As such, intersectionality is not simply a view of personal identity, but rather an overarching analysis of power hierarchies present within identities. The framework of intersectionality also provides an insight into how multiple systems of oppression interrelate and are interactive. Intersectionality is not a static field; rather, it is dynamic and constantly developing as response to formations of complex social inequalities. Intersectionality can be seen as an “overarching knowledge project”. Within this overarching umbrella, there are multiple knowledge projects that evolve “in tandem with changes in the interpretive communities that advance them”.

Intersectionality is an important paradigm in academic scholarship and broader contexts such as social justice work, but difficulties arise due to the many complexities involved in making “multidimensional conceptualizations” that explain the way in which socially constructed categories of differentiation interact to create a social hierarchy. For example, intersectionality holds that there is no singular experience of an identity. Rather than understanding women’s health solely through the lens of gender, it is necessary to consider other social categories such as class, ability, nation or race, to have a fuller understanding of the range of women’s health concerns.

The theory of intersectionality also suggests that seemingly discrete forms and expressions of oppression are shaped by one another (mutually co-constitutive). Thus, in order to fully understand the racialization of oppressed groups, one must investigate the ways in which racializing structures, social processes and social representations (or ideas purporting to represent groups and group members in society) are shaped by gender, class, sexuality, etc. While the theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women of colour within American society, today the analysis is potentially applied to all categories (including statuses usually seen as dominant when seen as standalone statuses).

Intersectionality is ambiguous and open-ended, and it has been argued that its “lack of clear-cut definition or even specific parameters has enabled it to be drawn upon in nearly any context of inquiry”.

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