What the F is: Intersectionality
And why it’s more than just a buzzword.
Born out of critical race theory, the definition of ‘intersectionality’ was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. Law professor and social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw is credited with coining the term in a 1989 paper, which has since earned a place at the centre of conversations regarding racial justice, feminism, and identity. Before this time, Crenshaw cites American activists and authors, Anna J. Cooper and Angela Davis, for laying the groundwork for intersectionality to enter the mainstream.
The term has since travelled beyond its original context, evolving and adapting to contemporary social equity work. Intersectionality describes the interplay between the systems and hierarchies in society that we are all subject to, to varying degrees. Intersectionality asserts that individuals can be affected by concurrent forms of marginalisation, taking into account overlapping experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices a person may face. An intersectional lens also acknowledges the historical context of an issue, as well as intergenerational trauma.
To be intersectional means to consider the contingents that contribute to different experiences of discrimination. Such factors include gender, race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender, sexuality, migration status, religion, ethnicity, and more.
Without intersectionality, social movements are devoid of nuance and preference certain experiences over others; it is a framework for assessing privilege, or lack thereof. Analysing social structures through an intersectional lens acknowledges that an individual can experience both privilege and oppression simultaneously.
For example, an Asian woman may experience misogyny and racism, but she will experience misogyny differently from a white woman and racism differently from a black man. The synthesis of different identity factors impact how a person is viewed, understood, and treated. To consider all marginalised individuals as the same neglects to consider how identities overlap and intersect.
Intersectionality is more than a theory, and provides a tool and framework to observe the manifold power imbalances a person may experience. Efforts to address one form of oppression must take others into account. Failing to comprehensively analyse the intersection between sources of oppression means that social equity excludes particular groups and individuals.
Intersectionality is crucial to any social justice movement, as failing to recognise experiences outside of your own can actually contribute to prejudice. Without intersectionality, any homogenous group runs the risk of ignoring the complexity of identity and overlapping oppression, which is ultimately counterproductive to any social movement. A simplistic view of social equity assumes that one experience is baseline and does not account for the differences that race, sexuality and gender entail. That ‘baseline’ is usually straight, white, able-bodied, and cisgender.
A major argument against intersectionality is that it promotes labelling. Identity is who we are, and with or without labels, people have different experiences that any social movement must be able to adapt to. This counterpoint is actually the reason intersectionality is necessary, as it appreciates how people cannot be pigeonholed as a mere category, and that lived experience is complex and interacts with context. Intersectionality is not concerned solely with questions of identity, instead looking at the structural and interlocking systems of power.
Importantly, intersectionality does not dictate that one form of discrimination is worthy of more attention than another. An intersectional analysis looks at the collision of power imbalances and how they impact an individual.
A commitment to any social movement is a commitment to intersectionality. Be mindful of the difference between intersectionality and speaking on behalf of different groups. Intersectionality is about recognising and subsequently spotlighting concurrent forms of oppression in order to achieve equality for all.