The idea that a person's identity has to be as coherent, solid, and monolithic as possible is still widely spread. Therefore, it is common to think about one's identity as a sum of characteristics that never contradict each other and are never in conflict with each other. Nevertheless, in the last 30 years, a new current of thought that views identity as a complex intersection of multiple factors, even antithetical between them, has been gaining more and more space. This theory, called intersectionality, not only allowed deepening the study of human identity but was also essential to thoroughly understanding dynamics of discrimination and privilege that have often been overlooked.
What is meant by intersectionality?
Intersectionality is an analytic framework for understanding how the various aspect of a person's identity (such as gender, caste, sex, ethnicity, class, religion, etc.) intersect and overlap with each other in unique ways leading to different layers and dynamics of discrimination and privilege. Therefore, since these factors have advantages and disadvantages, their intersection could be both empowering and oppressing.
Kimberlé Crenshaw and the theory of intersectionality
The term intersectionality was first coined by the American civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, to describe how interlocking power systems affect those most marginalized in society. The official date of introduction of intersectionality was likely 1987, in a seminal paper written by Crenshaw for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, called "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex".
The paper attempted to explain through intersectionality how the law responded to issues that include gender and race discrimination. The main aim was to show how even anti-discrimination laws, which in theory should defend discriminated and marginalized categories, by separating gender and race and working on a single axis, in practice, end up leaving people with no justice at all. Therefore, when the issue of intersectionality is presented in a court of law, if one form of discrimination cannot be proved for a single category, for instance, for all women or all Black people, there is no law broken. Nonetheless, Crenshaw proved that in the case of African-American women and other women of colour, since the race and gender factors intersect, they have to deal with combined discrimination that is not reduced to those experienced by white women or Black men.
How even anti-discrimination laws can be discriminating
In her paper, Crenshaw brings up three cases in which the justice institutions trying to follow anti-discrimination laws did not protect African-American women. The first case presented was the DeGraffenreid versus General Motors case, in which a group of African-American women argued they received compound discrimination, excluding them from employment opportunities. They contended that although women were eligible for office and secretarial jobs, only white women obtained such positions. Nevertheless, the court weighed the allegations of race and gender discrimination separately. Therefore, the court argued that the employment of African-American male factory workers disproved racial discrimination, and the employment of white women office workers disproved gender discrimination. In conclusion, the court declined to consider compound discrimination and dismissed the case, leaving the African-American women with no justice.
The historical roots of intersectional feminism
Even if the term "intersectionality" was coined by Crenshaw only in 1987, the idea behind intersectional feminism has distant roots and a long history of authors, activists, and outbreaking thinkers that already pointed out how dynamics of privilege and oppression work on multiple levels. For instance, Sojourner Truth (an American abolitionist and women's rights activist) delivered the speech "Ain't I a Woman?" at the Woman's Right Convention in Ohio in 1851, in which she combined calls for abolitionism with women's rights.
Moreover, Anna Julia Cooper (an American author, educator, sociologist, speaker, and Black liberation activist), in her 1892 essay "The Colored Woman's Offices", stated that since Black women experience multiple facets of oppression, they represent the most critical actors in social change movements. Therefore, it can be seen how for a long-time, feminism was also in dire need of diversity, as it was based on the cultural and historical experiences of middle (and upper-class) cis-gender white women. Therefore, intersectionality aimed to include the different experiences of women from other cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds that were not even considered since then.
Why can an intersectional approach help us fight inequalities better than other approaches?
The idea behind intersectionality is beneficial because, thanks to its elasticity, it extends to issues related to the pairing of privilege and oppression. For instance, Clóvis Moura (a Brazilian sociologist, journalist, historian, and writer) helped understand the role of racism in class dominance in Brazil. Deepening the issue, he pointed out that racism and class domination are intimate parts of the same cruel reality in which the domination of a small part of a nation over the majority of people is justified by false ideas of racial superiority. Therefore, Moura's fierce denunciation starts from the realization that the only way to fight racism and oppression of marginalized categories is to incorporate the ethnic dimension with the class dimension.
Moreover, since these kinds of issues are not strictly located in one country but, in a more or less rooted way, they involve the whole world, it would require an institutional shift in the direction of intersectionality. For instance, the United Nation's Global Goals are a framework for eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. Still, to achieve this aim and not perpetuate inequalities while attempting to fight against them, it's essential to pay attention to how certain groups are disproportionately affected by inequity due to an underlying set of social factors. The words of Crenshaw herself can reasonably explain this concept: «If we aren't intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks».
For this reason, intersectional justice focuses on the mutual workings of structural privilege oppression based on the notion that someone's disadvantage is someone else's privilege. Therefore, everybody can be reached if people at the most significant structural disadvantage are reached. In conclusion, as Crenshaw said, «placing those currently marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action».
Written by Joana Ribeiro Vieira Lima