Have You Ever?
Have you ever thought about your identity? You are a person with one whole identity, but you also have many identities, such as “young person,” “student,” or “sibling.” Consider also religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, or gender; people have complex identities that exist at the intersection of all of these identities. You can’t separate your experience of life into categories, just like you can’t separate your experience of identity into categories; you are one person with one life experience.
You may not have heard the word “intersectionality” before, but you probably know that an intersection is a place where multiple things meet. Intersectionality is a theory that explains how multiple things meet, or overlap. Specifically, intersectionality makes sense of experiences and identities that are too complex to be thought of in one dimension.
The Theory: Intersectionality
Intersectionality is a concept that explains the wholeness of identity and interconnectedness of experience. The theory of intersectionality can be applied to all complex identities and experiences, making it a foundational theory of intersectional feminism and inclusive social justice. Intersectionality is also a direct framework for understanding how the intersections of different identities create unique experiences of discrimination and marginalization in society.
Intersectionality was created out of a necessity to explain the reality of intersectional systems of oppression. Racism and sexism are both examples of systems of oppression, which can be thought of as organizing forces on society that value people in unequal ways. For example, racism has influenced the laws, structures, and institutions of our society to give white people a place of supremacy and power. Sexism has also shaped our society in ways that exclude and devalue people who aren’t male.
Many Black women scholars throughout history have discussed the idea that they have a unique experience of marginalization in a society that is both racist and patriarchal. In 1989, legal scholar Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw named the theory of intersectionality in response to the legal injustice that required Black women who filed court claims based on discrimination to choose between racism and sexism as the cause of discrimination. Dr. Crenshaw recognized the fallacy in thinking of these two systems of oppression as separate influences when they shape social structures and public bias in ways that connect and reinforce each other. She offers the metaphor of a traffic intersection to better understand intersectionality as a concept:
“Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. . . . But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.”
This analogy helps us understand how the impacts of different systems of oppression like racism and sexism cannot be separated from each other. It’s unjust to ask claimants to identify whether discrimination was based on race or sex when most likely it was based on a combination of both. Just like it isn’t easy to reconstruct an accident, it isn’t so simple to reconstruct an experience of discrimination or oppression.
Each individual has many different identities that interact with each other as they combine into one whole person. The intersection of all those identities creates a unique person with a unique experience in life. Experiences of life are influenced by the intersection of systems of oppression and social structures that reinforce those systems. Discussions about intersectionality must include conversations of identity and oppression because the theory speaks to the ways people experience life based on their identity. Every person exists in the context of social power and privilege, and intersectionality in practice is about recognizing this reality. The way to apply intersectionality in your own life is to be curious and respectful of other people as complex individuals living within a complex society.