The world is becoming more unequal. Social injustices continue at pace often in association with personal characteristics such as race, gender, sexuality, ableness, religion, class and more. We can see the social injustices in the unlawful killings of Black people in the USA, the rise of Islamophobia, homophobic attacks, increasing levels of antisemitism, wealth gaps between rich and working class, and on and on and on.
In the recent past, these personal characteristics, such as race, gender, class, etc. were approached separately as if an individual can contain only one of the listed characteristics that defined their whole person and the entire social group they were labelled with. The consequences were that stereotypes emerged which presented entire social groups as having the same identity, the same oppressions, and the same demands. For instance, the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s have been severely criticised for focusing solely on the experiences and goals of White, western middle to upper-class, heterosexual, women. This approach neglected the fact that the majority of women globally are of colour, living in the global South, and facing a range of challenges, exploitations, and subordinations quite different to their western sisters. In privileging White westerns women’s experiences, women of colour were sidelined in the Women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s. Equally however, Black women found themselves marginalised in the civil rights movements of the 1960s as gender equality was seen as something to be achieved after racial segregation had been overcome. The result was that Black women could not find a “space” for themselves in either the movements for anti-racism or movements for greater gender rights because Black women were neither just “Black”, nor just “women”, they were “Black women” (the intersection of both racialisations and gender).
By focusing solely on the characteristic of gender, the early Women’s movement intensified inequalities between women of different racialisations, sexualities, and class which highlights how a non-intersectional approach can create new (unintentional) inequalities. In reality, none of us are just one thing. We are, all of us, unique, weird and wonderful combinations of different personal traits; and this is the crux of the term “intersectionality”.
The concept of “intersectionality” assumes that we all have multiple aspects to our identities. By this I mean, none of us are just our gender or just our class or justour sexuality. We are a combination (or “intersection”) of all these different traits, which when combined, can explain both inequalities and aspects of privilege. For instance, being male does not necessarily mean that an individual will be higher in the “social ladder” than all females. Those at the “top” of the social ladder and not just male, but typically white, middle-aged, western, upper-class, heterosexual, and able bodied (the “intersection” of racialisations, age, location, class, sexuality and ableness). When White western feminism was calling for women to be equal to men, the scholar bell hooks asked “which men do you want to be equal to?” for not all men (nor all women) are equal to each other. The White western feminists obviously did not mean that they wished to be “equal” to Black men in the USA under segregation and “Jim Crow” laws: they meant they wanted equality with White western, middle aged, heterosexual, upper-class, able-bodied men.
Intersectionality helps researchers and activists to understand inequalities not only between groups (such as “men” and “women”) but within social groups. In short, not all men are equal to one another and not all women face the same oppressions. Only by using an intersectional approach, can we avoid reducing each other to stereotypes and evade intensifying inequalities (even with the best intentions). We must learn to think of each other as complex individuals who cannot be reduced to just our racialisations, just our genders or just our sexuality.
The term “Intersectionality” was introduced by the lawyer and activist, Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1990s. The term emerged from engagement with Critical Race Studies and Gender Studies, as well as the real experiences of social justice movements.
As the concept of intersectionality was born from the experiences of social justice movements, it is unsurprising that contemporary movements are utilising the concept. Take a quick look at the Black Lives Matter (BLM) official internet page: BLM clearly calls for racial justice but also understands that Black people are not just “racialised” beings, but fully human in all our weird and wonderful combinations so that gender, sexuality, class, religion and more are included in understandings of social injustice. The BLM site states that:
“We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.”
“Intersectionality” allows all inequalities to be fought against simultaneously as it assumes from the outset that we have multiple aspects to our identities. We are no longer forced to decide to fight for racial or gender or sexual equality – we can struggle for all of them at once.
Anyone wishing to strive for a more equal and inclusive world, whether in educational settings, the workplace or globally, needs to take an intersectional approach to avoid creating new and unexpected inequalities. Intersectionality is the key to both understanding complex inequalities and in overcoming them. For those of you in the struggle for social justice, remember to look beyond just one characteristic of an individual and group and understand that when fighting for social justice and equality we cannot be selective of “which” or “whose” equality to fight for (if we do so, we are no longer fighting for ‘equality’ but something partial, incomplete, and far, far uglier). To be inclusive, we must be mindful of all inequalities simultaneously: “intersectionality” is our tool to do just that.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé ‘The Urgency of Intersectionality’, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o
‘We are Lady Parts’, 2022, Channel 4 (Available to stream) – This is a comedy series that “intersects” race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion and challenges mainstream assumptions of ‘what is a Muslim women’. Check out the song “Voldermort Under My Headscarf” We Are Lady Parts | "Voldemort Under My Headscarf" Song Debut - YouTube
Patricia Hill Collins 2020, Intersectionality, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)