What is intersectionality?

Rebecca, graduated from MA(hons) Religious Studies in 2014 and MSc Religion and Society (Sociology) in 2018, she now works at the University of Aberdeen.

To explain the unique oppression of African American Women, Kimberlé Crenshaw, created the term “intersectionality”. This is a theory for understanding how different aspects of a person’s identity combine and cause different modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality was born from the “intersections” of studies on race and gender. Combining thoughts derived from the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Crenshaw builds on the work of Bell Hooks, who critiqued white feminism saying, “You want to be equal to men, but which men do you want to be equal to?” Hook highlighted the inequalities within gender when personal experience is considered, for example sexual orientation, class, race etc.

In other words, not all men, or women, face the same level of inequalities and oppression. For example, in her work Crenshaw discusses that the experience of being a Black woman cannot be understood simply as being a woman or being Black, but specifically as being a Black woman. These two aspects of a Black woman’s identity interact and reinforce each other to result in a unique lived experience.

People experience different advantages and disadvantages based on a variety of factors. Social identities such as being Black can lead to discrimination of race and being a woman can lead to discrimination of gender. However, these overlapping identities of being a Black woman offers a unique discrimination that is not inherited from being Black or a woman but from being a Black woman. For example, in her workplace a Black woman may experience discrimination - but not because she is Black (as the Black men in her workplace are not discriminated against) and not because she is a woman (because the white women in her workplace are not discriminated against). It is a combination of the two combined factors of being a Black woman.

Since Crenshaw’s coining of the term intersectionality to explain the unique discrimination of Black women, the theory of intersectionality has expanded to understand the wide variety of social identities and how they impact on each other. Intersecting variables may include race, gender, sexuality, age, disability, immigration status, and a variety of other factors that combine within an individual. The theory of intersectionality opposes the treatment of these social identifiers in isolation.

As I write this, Black History Month UK is coming to an end and Transgender Awareness Week approaches. When we consider the discrimination faced by both the Black community and the Transgender community, we can see that fatal violence disproportionally affects trans women of colour (particularly Black Trans Women). Intersectionality tells us that the unique discrimination they face is not inherited in isolation for being trans, trans women or Black BUT the combination of all three. The intersections of racism, homophobia and transphobia contributes to the risk faced by Black Trans Women and their vulnerability to experiences such as unemployment, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, survival sex work and violence etc.

To deny the impact of intersectionality contributes to the culture of violence and discrimination. To view identity in isolation reduces the experience of individuals, allows for misrepresentation and contributes to the continued discrimination.

Watch this TED talk to hear Kimberlé Crenshaw discuss intersectionality.

Published by Students, University of Aberdeen


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