“Consider an analogy for 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 happened in an intersection, it can be caused by cars travelling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.” (Crenshaw, 1989: 149).
The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist legal academic who was concerned with the lack of appropriate support for women of colour under the US judicial system. Intersectionality was meant specifically to intervene against legal systems that disadvantaged women of colour: when going to report injustices as a form of gendered discrimination, they were told it was discrimination against their race, or vice versa. This re-marginalised women of colour and left them with little protection under the legal system.
Since the term was created, it has been picked up as a useful term to analyse the experiences of different minority groups (most prominently within gender studies). Its overall benefit is that it shows how people who are categorized or stereotyped in two or more ways can experience these things together rather than separating these experiences from one another superficially.
It is important to understand the history of black feminist thinking which informed Crenshaw’s development of the term intersectionality. This is best illustrated by Sojourner Truth, a Black woman organizing against slavery in the US, decrying the construction of womanhood as only associated with White women.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” (Truth, 1851).
This is not simply an attempt to include black women in a larger definition of “womanhood” but a critique against this system of categorization that centralizes some experiences as typifying ‘womanhood’ and marginalizes others. This line of thinking has informed many criticisms of the uses of intersectionality today: it is said that now intersectionality has been used to describe the experiences of many different groups positioned as ‘marginal’ or ‘minorities’ rather than challenging how dominant ways of thinking makes us see certain bodies as ‘marginal’ or ‘minorities’ from the unquestioned ‘majority’ or ‘centre’. It is this challenge to dominant ways of thinking (i.e. the political impetus behind intersectionality) that many black feminist academics have argued is necessary when using intersectionality further.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics.’ University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.
Lorde, A. (1996 ). ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.’ The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches and Journals. London: Pandora, 162-171.
Alexander-Floyd, N. G. (2012). ‘Disappearing acts: Reclaiming intersectionality in the social sciences in a post-black feminist era.’ Feminist Formations, 24(1), 1-25.
Bilge, S. (2013). ‘Intersectionality Undone.’ Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 10(02), 405-424.
Collins, P. H. (2000). ‘Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy.’ The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568(1), 41-53.
hooks, b. (1981). Ain’t I a woman : Black women and feminism, Boston, MA, South End Press.
McCall, L. (2005). ‘The Complexity of Intersectionality.’ Signs, 30(3), 1771-1800.
Puar, J. K. (2012). ‘” I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory.‘ PhiloSOPHIA, 2(1), 49-66.
Shannon, D. & Rogue, J. (2009). Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality, [website]
Discuss the benefits and disadvantages of using intersectionality as a theoretical framework.
What are some of the main criticisms against current uses of intersectionality?
Can intersectionality be used to challenge dominant ways of thinking and producing knowledge?
Submitted by Azeezat Johnson