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2.4: What is Intersectionality?

  • Page ID
    196200
    • Kay Fischer
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    Intersectionality

    While it is useful to consider how the study into each of the aspects identified in Section 2.3 (race, social class, gender, sexuality, disability, age) can provide a distinct understanding of our society and social stratification, there may be a better way to understand these categories and the structures they inhabit: use of an intersectional lens.

    The term intersectionality is largely recognized as being coined in 1989 by professor of law, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. In Dr. Crenshaw’s 2016 TED talk, “The urgency of intersectionality,” she conducted an exercise with her audience about people killed by the police. The majority recognized the names of Black men, including Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray. But when she began to read aloud the names of African American women who were killed by police, including Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, and Meagan Hockaday, most of the audience members didn’t know these names. All were African Americans killed by police, and only gender separated the second set of names. Crenshaw points out that Black women have “slipped through our consciousness because there were no frames for us to see them….But it doesn’t have to be this way” (Crenshaw, 2016).

    For Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality was born of an analysis of the intersection of race and gender. Her analysis of legal cases involving discrimination experienced by African American women involved not only racism but also sexism, yet legal statutes and precedents provided no clear analysis of their intersection, but instead treat them as separate social categories. To understand the intersection of these social categories resulting in their ill treatment, both forms of oppression would need to considered jointly. Crenshaw advocates for social scientists to integrate race and gender into their "frames" to better capture the complexity of life experiences, particularly the experiences impacting African American women.

    Embracing Our Whole Selves

    Headshot of Audre Lorde with a thoughtful expression
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Feminist and poet, Audre Lorde in 1980. (Licensed under CC BY 2.0; Photo by K. Kendall)

    Writer, Audre Lorde (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)), a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” also wrote about intersectionality. In her paper “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Redefining Difference” (1980), Lorde explained how the Western framing of society was limited to understanding human differences in simplistic, hierarchical, and binary oppositions: good/bad, superior/inferior, dominant/subordinate, etc. As someone whose intersectional identities left her “defined as other, deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong,” (1998, p. 144) Lorde explains how this practice of othering stems from an idea she calls the mythical norm. The mythical norm is the standardization of “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure” people, and anyone who falls outside of this so-called “norm” is othered (p. 116). Lorde (1980) explained that she is, “constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of [her]self and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live” (p. 120). Intersectionality is a process of identifying and embracing all aspects of one’s identity, and Lorde (1980) emphasizes how this practice allows us to fully see one another’s humanity, as there is strength in diversity and difference. As a Black and Queer feminist who’s faced marginalization in white feminist spaces, Lorde (1980) proclaims her identity, stating: “Now we must recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each other’s difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles” (p. 122). Meaning, such divisive othering, and old divisions, patterns, or frames are limited and will never lead toward the liberation of oppressed peoples.

    If we are to dispense old frames that exclude our experiences, what are new frames we can apply that will center the experiences of UndocuQueer people, Trans refugees, and women of color, or cis and trans women who are not racialized as white, including Black, Arab, Asian, Chicana/x, Indigenous, Latina/x, Pacific Islander, and mixed race women, for example? If we don’t apply an intersectionality lens to understanding police violence, for example, we’ll miss the fact that Black women are just as impacted as Black men. Without an intersectionality lens, we wouldn’t be able to understand the ways in which Julio Salgado and other UndocuQueers experience the intersection of migration and sexuality. Without an intersectionality framing, we wouldn’t be able to recognize the way that Audre Lorde, as a Black lesbian feminist, would be marginalized in white middle class feminist spaces for being Black, and Black feminist spaces, for being a lesbian.

    The Framing of Intersectionality

    A linocut print stating Say Her Name with an image of a fist
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A Say Her Name print to raise funds for the global art sale Printmakers Against Racism fundraiser. (Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; by Desiree Aspiras)
    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Crenshaw tells the story of Emma DeGraffenreid: an African American woman whose claim of race and gender discrimination against a local car manufacturing plant was dismissed. Seeking better employment for her family, she applied for a job and was not hired, and Ms. DeGraffenreid believed she wasn’t hired because she was a Black woman. The argument used by the judge for dismissing her suit was that the employer did hire African Americans and the employer did hire women. What wasn’t pointed out was that typically men were hired for industrial positions and only white women were hired for secretarial or front-office work. The courts were unable to recognize a type of double discrimination that Emma DeGraffenreid faced. Instead, they refused to allow Ms. DeGraffenreid to put two causes of action together, as the judge believed that she would have preferential treatment. Crenshaw asked,

    Why wasn't the real unfairness law's refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren't exactly the same as white women and African-American men? Rather than broadening the frame to include African-American women, the court simply tossed their case completely out of court (Crenshaw, 2016).

    Years later Crenshaw developed a frame to help us recognize Ms. DeGraffenreid’s challenge, one that would allow judges to see and understand her story. Crenshaw developed the term intersectionality - using an analogy of an intersection: one road representing a workforce structured by race, the other road by gender. Ms. DeGraffenreid, as a Black woman, was positioned where these roads overlapped, simultaneously experiencing gender and racial discrimination. African American women, and other women of color, and other socially marginalized people, face discrimination and challenges as a result of intersectionality: intersections of race and gender, homophobia, transphobia, immigration status, religious bias, and more, to create unique challenges. Intersectionality is a framing to help us raise our consciousness around the ways that oppressive social systems interlock and shape our lives. As Dr. Crenshaw connects back to the issue of Black women killed by police, she explains that intersectionality “expos[es] the tragic circumstances under which African American women die" (Crenshaw, 2016).

    Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (1990) further developed intersection theory, which suggests we cannot separate the effects of race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and other attributes. ‘‘The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor . . . . Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves’’ (Collins, 1992, p.2). We are all shaped by the forces of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism, though we are likely impacted very differently by these forces.

    Intersection bubbles.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Intersectionality bubbles Misty McPhetridge BSSW

    When we examine race and how it can bring us both advantages and disadvantages, it is important to acknowledge that the way we experience race is shaped, for example, by our gender, social class, sexual orientation, age, disability and other statuses which are structured into our social systems. Multiple layers of disadvantage intersect to create the way we experience race, evidenced in concepts such as double jeopardy or triple jeopardy when an individual has two or three potentially oppressive statuses, respectively. For example, if we want to understand prejudice, we must understand that the prejudice focused on a Euro American woman because of her gender is very different from the layered prejudice focused on a poor Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) woman, who is affected by stereotypes related to being poor, being a woman, and her race-ethnic status. In contrast, writer Alice Walker suggested these individuals instead may have double or triple insights into the human condition. Rosenblum and Travis (2011) have argued that what one notices in the world depends in large part on the statuses one occupies . . . thus we are likely to be fairly unaware of the statuses we occupy that privilege us . . . [and] provide advantage and are acutely aware of those . . . that yield negative judgments and unfair treatment.

    Collins (1990) writes that not all African American women experience life, and hence life chances, the same. A middle class heterosexual, Christian African American woman has more privileges than a poor, lesbian African American transgender woman. In fact, Collins explains that there are no pure oppressors or pure victims. In the previous example, this more privileged African American woman may be oppressed based on her gender and race-ethnicity, but she may be oppressive based on her religion, social class, and sexuality.

    The chart illustrates the intersection of race-ethnicity, social class and gender with regards to the income gap.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Median Income by Race-Ethnicity and Gender (2016). AAPI Men Medium Income: $64,622; White Male Medium Income: $60,508; AAPI Women Medium Income: $50,304; White Women Medium Income: $45,371; Black Men Medium Income: $42,209; AI/AN Men and Black Women Medium Income $36,925; Latinos Medium Income $36,465; AI/AN Women Income: $32,121; and Latinas Medium Income: $31,810. (Chart created by Jonas Oware with data from the U.S. Census Bureau / U.S. Census Bureau)

    A variety of public issues may be considered using an intersectional lens; thus, the chapters in this book provide a discussion of intersectionality as the authors of this textbook recognize the utility, complexity and path towards social change that intersectionality offers. Figure 2.3.3 above illustrates the intersection of race-ethnicity, social class and gender with regards to the income gap. Just as Latinas on average have the lowest income in the above chart, during COVID-19, Latinas also faced disproportionate job loss and unemployment. What we don't see in this chart though is the impact of ethnic background, education, sexuality or other social categories that impact our social structures. Looking at the U.S. Congress, an intersectional analysis informs us that most of our Senators and representatives in the House are Euro American men. While the blue wave in 2018 ushered in more women, particularly more women of color such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Sharice Davids, the first Native American lesbian Congresswoman, time will tell if Congress will alter significantly to reflect the changing U.S. demographics.

    On the point of police violence, one of the co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter, Alicia Garza, wrote in a contribution to The Feminist Wire titled “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement”:

    Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes….Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement (Garza, 2014).

    Garza calls attention to the ways in which state-sanctioned violence is uniquely burdened by Black women, poor Black people, incarcerated Black people, Queer and Trans Black people, undocumented Black people, and Black people with disabilities. This is another important call for applying the intersectional framing, especially as #BlackLivesMatter has turned into one of the largest global movements for social change of our time.

    Women and Trans Women of Color of 1960s - 80s Liberation Movements:

    Although Crenshaw is credited with coming up with the term intersectionality, it’s important to recognize the long legacy of intellectual work produced by women of color who identified this concept decades earlier before the term was coined and popularly applied. According to Sociologists Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge who wrote a book on intersectionality, women of color who participated in social movements of the 1960s to '80s met “the challenges of colonialism, racism, sexism, militarism, and capitalist exploitation” (2016, p. 64) and because they were impacted by more than one of these systems of power, they applied foundational concepts of intersectionality in their work.

    The movements of the '60s and '70s embraced a racial consciousness, rejecting generations of Eurocentric and colonial ideas of white supremacy and racial hierarchy. While rooted in nationalist framing, these culturally and racially based organizations also began to build coalitions and solidarity with other groups, addressing methods of dismantling the status quo and advocating for basic access to power for disenfranchised communities. While women of color were leaders and members of these movements, sexism, heterosexism, and male chauvinism prevailed and women and LGBTQ members faced abuse and marginalization. Divisions were also prevalent in the women’s movement and gay liberation movement of the time, especially when led by middle-class white women and cisgender gay white women and men, who reinforced racism or simply ignored the voices of women of color and LGBTQ peple of color. Frustrated by the limitations of male-centric nationalist organizations and white-led women’s and gay liberation organizations, Black feminists created their own groups, and published their own ideas around intersectionality and dismantling racism and sexism “using the epithet ‘black feminist’” (Collins and Bilge, 2016, p. 65).

    Sidebar: Marsha P. Johnson (1945 - 1992) and Sylvia Rivera (1951 - 2002) - Trans Activists

    illustration of Marsha Joseph and Sylvia marching down Seventh Avenue
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Marsha P. Johnson, Joseph Ratanski, and Sylvia Rivera march in the 1973 Gay Pride Parade in NYC. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; by Gary LeGault)

    Marsha “Pay-it-no-mind” Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were best friends. Although largely uncredited for their activism in the mainstream until fairly recently, both were fearless leaders for gay and trans rights before terminology like “transgender” or LGBTQ existed. They advocated for Queer people, the homeless, poor people, and sex workers. Both participated in the Stonewall Uprising (1969) and Gay Liberation Front. Together, they founded STAR - Street Transvestite (later Transgender) Action Revolutions. STAR provided shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth of color, many of whom got into sex work in order to survive.

    Marsha was from New Jersey and Sylvia was born in the Bronx, New York. As trans women of color (Marsha was Black, Sylvia was Puerto Rican and Venezuelan) they faced discrimination from white middle-class gay communities. Marsha was well known on Christopher Street in New York for her colorful and flamboyant outfits, typically including flowers and fruits on her head. She was unabashedly herself and famous for her generosity, standing up for the most vulnerable of our society and serving as a drag mother. Sylvia was often bullied for her interest in feminine makeup and fashion, leaving her home at only 10 years old. She expressed her gender identity in multiple ways including effeminate boy/male, “half-sister,” transvestite, drag queen, street queen, and transgender (Aue, 2019, pp. 74-76; Morris and Keller, 2021, pp. 742 - 744).

    As sex workers who didn’t conform to gender binaries, and often homeless, both Marsha and Sylvia faced violence and harassment from clients, police, and bystanders and were arrested multiple times. They also struggled with mental illness and substance abuse. Marsha later became an AIDS activist, sharing that she was HIV positive in an interview in 1992. Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River that same year. The police ruled it a suicide, but many of her friends suspected that Marsha was murdered (Aue, 2019, pp. 74-76; Pierceson, 2020, pp. 227-228). Sylvia died at the age 51 due to kidney cancer (Morris and Keller, 2021, pp. 742 - 744).

    Both Marsha and Sylvia demanded the inclusion of trans people and gender identity in the mainstream gay liberation movement. At the 1973 Pride March, they were told to march in the back with all drag queens, so that gays who were “more palatable” could be presented prominently, but they refused to be shut out of a movement they fought for and marched ahead anyway. Sylvia was heckled while speaking on a stage at Washington Square Park, calling out white middle class marchers for their discrimination of trans people of color, who frequently were jailed and beaten, yet never acknowledged. In her now widely recognized speech, named Sylvia’s “Y’all Better Quiet Down” speech, she testifies to the violence she’s faced and yells, “I believe in gay power, I believe in us getting our rights, or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights” (LoveTapesCollective, 2019). She invites marchers to visit the STAR office, where people are “trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle-class club—and that's what you all belong to! REVOLUTION NOW! GAY POWER!” (Morris and Keller, 2021, pp. 742 - 744; Keller and Morris, 2021, pp. 466-467; LoveTapesCollective, 2019).

    Collins and Bilge wrote:

    African American women understood that addressing the oppression they faced could not be solved by race-only, or class-only or gender-only or sexuality-only frameworks. Thus early statements of intersectionality permeated black feminist intellectual production because other women of colour developed similar sensibilities and because the social context of social movement activism provided venues for working on these ideas (Collins 2000) (2016, pp. 65-66).

    One such important piece of document that articulated this political and intellectual perspective was the Combahee River Collective (CRC)’s “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977). This collective of black feminists lesbians were deeply entrenched in racial justice and gender justice movements. Collins and Bilge point out that earlier texts had been written about the concept of intersectionality, such as the 1970 volume The Black Woman edited by Toni Cade Bambara, Frances Beal’s essay, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female” (1969), and abolitionist and feminist, Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech (1840) which is noted as “a benchmark for intersectional sensibilities” (2016, p. 68). However, these contributions are often overlooked, as the writers didn’t have as large an audience as the CRC, nor the context of social movement organizing. By the time CRC developed, there was a larger network of black feminist activism which helped propel the CRC’s statement to a wider audience.

    The statement starts out by affirming the collective’s commitment “to struggle against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” which they named as interlocking systems of oppression (Smith, 2000, p. 264). They recognized the long trajectory of Black women resistance, and although not all would identify as feminists, the CRC pointed out how daily interactions with oppressive forces led Black women to develop a political ideology rooted in antiracism and antisexism.

    Embracing self-love and self-value, the CRC saw the importance of identity politics and that only Black women could liberate themselves. They rejected Queenhood and simply asked to be seen as full human beings. They explicitly named the framing of intersectionality, writing, “We also find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives, they are most often experienced simultaneously” (Smith, 2000, p. 267). They connected intersecting identities with interlocking systems of power, stating, “...the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy” (Smith, 2000 pp. 267-268).

    In addition to highlighting their political philosophies, the CRC statement chiefly pointed out the challenges faced by Black lesbian feminist intellectuals and activists, such as meeting multiple forms of oppression at once (racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism), leading to psychological stresses and feelings of isolation, but also less material access to political power and resources. Still, they maintained the power of this positionality, writing, “We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (Smith, 2000 p. 270).

    Thinking Sociologically

    How does intersectionality enhance our understanding of race and ethnicity? What types of social problems may be better understood by using an intersectional lens?

    Key Takeaways

    • An intersectional lens informs us that we cannot separate the effects of race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, age, and disability, as these can rather be understood in their complexity and thus their intersection.

    Contributors and Attributions


    This page titled 2.4: What is Intersectionality? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kay Fischer.