Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, Intersectionality came about to express the dire situation of immigrant, women of colour who were outcasted from both feminist movements, as well as civil rights movements (Crenshaw, 1245).
It explores the way multiple identities conflict and coincide, within and between different systems, whether they be of patriarchy, capitalism, or Eurocentrism.
This analysis often reveals that social institutions are double, triple, quadruple stacked against those identifying with a multi-minority identity, and that these institutions do not accommodate the complexity that arises when an individual identifies with more than one marginalized group.
Intersectionality then, rightly so, refutes the notion that women are homogeneous groups who face the same oppression in any given situation.
It is important to note however, that intersectionality is not about highlighting individual differences to create further grounds for isolation but works towards critically understanding these differences and fathoming how they can be positively expressed within our political society.
An example Crenshaw used within her piece was the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy. Clarence Thomas, an American judge, lawyer, and government official was being appointed as an Associate Supreme Court Justice, and during his confirmation trials Anita Hill, a black woman, presented allegations of harassment against him.
Yet, like the histories that preceded her, Hill’s allegations were not taken seriously, and Clarence Thomas is still a member of the Supreme Court today, without bearing any repercussions in regards to his actions.
Having her identity ripped to pieces, the key aspect of the dismantling of Hill’s accusations was the strict binary of her identity, as either black or as a woman. This was instigated as a consequence of the Civil Rights movement focusing on the narrative of a black man alone, and the Second-Wave feminist movement focusing on the middle-class, white woman trope (Crenshaw, 1299).
The question remains – where do women like Hill fit in?
Hill is put in in the middle of a complex debate between what part of her identity to focus on, when an obvious yet overlooked answer has always been present – look at all parts of her identity. Through intersectional analysis, Hill’s identity can be seen as a black woman and not just black or as a woman.
We do not need to identify parts of who we are to the exclusion of everything else, intersectionality gives us an alternative praxis to work through complex issues at the intersection of race, gender, class, orientation or any other feature of our identities.
Intersectionality also offers an increasingly important frame of analysis, in an otherwise binary form of Western feminism – the idea of our privileges being a spectrum, from which sometimes we, even without intentional consent, still tacitly hold the upper hand.
Let’s use an example in which there are two women: one is Indian and one is White. In this case, yes, both are women. But, one is also an Indian woman, a racialized and marginalized individual, thus giving the white woman an upper hand in advantage and privilege over the Indian woman.
The purpose of this example is to illustrate that our privileges are not fixed, and stagnant beings, but are malleable to the different natural and social environments we are in.
More importantly, privileges and intersections of domination are ever changing as our relation to others is changing. What advantages we have, don’t have, and wish to have are contingent upon the ways in which we navigate our social and cultural spaces.
Traditional thought tends to overlook aspects of intersections in our identities, and subsequent privileges, which is why looking at the “matrix of domination” as coined by Patricia Collins, is ever important in being able to critically discuss how we can both liberate, and be liberated.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. doi:10.2307/1229039