The term “intersectionality” has become part of the vernacular, frequently appearing in articles by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and other media outlets.

What does it mean?
Merriam-Webster defines the term as:

…the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups

Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary, which added the term in 2015, defines the term as:

The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.

Hmm. Can you explain it a little more?
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, civil rights activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 in a paper for the University of Chicago Legal Forum:

Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.

According to a 2019 Vox by Jane Coaston, Crenshaw specifically used the term in her paper when discussing the legal contexts of racial discrimination and sex discrimination:

The paper centers on three legal cases that dealt with the issues of both racial discrimination and sex discrimination: DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc., and Payne v. Travenol. In each case, Crenshaw argued that the court’s narrow view of discrimination was a prime example of the “conceptual limitations of … single-issue analyses” regarding how the law considers both racism and sexism. In other words, the law seemed to forget that black women are both black and female, and thus subject to discrimination on the basis of both race, gender, and often, a combination of the two.

So is it a term that exclusively focuses on how racism and sexism affect black women?
No. Crenshaw first used the term when talking about black women, but that doesn’t mean the term is limited only to race, gender, and black women. She articulated this in a 2015 essay for The Washington Post:

Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power. Originally articulated on behalf of black women, the term brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them. Intersectional erasures are not exclusive to black women. People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse — all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more. Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.

So intersectionality can include LGBTQ+ people?
Absolutely. Like Crenshaw said, it’s an “analytic sensibility.” Here’s what The Equality Network, a Scottish LGBTQ+ rights group, says about intersectionality on its website:

A gay man has to deal with homophobia. A black man has to deal with racism. But a black gay man will have to deal with homophobia and racism (often at the same time). It is often the case that he will face racism inside the LGBT community and homophobia in the black community. Similarly, a disabled lesbian Muslim will have to deal with ableism, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism and sexism. She might find physical barriers to accessing LGBT venues, but even when she can get into the building she might still face racism and Islamophobia from the white LGBT community.

So is the idea of intersectionality meant to call out that some people have it worse than others and that some opinions are valued more than others?
No, that was not Crenshaw’s point, but that’s one of the criticisms that some people have with how they say the term is used. In 2015, Washington Post columnist Christine Emba wrote of the myriad criticisms:

But the growing focus on the concept has resulted in backlash and confusion. Some critics believe that a fixation on intersectionality resurrects and empowers “identity politics,” reinforcing harmful structures of gender, race and class that the progressive movement was meant to break down. Others say that the term is leading to infighting within the feminist movement, encouraging “privilege-checking” as a form of bullying and silencing. And yet others say that the movement for intersectionality remains all talk and no action — while the need to recognize different identities spawns thinkpieces aplenty, intersectionality still isn’t reflected in law, policy or day-to-day action.

Where are these criticisms coming from?
From various places, including members of the groups who would be mentioned in conversations of intersectionality. In a 2017 piece for them., Gabriel Arana wrote about how the concept of intersectionality has not been embraced by all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Arana quoted Jamie Kirchick, a right-leaning journalist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution:

You have gay white men who are no longer involved in activism or community work because they just get shouted down by minority activists who want to racialize everything… White gay man has become an epithet.

Arana also spoke to Jimmy LaSalvia, a political independent who co-founded gay Republican group the Log Cabin Republicans:

I think what [the focus on intersectionality] does is bring everyone to rally around our victimhood, and that, fundamentally, is negative.. A bigger, more unifying message will resonate with more and more of Americans as we grow tired of the us-versus-them confrontation-style politics of the last couple of decades.

What does Crenshaw say about these criticisms?
In the Vox piece, Coaston said that some of “the people at the top of our current identity hierarchy are more concerned about losing their spot than they are with eliminating those hierarchies altogether.” Crenshaw, as quoted by Coaston, spoke to this phenomenon:

When you’re going to sign on to a particular critique by rolling out your identity, exactly how was your identity politics different from what you’re trying to critique? It’s just a matter of who it is, that’s what you seem to be most concerned about… There have always been people, from the very beginning of the civil rights movement, who had denounced the creation of equality rights on the grounds that it takes something away from them.

To Crenshaw, the most common critiques of intersectionality — that the theory represents a “new caste system” — are actually affirmations of the theory’s fundamental truth: that individuals have individual identities that intersect in ways that impact how they are viewed, understood, and treated. Black women are both black and women, but because they are black women, they endure specific forms of discrimination that black men, or white women, might not.

Crenshaw was later quoted in the article as saying “plenty of people choose not to assume that the prism [of intersectionality] necessarily demands anything in particular of them.” Similarly, Coaston concluded that the real objection of the conservative writers with whom she spoke was “what they concluded intersectionality would ask, or demand, of them and of society.”

What does intersectionality “ask” or “demand” of people and society?
That will depend on who you ask, but in the piece for them., Arana quoted Alan Pelaez, An activist, poet, and grad student who is undocumented, black, and queer. Pelaez said that “intersectional work is all about having really difficult conversations”:

It is, after all, psychologically taxing for a gay white cisgender man who got bullied in high school for his sexual orientation and can still be fired for it in 28 states to hear about the privilege he has as a white man. But it’s necessary, Pelaez said.

“Why does it hurt you to hear about someone else’s experience that could help create a more just world?” Pelaez asked.

What are some concrete examples of people using intersectionality in their day-to-day lives?
In a blog post for YW Boston, the organization offered tips on how “to more fully integrate intersectionality into your view of these issues”:

  • “Do not shy away from recognizing that people experience the world differently based on their overlapping identity markers”
  • “Move away from language that seeks to define people by a singular identity”
  • “Becoming comfortable recognizing difference also involves recognizing when that difference is not represented in the spaces you occupy”
  • “Explore the narratives of those with different interlocking identities than you”
  • “Do not expect people who face different systems of oppression than you to rally for causes you care about if you do not rally for theirs”

Tiffany Dufu, founder and chief executive of a peer coaching service for women, was quoted in a 2018 New York Times article saying that thinking about how her experiences differed from others’ experiences gave her a new perspective and a sense of empathy:

…one of the challenging things of intersectionality is that being black is one aspect. I’m also a straight person who isn’t worried about bringing a partner to a work event. I’m also middle class. I’m also a fertile woman. When someone says something inappropriate to me, I think about the times as a straight person I said something insensitive. Or talked about my children around those who don’t have any. I use it as a teachable moment.

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