Intersectionality 101: The Origins of the Concept

This 101 series analyses the concept of intersectionality from a feminist point of view in order to understand how inequality is created by the interrelationship of different axes of oppression. This concept was first coined by the American civil rights advocate and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) in order to understand the unique form of oppression created by the interrelation between the categories of gender and race. It was then adopted by other feminist scholars to describe the ways in which different social categories –such as gender, race, sexual orientation, class, (dis)ability, etc.– intersect with each other creating different specific forms of oppression (Brah and Phenix, 2004). Within Feminist Theory, intersectionality functions as both a theoretical tool and a methodological approach to study the many different ways in which discrimination is perceived and experienced by people (especially women) of all races, classes, religions, gender identities and sexual orientations. This series will take into account some of the main intersecting axes of oppression by focusing on the specific traits of each of them separately.

1. Intersectionality 101: The Origins of the Concept

2. Intersectionality 101: Gender, Race and Class

3. Intersectionality 101: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

4. Intersectionality 101: Physical and Mental Disability

5. Intersectionality 101: Body Nonconformity

6. Intersectionality 101: Ethnicity and Geographical Location

7. Intersectionality 101: Culture and Religion

8. Intersectionality 101: Age

In their paper of 2004 Ain’t I A Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality, Avtar Brah and Ann Phoenix describe the concept of intersectionality as “the complex, irreducible, varied and variable effects which ensue when multiple axis of differentiation – economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective and experiential- intersect in historically specific contexts” (2004; p. 76). The term 'intersectionality' appears for the first time in 1989 when Kimberle Crenshaw published a paper titled Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics (Yuval-Davis, 2006; p. 193). The concept was coined in order to talk about the need of a Black feminist criticism that could fix the theoretical erasure of black women’s experiences as both women and blacks. As a US black feminist civil rights activist and law expert, Crenshaw takes the topic by analysing three legal cases, which perfectly showed the tendency to treat gender and race as mutually exclusive categories of analysis and the courts’ failure to deal with intersectionality (1989; 141-150). The dominant conception of discrimination lead us to think about subordination as a phenomenon that occurs along a single axis, and that “this single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group” (Crenshaw, 1989; p. 140). This focus on the most privileged subjects within their category – white women in the case of sex discrimination, black men in the case of race discrimination - does not account for the interaction of gender and race. Their interrelation is indeed much more complex than just the sum of racism and sexism, and thus leads to the marginalization and exclusion of those subjects who are multiply burdened by more than one form of oppression, as in the case of black women. As Crenshaw (1989; p. 150) clearly explains: “Black women are regarded either as too much like women or Blacks and the compounded nature of their experience is absorbed into the collective experiences of either group or as too different, in which case Black women’s Blackness or femaleness sometimes has placed their needs and perspectives at the margin of the feminist and Black liberation".

(Fig. 1:"You are my sunshine" by Wangechi Mutu, collage painting on paper, 2015)
(Fig. 1:Mutu, W. (2015). 'You are my sunshine' [Collage Painting on Paper]

Although the term 'intersectionality' was coined by Crenshaw in 1989, the first steps toward its theorization dates back to 1851 when the former slave Sojourner Truth gave her revolutionary speech during the Women’s Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio. The only black woman in the room, Truth, was also the only one brave enough to reply and silence the bold and hostile white men who argued that women’s weakness was incompatible with the right to vote and to take on the responsibilities of political activity. Although some white women initially tried to prevent her to speak, fearing that she would divert attention from women’s suffrage, Truth stood up and swept away with her powerful oratory, all the men’s claims against it. Her outstanding speech about the horrors of slavery and its impact on black women gained immortal fame for the famous refrain Ain’t I a woman? that Truth repeated after listing another one of the many exhausting works she had done during her enslavement with the help of no man (Brah and Phenix, 2004; p. 76). In this way, by using her personal experience as proof, she revealed the contradiction between the ideological myths on womanhood and the reality of a black woman’s life, leaving the whole audience speechless and saving the congress (Davis, 1981). With her words, Truth not only unmasked the false excuses given by white men in order not to concede women’s suffrage; she also exposed the inherent racism of the women’s movement of that time and the consequent exclusion of black women from its claims and fights.

Since Sojourner Truth’s discourse, black women have continued to state the importance of an intersectional approach within feminist movements (Brah and Phenix, 2004; p. 78). More than 100 years later, in 1977, the manifesto of the Boston-based black lesbian feminist organization called the Combahee River Collective aimed at addressing the whiteness of the feminist movement in order to highlight the futility of privileging only one dimension of oppression experience –sexism- focusing on just one single privileged subject –white women. Instead, they called to actively commit to struggling against “racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression” (The Combahee River Collective Manifesto, 1977; p. 15) and advocated “the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking” (ibid). In fact, if feminist theory and politics that claim to reflect the experience of all women actually speak on behalf of just the more privileged of them, black women must once again pose the question “Ain’t We Women?”. As Crenshaw explains in her work: “When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analysing patriarchy, sexuality, or separate spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women” (Crenshaw, 1989; 154).

Fig. 2: Ellis, T. (2021). "We Are One".

After the publication of the Combahee River Collective’s manifesto, other black feminists addressed the issue of intersectionality within their works. Among them, the famous scholar and activist Angela Davis who in her masterpiece Women, Race and Class (1981) analysed the issue of class privilege under the light of its intersection with gender and race, and the poet and activist Audre Lorde who in her Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference (1984) speaks about her experience as a “forty-nine years old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two […] and a member of an interracial couple” (Lorde, 1984), opening the concept of intersectionality towards different axes/categories of analysis. Lorde talks indeed of the 'mythical norm' that is rooted in each of us even if “within our hearts knows ‘that is not true’” (Lorde, 1984; p. 115) and in which the trappings of power reside that is usually defined as “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure” (ibid). Those who somehow stand outside this norm often identify as 'different' and assume that this difference is the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting all of the other forms of difference that cause different form of oppression, some of which each of us may actively practice without even knowing. This is the reason why white women speak of an alleged sisterhood based upon their common oppression as women while ignoring all the other differences -of race, sexual orientation, class, age- that exist among women and that make women’s experiences so diverse (Lorde, 1984; p. 115). However, as Lorde wisely argues in her paper, “It is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation” (Lorde, 1984; p. 115).

From the moment of its birth, the term intersectionality gained a huge success and was adopted from the early 1990s within the field of Gender Studies both in the US and European contexts, later reaching even African and Asian continents (Lutz, 2014). However, through time it has developed into different directions and expanded its horizon giving birth to a plethora of new research fields and works. In fact, other than the three main categories that form the so called 'triple oppression' –gender, race, class-, many more dimensions of human life have been analysed through an intersectional approach, such as sexuality, disability, ethnicity, religion, body conformity, age and others, in order to offer more dynamic and multiplex constructions of intersectionality. The risk of focusing only on some fixed categories is to create “hegemonic discourses of identity politics that render invisible experiences of the more marginal members of that specific social category and construct an homogenized ‘right way’ to be its member” (Yuval-Davis, 2006; p. 195). There is indeed the tendency to generalize and homogenize some common traits of a specific social category –such as race or sexuality- by “naturalizing" them as if they were fixed and immutable, while they are historically specific and constantly changing, thus not valid in every situation and for every individual of that group in every moment of their life. The attribution of some characteristics to a certain social group lead to “the construction of inclusionary/exclusionary boundaries that differentiate between what is ‘normal’ and what is not, who is entitled to certain resources and who is not” (Yuval-Davis, 2006; p. 199). Moreover, some social divisions can be more or less important in different locations at different historical periods, or even at different stages of life of a specific individual/group, while others tend to persistently affect it on a global scale. “What is important is to analyse how specific positioning and (not necessarily corresponding) identities and political values are constructed and interrelate and affect each other in particular locations and contexts” (Yuval-Davis, 2006; 200).

Fig. 3: Canadian Institutes of Health Research (2021) Renovated version of Sylwia Duckworth's The Wheel of Power/Privilege [Infographic]

This broader understanding of the term intersectionality and the categories it should include in its analysis have raised perplexities and criticisms, fuelling the debate among feminists. Even its creator, Kimberle Crenshaw, has not hidden her disappointment by the development taken by intersectionality due to the misreading some scholars made of it, arguing that it moved too far away from its original meaning (Lutz, 2014). Nonetheless, intersectionality can still function as a useful 'heuristic device' (Lutz, 2014) used for detecting the overlapping and co-constructed strands of inequality. In this sense, it can be more important to ask what intersectionality does than to discuss about what it is, insisting on its function as a tool for making visible the multiple axes that converge into a particular subject, not only understood as means of oppression but also as positions of privilege. As claimed by Lutz, by introducing the term 'doing intersectionality' it is possible to “explore how individuals creatively and often in surprising ways draw upon various aspects of their multiple identities as a resource to gain control over their lives” (Lutz, 2014; p. 12). Intersectional analysis can thus still be a great tool for feminist theory if used bearing in mind that the point “is not to find ‘several identities under one’” but “to analyse differential ways in which different social divisions are concretely enmeshed and constructed by each other and how they relate to political and subjective constructions of identities” (Yuval-Davis, 2006; 205).

Bibliographical References

Brah, A., Phoenix, A., (2004). Ain’t I A Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality, Journal of International Women's Studies, 5(3), 75-86.

Combahee River Collective, (1977), in How We Get Free. Black Feminisn and The Combahee River Collective, Edited and Introduced by Keeanga-Yamahtta, T., Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2017.

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: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8, pp. 139-67.

Davis, A., (1981), Women, Race & Class, New York: Random House.

Lorde, A. (1984). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 114-123.

Lutz, H., (2014). Intersectionality’s (brilliant) career – how to understand the attraction of the concept?, Working Paper Series “Gender, Diversity and Migration”, No. 1.

Yuval-Davis, N., (2006). Intersectionality and Feminist Politics, European Journal of Women’s Studies, SAGE Publications (UK and US).

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Alice Pinotti

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