What is Intersectionality? A History & Concept

By Deniz Saygi

 

According to Merriam-Webster, the meaning of intersectionality is 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. [1]


This approach identifies that complex social inequalities are formed by the association of these different areas of domination and tries to analyze it within a single theoretical and methodological framework. In other words, intersectionality provides an analytical and political tool to reveal the specific forms of oppression created by the articulation of different power relations and to understand the complexity of the identities that emerge in this way.

The concept of intersectionality was first used by American legal and critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her 1989 article "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex". [2]


Crenshaw demonstrates through the civil cases she has examined that the specific discriminations suffered by Black women are not recognized by the American courts; the DeGraffenreid v. General Motors case in 1976 is an example of this. General Motors did not employ Black women before 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States. In dismissals that started in 1970, the Company dismissed all black women hired after this date within the framework of the seniority system based on the understanding of "dismiss the last worker at first". Five of the dismissed Black women filed lawsuits claiming that the effects of discrimination against them before 1964 were sustained through this priority system and that this priority system constituted a new form of discrimination against Black women. However, the Court noted that before 1964 women (only white women) and Black people (only Black men) were hired, so there was no discrimination against women or Black people in the dismissals. [3]


Crenshaw argues that this view, in which race and gender are addressed separately and domination is understood in an intersectional framework, obscures the experience of Black women and conceals the specific discrimination they face when two different forms of domination intersect. To explain how different lines of domination intersect, overlap or intertwine, Crenshaw uses the metaphor of intersection in traffic. [4] An intersectional view of the interplay of these different ways of domination is needed to understand the specific experiences and discriminations of Black women. Analyzing the discourses of judges in the field of anti-discrimination law, Crenshaw revealed that Black women are not seen as representatives of the two recognized and protected categories in American Law. In addition, Crenshaw found that Black people were represented only by Black men, and women were represented only by white women. [5]


Although the concept was first coined by Crenshaw, the roots of the intersectional feminist view stem from the expressions of the specific forms of oppression suffered by Black women such as Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells-Barnett in the 19th century. It extends to studies, discussions and struggles by feminists and LGBTQ+ activists, emphasising that the mainstream feminist framework excludes their own experiences. Therefore, we can say that [feminist] intersectionality is the result of theoretical and political efforts to understand the relationship and function of different systems of domination, such as gender, race and class; and to establish an ideology that sees the differences of women exposed to these different forms of oppression. [6]


Even though the concept of intersectionality has a long history, it has gained popularity in academia and feminist movements, especially in the 2000s, and its definition, scope, innovation and methodology are now widely discussed. Which social categories other than gender, race, and class-based forms of domination encompass the intersectional analysis is another matter of debate. In this regard, it has been emphasized whether only certain identities that have been subjected to oppression are intersectional, or whether all identities are already complex and multiple. From this point of view, it has been argued that it is necessary to look not only at the articulation of various forms of domination, but also at how different privileges and oppressions interact. [7]


On the other hand, the intersectionality approach has been criticized for not allocating as much space to class domination as other forms of domination, and that class exploitation should be argued differently due to its qualitative difference from other forms of domination. In addition, in approaches where intersectionality is regulated relationally, it has been argued that the relationship between interdependent forms of domination and the social cohesion they create together is not fully explained. [8]


Today, intersectionality aims to ask questions of both individuals and movements. The framework says that any effort to fight any form of oppression must consider other forms of oppression; struggles to eradicate gender inequality need to examine how the experiences of people of colour differ from those of white people. Intersectionality functions as both monitoring and analysis of power imbalances and as a tool by which these imbalances can be completely eliminated. In this respect, more attention should be paid to intersectionality in areas of academia and activism.

 

REFERENCES:

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intersectionality

[2] Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989 (1), 139‑167.

[3] https://womenshistorynetwork.org/tag/degraffenreid-v-general-motors/

[4] Crenshaw, K. (2005). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color (1994). In R. K. Bergen, J. L. Edleson, & C. M. Renzetti, Violence against women: Classic papers (pp. 282–313). Pearson Education New Zealand.

[5] Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989 (1), 139‑167.

[6] Bilge, S. (2013). Intersectionality Undone, Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies. Du Bois Review, 10(2), 405-424.

[7] Yuval-Davis N. (2006). Intersectionality and feminist politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 13, 193–210.

[8] Gimenez, M. E. (2001). Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy. Race, Gender & Class, (8)2, 23-33.

 

Deniz Saygi is a current PhD student at Middle East Technical University in Science and Technology Policy Studies. Deniz also holds degrees from Ankara University (MA Latin American Studies) and TOBB University of Economics and Technology (BA International Relations and Affairs). Deniz writes contributions for the Earth Refuge, Human Rights Pulse and Sustainability for Students. She currently is selected as the Max Thabiso Edkins Climate Ambassador for the Global Climate Youth Network hosted by the World Bank.