Understanding intersectionality is necessary for understanding and dismantling oppression. It is a term developed by Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) to describe the ways in which social identities overlap, and how that factors into experiences of oppression. Crenshaw (1991) began using the term in understanding how African American women experience both sexism and racism in multifaceted ways. In her footnotes in Mapping the Margins, Crenshaw (1991) notes that her analysis of how race and gender connect was an attempt to “suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see [them] as exclusive or separable” (p. 1244). In Feminism is for Everybody, hooks (2000) indicates that ”[Black feminists] were demanding that we look at the status of females realistically, and that realistic understanding serve as a foundation for a real feminist politic” (p. 57). Though intersectionality primarily began with the categories of race and gender, it is constantly expanding, and even Crenshaw (1991) recognized that “the concept can and should be expanded by factoring in issues such as class, sexual orientation, age, and color” (p. 1245). Everyone experiences oppression differently based on their social identities. The scholar Peggy McIntosh (1988) defines privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that [one] can count on cashing in each day, but about which [one is] ‘meant’ to remain oblivious” (p. 86). Being in a place a privilege refers to the social identities that benefit from oppression. People can be simultaneously privileged and disprivileged depending on where they fall on the Axes of Privilege. The image below is the Intersecting Axes of Privilege, Domination, and Oppression, which illustrates the complexities of human experience and how one can simultaneously oppress and be oppressed.The Axes is an exceptional depiction of intersectionality. By locating yourself on the Axes, you can begin to understand how you experience oppression, and start to recognize your privilege. Students go through this process when learning intersectionality, and it forms a important understanding of overlapping social identities. Feminism at its core is about equality and dismantling oppression in all forms. Intersectionality is the lens through which we can learn to understand the many forms of oppression and how they overlap.
The experience of the African American women and Black Feminist politic, was the beginning of incorporating intersectionality into women’s studies. The multitude of research done on the intersection of race and gender has mainstreamed intersectionality. Crenshaw, through establishing the term, researched the intersection of race and gender. The article “Through the Lens of Race” discusses the study done by several experts on how black and white women experience womanhood differently through their social identities. Jessica Ringrose (2007) did a study on how intersectionality is used in women’s studies courses. She indicates that in the courses “Black Feminism enables an important disruption of investments in individualism and ‘choice’ through an intersectional approach that helps students grapple with the meanings of the non-intentionality of discourses and structural power” (p. 265). We are taught to see racism and sexism as overt and intentional acts of hate, but the reality is that oppression is often upheld by unintentional or institutionalized discrimination. The result of Ringrose’s study indicates that students benefited from the intersectional approach, and were able to better understand the complexities of oppression. As the quote by Audre Lorde suggests, with our multifaceted identities we deal with oppression on multiple levels. Black Feminists, such as Lorde, experience racism on top of sexism, and through their voice “no intervention [has] changed the face of American feminism more than the demand that feminist thinkers acknowledge the reality of race and racism” (hooks p. 55). It is through the criticisms of the Black Feminists, and the push to have their voice heard, that brought intersectionality into education and feminist scholarship.
Intersectionality is a move toward creating common ground through discussing differences. While we all have multifaceted identities, we still share values and experiences. Frequently the goal of civil rights and social justice movements is to “empty [social identities] of any social significance” (Crenshaw p. 1242). This is the ‘color blind’ mentality in racism. We are all humans, therefore the only experience is the human experience. This perspective is counterproductive to any progress in dismantling oppression. It is human nature to categorize as a way of understanding and social identities are frequently a “source of social empowerment and reconstruction” (Crenshaw p. 1242). One of Crenshaw’s (1991) criticisms of the political debates around social identities is that it “frequently conflates or ignores intragroup difference” (p. 1242). She goes on to indicate that “ignoring differences within groups contributes to tension among groups” (p. 1242). This is most evident in the feminist and antiracist movements by their lack of intersectional practices. They treat race and gender as an either/or debate rather than an opportunity for collaboration to make political progress. Intersectionality is invaluable for enhancing civil rights and social justice movements, just as it is necessary for teaching oppression. As Bonnie Dill (2009) states in Guy-Sheftall’s (2009) article: “[it] has brought distinctive knowledge and perspectives of previously ignored groups of women into general discussion and awareness, and has shown how the experience of gender differs by race, class, and other dimensions of inequality” (p. 32). People bond over shared experiences, and often through our varied social identities we can find common ground. Acknowledging the differences in marginalized groups brings validation and awareness, which can then fuel sociopolitical change.