Course:GRSJ300/2021/Interlocking Forms of Oppression: A Modernized Take

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Reality and Complexities

Combahee River Collective considered themselves revolutionaries, who aspired more than to achieve women’s rights.

Interlocking forms of oppression is a complex concept. However, in today’s time, it is essential to understand its workings and the way it affects society and the different sections of the population. Understanding individual oppressions such as racism and sexism is easy as understanding how these oppressions intersect with each other creating interlocking forms of oppression. Each oppression plays a part in the formation of another and it is a continuous toxic cycle. The differences between people like their gender, race, class, nationality, etc. are the reasons behind the birth of these oppressive practices. In women’s lives especially, their sex, religion, race, and social standing are barriers that restrict women and lessen their life quality. More often than not, an act of interlocking oppression is reduced to one single type of oppression which results in ignoring the real causes for the discrimination and the oppressive behavior. The statement that we hear repeatedly in today’s world politics is that we are constantly focused on dealing with racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and view it as the main task the development of integrated analysis and practice based on the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking[1]. Since the meanings ascribed to identity categories and the authority granted or denied to particular social classes are dependent on the sociocultural context in which these social processes exist, the ways in which identities converge and oppressions intertwine are complex and varied[2]. The concept of “interlocking systems of oppression” is rooted in Black feminist organizing in the 1970s; the Combahee River Collective invoked it to acknowledge the need for an integrative theory of, and a transformative praxis against, multiple oppressions. The Combahee River Collective argued that oppressions have been falsely fragmented by the separation of antiracist from antisexist discourses, ultimately defeating Black women’s work to address the multidimensionality of oppression as it manifested in their lives. The Combahee River Collective’s conceptualization of “interlocking systems of oppression” is particularly important as it constitutes part of the theoretical and political inheritance of intersectionality, but also because it joins together heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and nationalism in its attempt to “combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face”[3].

The history of the Combahee River Collective and their thinking and ideas behind their arguments supports the claim that different forms of oppression are interconnected in ways that are more often than not, ignored, leading to the loss of acknowledging the real roots and causes behind oppressive acts and practices. It is crucial to understand such aspects of oppression to be able to fight it and bring a change.

Intersectionality; What Is It and What Role Does It Play in Society?

Intersectionality is not neutral, rather it is an analytical and political orientation[4]. It enforces the concept that our identities are not singular, that we do not live “single-axis” lives. Instead, our lives are very much in a Matrix worldview, wherein any part of our identity cannot be separated from each other. The components of our identities take many forms, when thinking about “all of who we are”, we must consider our positions in social systems and geographical locations. In this way, we can “locate” ourselves and others to understand how interlocking forms of oppression affect how we are perceived and treated in society[5]. The framework of intersectionality was formed by Kimberle Crenshaw, who realized that in the context of the legal system, Black women were “theoretically erased” as the courts only recognized discrimination in terms of race or sex (single-axis discrimination) while Black women by their very identities experienced both[6]. Matrix thinking does not simply add one identity onto another, intersectionality specifically examines how multiple identities work simultaneously[4]. In terms of our own identities, it is not a case of “either/or”, rather it is “and/with”.

A gathering of 10,000 women in New York on the streets of Manhattan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and demand further rights for women.

Intersectionality is not just a framework used for Black women, instead it is a framework used for everyone. Through intersectionality, I can locate myself more than just “a woman”, and further uncover every axis of my identity and understand where I am located because it affects my life in this society. I am able to recognize not only how I am oppressed, but also the many privileges I have. This framework then encourages me to use said privileges to the betterment of those who are oppressed, by being an ally to marginalized groups.

Intersectionality is not an easy framework to be accepted by our white heterosexual patriarchal society. By locating ourselves on a Matrix axis framework, we have to come to terms with how the systems that benefit us are oppressing others, which could lead to denial and conflict. bell hooks explains that individuals are terrified of difference, and the fear of possible conflict comes between what could be meaningful connections[7]. Black women were the pioneers of the intersectional theory and still attest that feminist theory largely remains white. In “A Black Feminist Statement”, the Combahee River Collective states that the only people that care enough about the liberation of Black women are Black women themselves, and this is precisely because, in order for Black women to be liberated, every oppressive system must be taken down[1].

Many social movements have been created to combat oppressive systems and use an intersectional framework to fight for victims of interlocking forms of oppression. An example, formed in 2013 and entitled “Black Lives Matter'', focuses on combating police brutality in relation to anti-Black violence. The movement has caught fire recently, especially due to the unjust killing of unarmed George Floyd in 2020[8]. In today's social climate, to say you “support BLM” implies that you want to fight for anti-racism, especially when it comes to violence in the criminal justice system.

Nothing Is Perfect: The Challenges Associated With Viewing Oppression as Interwoven and Interlocking

Everyone comes from a different background, from our upbringing to our lifestyle, and overall day-to-day experiences, making it difficult to relate and understand the perspectives of the people we meet. This sentiment is addressed by bell hooks in her written work "Bonding Across Boundaries" where she outlines how difficult it can be to connect with others who are very different from us[7]. Trying to traverse these differences can be painful, often feel fruitless, and can sometimes result in conflict especially when two people have completely different lived experiences of our society. It is challenging for human beings to connect on a personal level or feel compassion for someone else’s situation when they have not experienced similar circumstances themselves, and those who suffer the weight of multiple oppressions can be especially affected by this. When trying to speak out or explain their situation, people living through interlocking forms of oppression often feel unheard, tossed aside, and are told that their lived experiences are not valid. This inability to bond across boundaries stems from every aspect that makes us who we are[7]. The culture we grew up in, how we identify, what has been passed on to us through generations are all interwoven into how we communicate and connect with one another.

The idea that different forms of oppression experienced by individuals can be interlocking or woven together in a matrix that can be conceptually difficult to understand and acknowledge. It is much easier to think of oppression as an additive model, but this tunnel way of thinking has many flaws that only serve the oppressor and not the individuals who are being oppressed. For instance, in Kimberle Crenshaw’s work "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex", she outlines how problematic a single-axis framework can be when analyzing the experiences of Black women and how this can erase or distort these women’s lived experiences such that they feel invalidated[6]. Trying to implement an intersectional framework and the idea that oppression is interconnected and experienced simultaneously into society can be very challenging as interpretations of these theories range from person to person. Further, this way of thinking challenges the systems of oppression that largely benefit white, heterosexual, able-bodied, affluent individuals who feel threatened when the status quo is not maintained, and therefore, are more likely to rebel against a framework that would equalize individuals as they would no longer hold any substantial power.  

Interlocking forms of oppression are taken up and experienced differently across different groups of women. This highlights the importance of transnational feminism, a concept explored by Patricia Valoy in 2015. In her article, Valoy tackles the challenges of intersectional feminism on a global scale. She explores the idea that feminism should be about recognizing the inequalities between different individuals to address specific issues and not pool everyone together in the same boat as Western feminism is famous for[9].

Visibility of Intersectionality in Popular Culture

We are surrounded by popular culture daily. As we drive, we see advertisements, we see pictures shared by our friends on social media, we read news stories, watch movies, listen to music, read books, and so on. Although we see popular culture representations as mere forms of entertainment, it still has something to teach us, especially through the way people read, see and interpret things differently depending on their class, race, gender, and ethnicity[10]. We participate in a process that articulates how popular culture is expressed in our lived experiences by the intersections of structures of supremacy (i.e., racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, gender conformity, masculinity, femininity, etc.). To this day numerous movies, TV shows, and blogs have tried to address the issue of interlocking forms of oppression by taking on an intersectional approach.

Orange Is The New Black Characters

Orange Is the New Black is a TV show that follows a diverse group of women from different races and social backgrounds as they struggle to survive within the confines of cultural racism in a prison. The show centers on Piper Chapman, a white, cisgender, bisexual woman from the upper-middle class who is serving a fifteen-month sentence in federal prison for drug smuggling[11]. Her privileged "mediator" role in the prison experience reproduces a realistic image of the US society, mocking its levity, and questioning deeply ingrained stereotypical assumptions. The show portrays Piper as someone who should not be in prison, whereas the lower-class/gender nonconforming/black/Latina characters are more easily identifiable as criminals[11]. The show succeeds in offering an intersectional framework for understanding the American prison system, as well as the lives, struggles, losses, and misery of women who represent a wide range of intersecting roles along existing axes of power. Laverne Cox, who plays a transgender female on the show states that while it is great that these transgender characters are given spotlights, the media needs characters whose stories revolve around more than them just being transgender[12]. In this way, the media is once again viewing complex multiple identity characters under a single axis lens—sexuality.

The Fosters Characters

The Fosters is a TV show that follows Lena and Stefanie’s life, an interracial lesbian couple raising their adopted children and biological son while grappling with family problems and unexpected roadblocks. The Fosters' multiracial family addresses a variety of issues related to racism, rape, school shootings, immigration and ICE, human trafficking, breast cancer, gay marriage, and problems that children in the foster system face daily. One of the biggest accomplishments of this show was that it portrayed one of TV's first transgender characters played by a trans man. The character's name was Cole, played by Tom Phelan. The writers elicited the audience's sympathy by rendering him real rather than ideal. They did this by portraying him as unlikable, often dishonest, but also as a sensitive, smart, troubled, and enraged person. Another achievement of this show was its involvement of the youngest same-sex kiss in the history of television. The Fosters show that everyone’s words and actions matter by taking the most intertwined intersectional approach of television history.

Although in popular culture there seems to be a representation of complex identities, there is still much work to be done. In order to correct inequality and build cultural funding and visibility for intersectional stories, pioneers of intersectional networks have to fight for the cause harder.

Interpretation and Conclusion

As discussed, in today’s modern world, reflecting on the intertwining of privilege and power struggle has grown tediously complex. The concept of intersectionality is practicable because it foregrounds a combination of complex ontology and locates the need for multiplex epistemologies, rather than classifying people into one reduced category at a time. This concept originated through major political struggles in the past to be accepted in feminist thinking and scholarship. Intersectionality overshadowed the idea of single-axis representation because social differences cannot be isolated, and thriving to reduce people to a single identity would lead to incomplete analysis. Additionally, developing a much more expansive and radical notion of intersectionality as a form of compelling inquiry and praxis would be a long-term political and intellectual project.

Notably, just as intersecting oppressions are far from stagnant, various forms of political movements are similarly flexible and well-positioned for sustained political and intellectual struggles. Hence, continuing to focus on campaigns resulting from violence such as Black Lives Matter brings forth new connections between interlocking systems of oppression and political resistance possibilities. At its inception, the Black Lives Matter movement invoked the interconnectedness of intersectionality and flexible solidarity within its praxis and the constant challenges of applying these ideas within broader social movements. As laid out by the social actors, their intersectional mandate analyses of racial domination rooted in a collective Black past, although it is not uncritically celebrated.

Intersectionality contributed to guiding the treaty bodies to raise relevant questions in today’s political climate. However, it is invaluable to clarify that the very parsimony of the term intersectionality could create some confusion. Using this theory inconsistently with ambiguity limits its potential. The primary concern is that intersectionality may be reduced to an additive and politically fragmentary tendency due to a misperception.

That being said, critical media must communicate intersections in representations and visibility of marginalized characters. It is established that media influences and is influenced by assumptions surrounding intersectionality of racism, sexism, ableism, homosexuality, etc. giving it the power to humanize rather than stereotype the characters. Dominant media outlets have often been called out for skewed representation of marginalized communities. In all important respects, TV shows like Orange Is the New Black, and The Fosters are unapologetic in their attempt to focus on racism, bisexuality, trans representation, and lesbianism. These shows offer plotlines that reflect intersectionality in the narratives of Piper Chapman, Sophia Burset, and Lena and Stefanie. Hence, it is imperative that we encourage creators to represent the nuanced and out loud differences of our lives so it can influence us to better respond to the complexity of intersectionality.

In conclusion, Intersectionality theory is a conceptual tool for analyzing forms and practices of overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination. However, the weight of evidence supports that no concept or theory is perfectly sound in accomplishing an apt framework of all that needs to be understood within the field of diversity and systemic oppression. But intersectional work is a conscious commitment to stimulate further conversations.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 1983, pp. 210–218., doi:10.14452/mr-070-08-2019-01_3.
  2. Hulko, Wendy. “The Time- and Context-Contingent Nature of Intersectionality and Interlocking Oppressions.” Affilia, vol. 24, no. 1, 2009, pp. 44–55., doi:10.1177/0886109908326814.
  3. Carastathis, Anna. “Interlocking Systems of Oppression.” Critical Concepts in Queer Studies and Education, 2016, pp. 161-171., doi:10.1057/978-1-137-55425-3_17.
  4. 4.0 4.1 May, Vivian M. “What Is Intersectionality? Matrix Thinking in a Single-Axis World.” Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries, 9 Jan. 2015, pp. 18–62., doi:10.4324/9780203141991-7.
  5. Timothy, Roberta K. “What Is Intersectionality? All of Who I Am.” The Conversation, 7 Mar. 2019,
  6. 6.0 6.1 Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Feminist Legal Theories, 1997, pp. 23–51., doi:10.4324/9781315051536.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 hooks, bell. “Bonding Across Boundaries.” Writing beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, 1 Jan. 2013, pp. 143–152., doi:10.4324/9780203108499-16.
  8. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Black Lives Matter". Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Aug. 2020, Accessed 11 April 2021.
  9. Valoy, Patricia. “Transnational Feminism: Why Feminist Activism Needs to Think Globally.” Everyday Feminism, 23 Jan. 2015,
  10. Corrêa, Laura Guimarães. “Intersectionality: A Challenge for Cultural Studies in the 2020s.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 23, no. 6, 2020, pp. 823–832., doi:10.1177/1367877920944181.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Osullivan, Shannon. “Who Is Always Already Criminalized? An Intersectional Analysis of Criminality OnOrange Is the New Black.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 39, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 401–412., doi:10.1111/jacc.12637.
  12. The New School. “bell hooks and Laverne Cox in a Public Dialogue at The New School.” YouTube, 13 Oct. 2014,

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