Intersectionality or “matrix thinking” is the idea that people's lived experiences are the result of their various social locations based on the intersections of their different identities (May, 2015). This idea contrasts with single-axis frameworks, which are theoretical approaches to oppression and privilege that only look at one identity at a time (Crenshaw, 1989). An example would be feminist perspectives that only examine issues of gender, ignoring how other factors like race, class and sexuality impact the oppression that different women face. Intersectionality also rejects the additive formula, suggesting that a person’s different identities act as an equation, adding or subtracting to their level of privilege or oppression in society (May, 2015). Instead, theories of intersectionality acknowledge that there are interlocking systems of privilege and oppression, meaning that people experience these advantages or disadvantages in varying amounts based on social contexts. For instance, an intersectional approach would recognize that black men face oppression due to racial disparities but also have privilege due to patriarchal hierarchies, while an additive model would propose black men are not oppressed because they have privilege (or they are not privileged because they are oppressed). The goal of intersectionality is to approach activism and discourse with the understanding that people’s different identities intersect simultaneously and in various ways.
History of Intersectionality
The Combahee River Collective
In 1974, The Combahee River Collective was founded by a group of black feminist women who challenged how white feminist and civil rights movements did not address the needs of black women. They were one of the first activist groups to recognize that in order to end societal oppression, it was necessary to address the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality instead of only focusing on single axes (Combahee River Collective, 1983). For example, the benefits of feminist activism are limited for black women when white feminist activists speak for all women, but only demand action for white female oppression (Crenshaw, 1989). The collective also wanted to draw attention to how interlocking oppressions create unique life conditions that cannot be addressed with single-axis thinking because the oppressions cannot be separated from each other (Combahee River Collective, 1983).
The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar who drew attention to how black women were oppressed by the interlocking oppressions of racism and misogyny within the legal system. Crenshaw (1989) saw that black women were simultaneously alienated from white feminist movements and from black workers' movements. While these groups were fighting oppression, they also wanted to hold on to privileges at the same time (Crenshaw, 1989). The discourse used to promote more inclusive policies often focused on only one axis of discrimination, leaving people who were affected by interlocking oppressions, like black women, with limited support. For example, in discrimination lawsuits, courts refused to consider that black women were disadvantaged due to both race and gender (Crenshaw, 1989). Crenshaw’s scholarship on intersectionality has given the issue of interlocking oppressions greater attention in social institutions and policy making.
Intersectionality as it is Taken Up Today
The concept of intersectionality has been built upon by scholars and activists globally. Intersectionality as a theory and practice has been mobilized to address interlocking oppressions that members of the LGBTQ2S+, the disabled community, and colonized nations face (Carbado et al., 2013). In recent scholarship, intersectionality has also been addressed in terms of how identity is performed rather than just how it is explained. A relatively new concept is intra-intersectionality, which is the idea that expressions of one’s intersecting identities exacerbate one’s existing interlocking privileges and oppressions (Carbado et al., 2013).
Interlocking Forms of Oppression and Their Various Interactions
White privilege is unearned advantages that white individuals have over non-white individuals. In the context of intersectionality, white privilege operates as a form of oppression that discriminates against visible minorities and views them as being lesser than. White privilege can be expressed as violence, directly imposing dominance through physical force, and can result in physical and psychological harm at the individual, communal and societal level (Timothy, 2019). This form of oppressive power operates in conjunction with other privilege granting factors such as heterosexism, class disparities and binary classifications of gender. Timothy (2019) reminds us that for white and white-allied individuals, locating oneself socially and politically can make visible any forms of unearned privilege one may be unknowingly exercising. For Black and lesbian women, white privilege has been a historically long standing interlocking form of oppression as recognized by The Combahee River Collective since their earliest days of organizing. As discussed by bell hooks (2015), white privilege has presented itself as the priority that society has placed on wealthy white women over women of colour. White privilege has led to misinterpretation of intersectionality as being solely concerning “identity politics”. Neutralization of the term “intersectionality” has resulted in a usage of the framework that victimizes minorities and antagonizes white individuals (University of Edinburgh, 2021). It is important to note that white privilege is not a direct result of being white, but it is a product of a wider societal structure which favours capitalist and colonialist views, creating advantages for white individuals and allies (University of Edinburgh, 2021).
Colonialism is the practice of acquiring and occupying other countries for purposes of control and exploitation. Valoy (2015) identifies one of several origins of colonialism as being the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492 which led Europeans to Africa and the Middle East. Understanding contemporary colonialism through an intersectional framework requires historical recognition of the violence perpetuated against Black, Brown and Indigenous populations and acquisition of their native resources by European empires (Valoy, 2015). For many, colonialism has resulted in negative intergenerational effects including loss of culture and language (Valoy, 2015). Carbado (2013) provides an analysis of how colonial legacies can best be understood through an intersectional prism. Even for Indigenous scholars who have been afforded privileges through institutionalized education, the ramifications of residential schools, as well as lack of ownership, control and access to their own research data has resulted in intellectual oppression (Schnarch, 2004). Additionally, Indigenous populations have historically been subject to excessive research, where researchers are primarily white, and objectives align with colonialist and capitalist principles (Schnarch, 2004). White supremacy as an oppressive force has roots in colonialism, where inequalities set during American and European colonialist history has resulted in genocide and slavery of minority populations in the global West (Valoy, 2015). Generations later, these oppressions are felt through lived experiences of racism, sexism and capitalism by marginalized groups. In the case of the “Idle No More” social movement, usage of social media by organizers meant that these corporations, owned by white men with a vested interest in settler colonialism, profited from this social organizing. (Simpson et al., 2018).
Patriarchy is a form of systemic oppression where men hold principle power in various institutions. Patriarchy is arguably what ignited first wave feminism advocating for women’s equality in the form of the women’s suffrage movement, which later drew attention to the need for multiple representations across race, class and sexuality (Hannam, 2013). However, since much of the discourse has been driven by white women in positions of privilege, the struggle, as critical race theorist bell hooks notes, is made to be “synonymous with a condition affecting all American women” (hooks, 2015). That is, it generalizes the inequalities experienced by all women, irrespective of other identities that may altogether affect the oppression one faces. Intersectionality is critical in highlighting the disparities that minority women face in relation to their white counterparts, and also to uncover forms of oppression that are uniquely derived from intersections of their identities. For instance, class hierarchies and capitalism contribute to patriarchal oppression if the individual is also of low socioeconomic status. On the surface, proponents of the additive model may argue that these oppressions operate exclusively, but as hooks (2015) writes, "women need not be of a particular social class to experience interlocking oppression". Working men are conditioned by capitalist institutions to submit to the economic needs of society (hooks, 2015). Dominant capitalist forces (privileged men) who do not accept challenges to their authority may reinforce patriarchal oppression experienced by women in the household (e.g. domestic violence), as it is oftentimes the only place working class men can freely exercise dominance. These oppressive forces may be exacerbated amongst working class men who are the sole income provider (hooks, 2015).
Capitalism is an economic form of oppression that creates and exploits wealth inequality amongst social classes (hooks, 2015). It reduces individuals to a means of capital production and often prioritizes profit over the systemic social issues it helps to foster. Capitalism has been argued as being an extension of patriarchal rule over women via male dominance through means of financial independence (Gimenez, 2005). This dynamic perpetuates a false notion that women cannot equally acquire financial independence relative to men (hooks, 2015). Moreover, it reinforces stereotyping of gendered roles; that is, men belong in the workforce and are the principle provider while women are relegated to house duties and familial work (hooks, 2015). Through an intersectional framework of thinking, capitalism and patriarchy work in tandem, forming interlocking oppressions that would not be possible if these related structures were treated separately. Capitalism acts as a barrier to prevent women from emancipating from the patriarchy. It is a means of tangible control that keeps binary classifications of sexes separate, especially in how they are defined within capitalist institutions. In cases where women manage to secure economic power, patriarchy devalues their contribution on the basis of gender (hooks, 2015). An example of this is gender pay disparities. This form of interlocking oppression is particularly evident for single, unemployed and financially dependent women. Additionally, time and labour intensive tasks like household chores, child rearing, or meal preparation are not considered to be of value in the same vein as household income; they are menial and not deserving of recognition (hooks, 2015). As hooks (2015) observes, “housework and other service work is particularly devalued in capitalist patriarchy”.
Pop Culture Influence
Popular culture encompasses our emotions and perceptions of what is recognized by society that is prevalent at a given point of time. It can be viewed as a product produced by upper-class capitalist elites that influence our systems of commercialism (Mcallister, 2013). The introduction of social media platforms has allowed individuals to bridge gaps amongst segregated communities through globalization of shared experiences. Still, there continues to be a disconnect between portrayals in media and actual experiences informed by the intersections of our identities.
In modern times, popular culture (entertainment, films, music, sports, corporate branding, etc.) and politics has been captured by social media ("What is Pop Culture?", 2021). We have seen a massive influx in these forms of media, which has presented the issue of interlocking forms of oppression through the collaboration of systems such as capitalism and elitism (“Intersectionality is a Hole to Bury Capitalism In”, 2018). RuPaul's Drag Race is a TV show that explicitly embraces individual differences in a celebratory manner. The program provides a unique outlook on how sexual identity, race, body image and class intersect to present personalities in a performative fashion. The show’s structure is primarily a drag queen competition, but it also addresses daily struggles of non-binary individuals, thus documenting through a multi-axis as opposed to single-axis lens. RuPaul has internationalized her show and given opportunities to Queen's all over the world including the UK, Thailand, Chile, Canada, Holland, and soon to be Australia and Spain (“Drag Race (Franchise)” n.d.). The show provides messages of societal love, unity and acceptance. However, critics of the show argue that it promotes strict beauty standards, is white-centric and perpetuates stereotypes about LGBTQ2S+ communities.
Modern Day Social Movements
Crenshaw argues that the development of political intersectionality, which acknowledges that women of colour belong to at least two oppressed groups: women and people of colour, is critical in developing the agenda of social movements (Crenshaw, 1991). Many feminist movements discussed by Crenshaw were dominated by the experiences of white women while civil rights groups were led and experienced by men of colour. This exclusion of women of colour has led them to face forms of racism different from men of colour and forms of sexism different from white women. Intersectional thinking has opened up more inclusive movements that address multiple agendas of anti-racism and anti-sexism. Today, we are seeing a rebirth of intersectional movements such as Black Lives Matter, Women's March and the Global Justice Movement. Rather than focusing on a single-axis issue, these movements address the multiplicity of struggles of transphobia, racism, ageism, heterosexism, classism, neocolonialism and other prejudices. Movements of these magnitudes often find themselves having difficulty prioritizing certain affairs over others. This is mainly due to the struggle of maintaining inclusivity amongst such groups and equally prioritizing multiple issues. Regardless, these movements continue to listen and remain flexible when it comes to the causes they fight for. Through an intersectional framework, driving forces of change such as the movements listed above continue to address inequities not yet considered within specific discourses. Crenshaw and many others have argued that intersectional theory is "a work in progress," and as long as we continue to educate and look forward, we will see change (Carbado et al., 2013).
Limitations of Intersectionality
Despite its broad applications, intersectionality does have its share of limitations. One of intersectionality’s most noticeable critiques is that it is often misused as a topic solely regarding identity politics, and consequences of its misuse can be subtle “rather than overt forms of opposition” (Combahee River Collective, 1983; May, 2015, p.2). This misuse stems from the fact that intersectionality as a concept and practice is quite malleable and open to interpretation. May (2015) outlines that positionally can be utilized by both supporters and detractors of intersectionality to undermine its effectiveness and validity. One of the main culprits in this regard is hegemonic feminism, which privileges gender over other social determinants, thus perpetuating single-axis thinking, and support of gender-first hierarchies that intersectionality is specifically equipped to oppose. Therefore, malleability of intersectionality results in its exploitation in a manner that allows for the reproduction of the very thing it opposes. In the case of female workers rights’ movements such as in Honduras and Brazil, this erroneous practice of hegemonic feminism has favoured addressing issues of workplace sexism, while ignoring other important systemic issues which affect working class women in the global South, such as racism, socio-economic status and capitalism. This single-axis misinterpretation of intersectionality ignores and diminishes other markers of identity such as ethnicity and socio-economic class. While flying the intersectionality banner, this practice simultaneously conflates the vastly different experiences of middle-class minority women versus experiences under white feminist norms. Unfortunately, this is sometimes done purposefully to detach intersectionality from black radical feminist roots, making the framework more applicable and less political. This again highlights the critique that intersectionality is easy to manipulate as a concept and in praxis. Intersectionality that does not address the multiple intersections of identity and lived experiences, and thereby, the multiple structures of oppression, is not intersectionality (May, 2015). In this case, hegemonic structures are not bracketed and intersectionality is resultantly subjected to power dynamics that it is meant to expose and undermine (May, 2015).
Another limitation of intersectionality is that some proponents have not managed to properly convey that intersectional analysis needs to be extensively informed by key intersectional concepts, such as “matrix of oppressions, intertwined identities and positionalities, or coalition politics,” (May, 2015, p. 11). This has left intersectionality open to interpretive misuse. Intersectionality is therefore often leveraged to give credence to other single-axis analyses by foregrounding ethnicity or socioeconomic class, while ignoring or superficially acknowledging gender. Appropriating intersectionality for usage by hegemonic projects and perpetuating the single-axis orientation is extremely problematic, as intersectionality is firmly grounded in the matrix idea that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives” (Lorde in May, 2015, p. 21). May (2015) argues, “intersectionality is regularly treated in ways that suggest it is not really understood” (p. 2). However, this exposes a fundamental issue because, since intersectionality does not have orthodox tenets, it is “best understood as an interpretive orientation” (May, 2015, p. 4). According to May (2015), intersectionality is sometimes misemployed to mean “difference,” which depoliticizes otherwise deeply political analyses of issues such as sexism, racism, capitalism, colonialism and other interlocking forms of oppression. May (2015) reminds us that intersectionality is inherently political, yet it is often used while excluding its “political genealogy and justice orientation” (p. 32). Therefore, the fact that intersectionality does not have a more rigid framework exposes it to both intentional and unintentional misrepresentations and misuses.
- Intersectionality: Not Just a Buzzword
- Intersectionality: A Framework, Tool, and Mindset That Changes The Way We See The World
- Intersectionality: Popular Culture and Limitations
- Intersectionality Fighting for Black Justice
- Intersectionality in Today’s Society
- Media Representations of Intersectionality
- New Challenges and Approaches to Intersectionality
- Past, Present and Future: Considering Historical Contexts, Current Uses, and Potential Directions of the Intersectionality Framework
- Systems of Oppression: Exploring Intersectionality
- Is it Really a Sisterhood? Exploring Notions of Intersectionality amongst Sororities
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