Course:GRSJ300/2021/Intersectionality and Interlocking Forms of Oppression: The Power of and

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Understanding Systems of Oppression from an Intersectional Perspective

Interlocking Forms of Oppression

Smash the Patriarchy!

Although discourse focused on the concept of oppression can be sensitive and/or triggering, it is crucial to analyze how interlocking forms of oppression perpetuate inequalities. Moreover, analysis done utilizing an intersectional approach aids in the recognition that we do not live singular-axis lives[1]. Systems of oppression are built upon the constructs of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and other factors that simultaneously interlock with one another marginalizing certain individuals[2]. Further, oppressive institutions that perpetuate sexism, capitalism, colonialism, cisgenderism[3], and the patriarchy operate in response to one another; specifically, one cannot be dismantled until they all are[4]. Unfortunately, these interlocking systems of oppression are unique in their consequences, that is, marginalized communities tend to endure increased levels of discrimination in comparison to their white counterparts [5]. To elaborate, systems of patriarchy and sexism have promoted the privilege that men possess over women[5]. Moreover, racism has resulted in Black and other marginalized individuals acquiring less privilege than their white counterparts [5]. However, Black women tend to have the least privilege among males and white females due to the intersections of race and gender [5]. Accordingly, it is useful to approach forms of oppression from an intersectional lens because deeper examination highlights how social structures reproduce inequalities and acknowledges that although it is a tool, it can lead to social discourse [6].

Adopting Multi-Axis Approaches

The Combahee River Collective aimed to stimulate awareness and discussion around the idea that different factors of oppression occur simultaneously [2]. When adopting a multiple axis framework, we can start to move away from thinking that concepts of privilege and oppression are independent and instead recognize that they are intricately connected [2]. To illustrate, Black women’s oppression tends to derive from the concurrent experiences of race, sex, sexuality and class [2]. Throughout history, the notion that multiple oppressions could not and did not exist became detrimental to marginalized individuals. In the 21st century, we have seen tremendous efforts to dispel the inaccuracies of our past and advocate for intersectional analysis today. Whether it be through the media we consume or institutional changes brought about by intersectional discourse, a multiple-axis perspective has slowly started to become prominent. Consequently, with this inauguration of intersectionality, issues that are often overlooked or repressed can be better understood and establish a foundation for social change [1]. Correspondingly, the idea that representation is equivalent to intersectionality has been a problem for decades. To illustrate, if we look at the depiction of transgender persons in the media, we often only see one aspect of these individuals’ identities: navigating transitioning procedures [3]. This stereotypical narrative that the process of transitioning is exclusive to trans individuals’ identities misrepresents their realities. Moreover, it provides a false characterization of trans lives and perpetuates discriminatory stereotypes. When we adopt an intersectional framework to analyze interlocking systems that oppress trans individuals, we can provide authentic media representations and understand that there is more to trans identities than transitioning.


This is an image of Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Changes Through Time

The term intersectionality was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar and civil rights activist, in 1989 as her critique of treating race and gender as mutually exclusive categories and how Black women were mostly disregarded in both feminist and antiracist frameworks[7]. Crenshaw reveals how Black women’s experiences should be multidimensionally analyzed instead of being inaccurately represented with a single-axis[8]. Similar to Crenshaw, bell hooks, who is an American author and social activist continued the discourse on intersectionality and the feminist movement that resists oppression and sexism. hooks values the theory mapping thought and strategy for a mass-based movement, theory that would examine our culture from a feminist standpoint rooted in an understanding of gender, race, and class[9]. Because of this, she wrote the Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center in 1984.

Although intersectionality’s origin was from Kimberlé Crenshaw, the definition of this term can be traced back to similar notions of intersectionality in a pamphlet published in 1831 that included Maria Stewart, a Black woman living in Boston, criticizing the American system of slavery identified by racial, economic, and gendered elements of the system[10]. Furthermore, intersectionality was also introduced to academia in the early 1970s when the perspective was used to challenge the absence of sociological research that specifically examined the experiences of individuals who are exposed to multiple forms of oppression within society[7].

After the formal coining of intersectionality by Crenshaw that replaced the single axis framework in areas like feminist theory, antidiscrimination law, and antiracism movements, intersectionality has entered multiple disciplines within the humanities, social sciences, and cultural studies[11]. In the current day, scholars apply the intersectional framework to question intersections of different race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and religion[12]. For instance, scholars would examine the oppression that Black women experience and the reason behind their oppression compared to white women.

Intersectionality in Pop Culture

Intersectionality also permeates pop culture, including but not limited to movies and television shows. Popular movies like The Help, Hidden Figures, and Get Out thoughtfully depicts the oppression and inequality Black protagonists encounter due to their race, gender, class, and physical ability. The protagonists in The Help were discriminated against by the white families they worked for and were treated as second-class citizens that could only use the segregated bathrooms for Black people because it was believed that coloured people carry transmittable diseases. Similar to the maids in The Help, the three Black female protagonists in Hidden Figures were discriminated against and oppressed in their workplace because of their race and gender, despite their ability to outperform white male coworkers. In Get Out, there are countless microaggressions against the African-American male protagonist that seem benign, but are actually racist and objectify Black bodies with the purpose of utilizing it for white survival, accumulation, and pleasure[13]. As a popular television series, Orange Is the New Black depicts the socioeconomic injustices and class structure inequalities of incarcerated Black women. Throughout pop culture, intersectionality and themes of oppression experienced by marginalized groups are becoming more prevalent.

Key Concepts

Systems of Oppression

Systems of Oppression, otherwise noted as Systems of Domination, identify and describe the cultural, social, and institutionalized way in which oppression exists. These systems are interlinked deeply within culture and laws resulting in a variety of forms of marginalization[14]. Characteristics that sum up the identity of an individual are unique, which creates several areas in which the obstacles they face may overlap. It is possible for an individual to be privileged in one aspect of their varying characteristics, such as race, gender, or sex, yet experience domination in another [1].

Matrix Thinking

The Matrix of Domination, originally coined by Patricia Hill Collins, then further expanded on by Vivian May, is a paradigm that recognizes the interlocking nature of oppressive systems [14]. The paradigm identifies that characteristics such as race, gender, and class, exist as a combination in people rather than in separate ways. Matrix Thinking is the framework that introduces the idea of overlapping forms of oppression, describing the ways in which an individual can experience privilege in certain areas but be oppressed in others. It allows each individual to be placed on a scale of privilege and power among other matrices, rather than categorized in groups which oversimplifies distinctive experiences [14].

Collins elaborates on the Matrix of oppression by applying the concept to the experiences of Black women in America. The marginalization of Black women, Collins states, is specifically harsh due to the several concurring characteristics they have that are affected by systems of domination[14]. They are othered in several instances, such as feminist theory, but also black social theory, as they do not fully belong in either category – but both. Collins notes that Black women can offer a unique perspective on issues with nuance that could not be provided by anyone else[14].

Matrix Thinking and Intersectionality

May describes Matrix Thinking in relation to Intersectionality, as all individuals fall within the identity characteristics spectrum, with varying levels of power and privilege [1]. Noting that the Matrix is important as it illustrates that Intersectionality is not a formula of separate character identifiers but focuses on their simultaneous existence with a nuanced look at within-group differences [1]. Therefore, the paradigm, by embracing Matrix Thinking, rejects the single-axis framework. Single-axis thinking universalizes the experiences of a select few, based on their specific characteristics and needs.

Intersectionality directly supports the Matrix Thinking paradigm as it observes the effects on individuals, the interlocking nature of oppressive systems. However, Intersectionality is an overarching framework which encapsulates Matrix Thinking, looking to the specific identity of individuals and how they might fall on the power and privilege spectrum. Matrix Thinking specifically distinguishes and identifies the hierarchy in which systems of oppression organize individuals within the spectrum of power and privilege.

May notes that observing intersectionality through the lens of the Matrix reveals how systems of oppression are reinforced by one another [1]. This observation illustrates the need for intersectionality to dismantle all systems that oppress, in order to eliminate one.


This is an image of Black Lives Matter protesters.

Spreading Awareness

As important as it is to personally understand the divergent and interlocking natures of oppression, it is vital that we do not stop there. Spreading awareness about these oppressions is necessary in order to foster future change.

Social movements

The past has unveiled the true power of social movements in spreading awareness and making a change. In 1964, the U.S. Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act as a result of the Civil Rights Movement leading to a ban on employment and housing discrimination based on race, gender, religion, disabilities, and national origins [15]. “Equal pay for equal work” is a popular slogan from the The Women’s Liberation Movement that had the goal to transform the political and social landscape for how women were treated in the workplace. Due to its persistent nature, the Equal Pay Act was signed into law on June 10, 1963 [16]. More recently we have seen the Marriage Equality Movement bring justice to the LGBTQ+ community as they were legally granted the right to marry who they love.

Patience is Key

While these movements add great value allowing individuals to stand for justice and preach equality, they require a great deal of patience and perseverance. In order to make big-scale changes there needs to be a persistent push to attract traction, so that the people in power cannot overlook the matter with ease. Using the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign, this can be dissected further. BLM campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people and has been ongoing since 2013 following the death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager [17]. The movement gathered lots of traction in 2014 with increased interest every time a Black person was killed as a consequence of an altercation with the police. In July that year, Eric Garner died when he was put in a chokehold by a policeman, and in August, an unarmed teenager (i.e. Michael Brown) was killed by a gunshot from a police officer who was not charged for his actions; peaceful protests and riots followed under the banner and hashtag of Black Lives Matter. In response to this, co-founder, Patrisse Collins, organized the Black Life Matters Ride, drawing a gathering of 600 people and expanding the campaign. 2015 held more black individuals being killed by the police and continued protests; additionally, the movement highlighted the deaths of black transgender women. This unveils how although the media portrays the violence that occurs, they fail to voice the discriminatory, hateful acts that lead the violence to occur in the first place [3]. There were hundreds of continued protests throughout 2016-2018 which attracted the attention of famous stars, such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, helping spread awareness further. By 2018, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was used nearly 30 million times on Twitter since 2013. The death of George Floyd sparked major protests in 2020 with videos portraying proof of police brutality and police officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with second-degree-murder. Three other officers who were present during the death of George Floyd were all charged since and the protests continue to take place on a large-scale worldwide[17]. This year by year dissection establishes that while social movements can move slowly and take consistent work, justice can be served through them with the right amount of push.

The Power of Social Media

With the powerful tool of social media we have access to spread awareness globally, much like with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMattter. Furthermore, the representation of marginalized groups in popular media helps the population understand and stand for injustice.


Difficult Framework to Grasp

A common criticism of intersectionality is that it lacks a concise, clear-cut definition. This ambiguity makes it difficult for a meaningful discussion on it because there are not many specific ideas that can be examined deeply according to Kathy Davis who stated "lack of clear-cut definition or even specific parameters has enabled it to be drawn upon in nearly any context of inquiry"[18]. This comes with the fact that intersectionality by its very nature is broad. Individuals have problems understanding single-axis issues at times, therefore explaining an issue that is so intricately connected takes a great amount of effort. For example, some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around racism, a single axis issue. This complicatedness of intersectional theory causes many to be discouraged from fully understanding it because of the great deal of effort for both the person explaining and the one being taught. Thus, the process can be discouraging for both and diminish the quality of discourse. We work in schemas as humans (categorize things in order to understand them) [19]. So, having to move beyond the idea of categories and expand our horizons to intertwining these categories takes significant cognitive processing.

Defining Individuals by their Groups

Critics argue that according to intersectional theory, certain groups are more oppressed than others. While this is undeniable, when applying it some individuals of an assigned non-oppressed group may feel disenfranchised. Lisa Downing, a professor at the University of Birmingham, criticizes that intersectionality has an overemphasis on group identities, which can lead it to ignore the fact that people are individuals and not members of a class or group that they have no control over for the most part[20]. This however is related to the last point and stems from misunderstanding of intersectionality because as a framework, intersectionality tries to look beyond the specific groups and instead focuses on how it intersects in individuals.

The Importance of Understanding

At its core, intersectionality gives us a framework to analyze and understand specific nuanced ways in which people experience power and privilege or oppression but it does not illustrate how to improve life for the marginalized groups. While intersectionality and understanding systems of oppression is a good start, in order to enact real positive changes we must go further. This goes back to application of intersectionality through spreading awareness, social movements and the media. No positive change in the world can happen without activism, whether that be in the form of protests or and it is the way in which we can address the systems of oppression that intersectionality theory put a spotlight on. Additionally, spreading awareness of this movement is the key because it is not discussed enough and most people are unaware of the systems of oppression in the first place.


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