Definition of Intersectionality

On the Intersecting Nature of Privileges and Oppression

A diagram represents the concept of intersectionality. We offer a sociological definition of intersectionality here.

Intersectionality refers to the simultaneous experience of categorical and hierarchical classifications including but not limited to race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. It also refers to the fact that what are often perceived as disparate forms of oppression, like racism, classism, sexism, and xenophobia, are actually mutually dependent and intersecting in nature, and together they compose a unified system of oppression.

Thus, the privileges we enjoy and the discrimination we face are a product of our unique positioning in society as determined by these social classifiers.

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins developed and explained the concept of intersectionality in her groundbreaking book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, published in 1990. Today intersectionality is a mainstay concept of critical race studies, feminist studies, queer studies, the sociology of globalization, and a critical sociological approach, generally speaking. In addition to race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, many of today's sociologists also include categories like age, religion, culture, ethnicity, ability, body type, and even looks in their intersectional approach.

Intersectionality According to Crenshaw and Collins

The term “intersectionality” was first popularized in 1989 by critical legal and race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in a paper titled, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrines, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” published in The University of Chicago Legal Forum.

In this paper, Crenshaw reviewed legal proceedings to illustrate how it is the intersection of race and gender that shapes how black men and women experience the legal system. She found, for example, that when cases brought by black women failed to match the circumstances of those brought by white women or by black men, that their claims were not taken seriously because they didn't fit perceived normative experiences of race or gender.

Thus, Crenshaw concluded that black women were disproportionately marginalized due to the simultaneous, intersecting nature of how they are read by others as both raced and gendered subjects.

While Crenshaw’s discussion of intersectionality centered on what she has referred to as “the double bind of race and gender,” Patricia Hill Collins broadened the concept in her book Black Feminist Thought. Trained as a sociologist, Collins saw the importance of folding class and sexuality into this critical analytic tool, and later in her career, nationality too. Collins deserves credit for theorizing a much more robust understanding of intersectionality, and for explaining how the intersecting forces of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality manifest in a “matrix of domination.”

Why Intersectionality Matters

The point of understanding intersectionality is to understand the variety of privileges and/or forms of oppression that one may experience simultaneously at any given time. For instance, when examining the social world through an intersectional lens, one can see that a wealthy, white, heterosexual man who is a citizen of the United States experiences the world from the apex of privilege.

He is in the higher strata of economic class, he is at the top of the racial hierarchy of U.S. society, his gender places him in a position of power within a patriarchal society, his sexuality marks him as “normal,” and his nationality bestows upon him a wealth of privilege and power in global context.

By contrast, consider the everyday experiences of a poor, undocumented Latina living in the U.S. Her skin color and phenotype mark her as “foreign” and “other” compared with the perceived normality of whiteness. The ideas and assumptions encoded in her race suggest to many that she is not deserving of the same rights and resources as others who live in the U.S. Some may even assume that she is on welfare, manipulating the health care system, and is, overall, a burden to society. Her gender, especially in combination with her race, marks her as submissive and vulnerable, and as a target to those who may wish to exploit her labor and pay her criminally low wages, whether in a factory, on a farm, or for household labor.

Her sexuality too, and that of the men who may be in positions of power over her, is an axis of power and oppression, as it can be used to coerce her through threat of sexual violence. Further, her nationality, say, Guatemalan, and her undocumented status as an immigrant in the U.S., also functions as an axis of power and oppression, which might prevent her from seeking health care when needed, from speaking out against oppressive and dangerous work conditions, or from reporting crimes committed against her due to fear of deportation.

The analytic lens of intersectionality is valuable here because it allows us to consider a variety of social forces simultaneously, whereas a class-conflict analysis, or a gender or racial analysis, would limit our ability to see and understand the way privilege, power, and oppression operate in interlocking ways. However, intersectionality is not just useful for understanding how different forms of privilege and oppression exist simultaneously in shaping our experiences in the social world. Importantly, it also helps us to see that what are perceived as disparate forces are actually mutually dependent and co-constitutive. The forms of power and oppression present in the life of the undocumented Latina described above are particular not just to her race, gender, or citizenship status, but are reliant on common stereotypes of Latinas in particular, because of how their gender is understood in the context of their race, as submissive and compliant.

Because of its power as an analytic tool, intersectionality is one of the most important and widely used concepts in sociology today.