The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Intersectionality: A theory positing that identity is grounded in multiple, intersecting social categories and that discrimination and oppression are compounded at the crossroads of such categories. Coined by American civil rights advocate and legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her seminal article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (1989), the term intersectionality initially addressed the intersection of race and gender in the lived experience of black women, but it has since been expanded to cover other identifying characteristics, such as class, disability, economic status, nationality, religion, and sexuality.

As the title of Crenshaw’s article suggests, intersectionality began at the margins of the feminist and civil rights movements, both of which, she argued, tended to ignore the plight of women of color due to “the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.” Notably, Crenshaw critiqued not only “how dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis” — e.g., racism, sexism, or classism — but also how such a framework “limit[s] inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group.” She also argued that “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism.”

A quarter of a century later, in “Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait” (2015), Crenshaw returned to the genesis of the term. Recalling a lawsuit she had written about in her 1989 article, one filed in 1976 by African American women charging General Motors with using race and gender to segregate its workforce, she noted that the fact that black employees did certain types of jobs while white employees did others was “a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded” by the fact that “the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites… . Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired?” Yet the court saw it otherwise; as Crenshaw explained, the discrimination “fell through the cracks” because the plaintiffs “could not prove that what happened to them was just like what happened to white women or black men. It was in thinking about why such a ’big miss’ could have happened … that the term intersectionality was born.”

Expanding on Crenshaw’s work, scholars in a variety of fields have applied the term intersectionality to all manner of social categories, acknowledging that many individuals belong to more than one group that is subject to discrimination and that the practices of discrimination do not act in isolation or independently from one another. For instance, in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990), another seminal work addressing intersectionality, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins viewed social categories as “interlocking systems of oppression” that operate within an “overarching matrix of domination” and argued that “each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives.” As history makes clear, injustice and inequality generally turn out to be multidimensional; for instance, rape and genocide — whether in Bosnia or Rwanda — have long gone hand in hand.

Indeed, practitioners of intersectionality argue that prejudice has a compounding, rather than just an additive, effect — in other words, that the whole of oppression is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, a lesbian African American woman is apt to experience more discrimination than a straight black woman and a white lesbian combined; the prejudice experienced by a Muslim man increases dramatically if he is also an impoverished immigrant. If any of these individuals also happens to be blind or bipolar, yet another system of oppression comes into play. Proponents of intersectionality have noted that spokespersons for the LGBTQ movement are disproportionately able-bodied, cis-gendered, and white, a fact that they would say tacitly underscores the compounded oppression faced by people with multiple “minority” or “disadvantaging” characteristics.

As intersectionality has gained increasing traction, particularly in the twenty-first century, it has been viewed not just as an academic theory, but as a paradigm for understanding human interaction, privilege, and power relations and a means of advancing equity and social justice. As Crenshaw described it in her 2015 article, “Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.”

Intersectionality is relevant to literary study for myriad reasons. For one thing, writers such as Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan have, since long before 1989, represented the interlocking nature and compounding effects of race and gender. For another, literary critics have also been interested in the compounding effects of identity. For instance, in an anthology titled This Bridge Called My Back (1981), Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa explored the interplay between ethnicity, sexuality, and poverty in identity formation and political outlook.

For further reading, see Crenshaw’s On Intersectionality (2012); Intersectionality: Theorizing Power, Empowering Theory (2013), a thematic issue of Signs edited by Sumi Cho, Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall; and Ange-Marie Hancock’s Intersectionality: An Intellectual History (2016).