Intersectionality explained

·3-min read
In her famous 1989 essay describing intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw highlights the double penalty of racism and sexism faced by Black women.

In recent years, the term intersectionality has been much used in the media and in activist discourse. The theory was developed by Black feminism activist and lawyer, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and originally describes a tool to measure and analyze the forms of oppression and discrimination faced by black women in the US. Today, it is frequently used to describe multiple forms of discrimination experienced by a single individual.

In her famous 1989 essay defining intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw highlights the double penalty of racism and sexism faced by black women. This framework of analysis falls within the realm of a specific context -- American labor law. As Kimberlé Crenshaw explains, the American legal system does not recognize the specific situation of Black women, in that the discrimination that they face is different both from the discrimination that white women or Black men might experience.

Since the publication of Kimberlé Crenshaw's essay, the term intersectionality has moved beyond the borders of the US, making its way into the wider academic and activist worlds. It is now often used to describe the many forms of discrimination experienced by a single individual: sexism, homophobia, fat-shaming, ableism, aporophobia (discrimination against the economically disadvantaged), or the crossroads between several social combats, such as eco-feminism.

However, in some spheres, the use of the term intersectionality has come to be considered hackneyed or trite, and is the subject of much debate. "Controversies have emerged about whether intersectionality should be conceptualized as a crossroad (Crenshaw, 1991), as ‘axes' of difference (Yuval-Davis, 2006) or as a dynamic process (Staunæs, 2003). It is not at all clear whether intersectionality should be limited to understanding individual experiences, to theorizing identity, or whether it should be taken as a property of social structures and cultural discourses," analyzes the American sociologist Kathy Davis, in her 2008 paper " Intersectionality as Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful ".

From framework of analysis to sociological concept

Intersectionality can also cause issue when it is taken up by people who are not directly concerned by the crossroads of oppression that it originally referred to. This was notably highlighted by the Canadian researcher Sirma Bilge, in research published in 2015 titled "The Whitening of Intersectionality."

"In light of the resounding academic success of intersectionality, precisely in gender studies, there is reason to wonder whether intersectionality might not have become some version of black feminist thought that is flourishing in the academic world but without any significant participation from racialized women, or whether the process of institutionalization of intersectionality may not lead to their marginalization and effacement," the sociologist explains.

For the researcher Kathy Davis, it is precisely this vast dimension that makes the concept interesting: "In short, intersectionality, by virtue of its vagueness and inherent open-endedness, initiates a process of discovery which not only is potentially interminable, but promises to yield new and more comprehensive and reflexively critical insights. What more could one desire from feminist inquiry?"

Certain activists prefer to use other terms to describe such crossroads of oppression experienced by individuals, such a "convergence" or "inclusivity."

However, while these terms may encompass notions of acknowledging and combining several forms of discrimination, they can't -- strictly speaking -- be viewed as synonyms of intersectionality. At least, not if referring back to the definition established by Kimberlé Crenshaw, in that she refers specifically to black feminism.

Léa Drouelle