What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, to describe how race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap.
It is how we view different factors or aspects of a person’s identity. They are usually connected, and can affect how people experience the world – both positively and negatively. This is especially important when we consider their impact in relation to the dynamics of power: who has it, what they do with it and how this might impact on those who have less of it.
For example, by recognising that the climate crisis is caused by the wealthy white 1% of men, and disproportionately affects the women in BIPOC communities, we can tackle the problem more effectively. We can look to race and gender equality movements as a roadmap to many environmental problems.
When we don’t take intersectional perspectives into account, this facilitates:
- the continuation of the patriarchy
- an unhealthy lack of questioning of the ‘status quo’
- the establishment of damaging cultural norms and stereotypes
One example being the way that Black women are treated medically as ‘stronger’ than white women and thus their pain is given less attention than that of white women. Or that men are often described as ‘helping out’ with housework or childcare – the stereotype being that women are the primary caregivers, who are then expected to take on the lion’s share of domestic work in addition to other types of work.
- a lack of understanding or embracing of differences
One example being – a consistent lack of period products in male bathrooms, and of men in adverts for period products, leaves those who identify as a man, but bleed, less equipped to deal with totally normal bodily functions. A lack of understanding of what it means to be trans can lead to trans people being excluded or not being afforded the same human rights as cisgender people.
Some people have found the concept of intersectionality challenging because it requires them to re-evaluate systems and behaviours that have – for hundreds of years – placed certain groups at a disadvantage. When intersectional perspectives are not considered, this contributes to the maintenance of white privilege and the entrenchment of inequalities.
What is intersectional feminism?
The term ‘intersectionality’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 – and it has increasingly come to be associated with the feminist movement, and women’s rights in general.
There is increasing recognition that a form of feminism that only represents the ‘dominant’ view of straight, white, middle-class women, for example, will do very little to challenge the inequalities faced by those not in this category. The intersectional feminist movement, established and given momentum by scholars such as Crenshaw and Judith Butler, expands on this foundation. It recognises that the experiences of inequality and injustice faced by women of colour, LGBTQI+, disabled or neuro-diverse women or non-binary folks may be vastly different.
We cannot achieve equality for all without the representation of all those experiences and identities. This is crucial when it comes to a whole-view approach to tackling inequalities, and is especially important in the fight against gender-based violence, oppression and discrimination.
Why does it matter?
Gender equality is a force for good, and helps people of any gender to grow and thrive in a place of psychological safety. Recognising our intersectional identities helps us to create spaces in which this can happen, and to challenge and break down the barriers or systems of power that may be preventing this.
This can only be a good thing – as we then create a society in which all people are free to be themselves and get the very best out of life. Taking an intersectional feminist approach also allows us to unite in solidarity to fight for solutions to these issues, even if they do not necessarily affect – or benefit – us all.
What can I do to be more aware of it?
When we begin to look at things through an intersectional lens, it can be challenging. Often, we have to de-centre dominant identities to make space for others who have less of a public voice. We may be forced to reconsider long-held beliefs, to change our attitudes or to accept that the status quo is not serving everyone equally.
- An understanding of intersectionality helps us understand the concept of privilege, and how we might try to dismantle this – whether this relates to race, class, education or any other aspect of a person’s identity (a good set of resources on white privilege can be found here). If you are a white woman, it’s likely that you will have been afforded opportunities that a Black or Asian woman might not. People with a visible disability may also experience a different type of discrimination to those with an invisible disability, for example.
- Keep educating yourself – read, listen and learn. Intersectionality is also about understanding different views – and the most valuable ones are from those with lived experience.
- Embrace and promote policies and practices that encourage diversity, equity and inclusivity. For example, even if you’re a cisgender woman, consider including your pronouns in email signatures, CVs and on your social media profiles. It helps normalise the practice, even if you don’t think it’s essential for your gender identity.
- Be mindful of your language and behaviours. Are they kind? Are they inclusive? People understand when mistakes happen. If they do, apologise, correct yourself and move on.
- And finally…understanding intersectionality can empower us to challenge the status quo. The act of calling out privilege is powerful and necessary if we are to become a fairer and more inclusive society. This is not always easy – especially in the workplace, for example – but you can start with small actions that can have big ramifications. For example, you could talk to your line manager or someone in HR about something that didn’t sit right with you and ask for changes to be made.