BY EMILY N'DOMBAXE DOLA
“Intersectionality” is a popular jargon word that is commonly heard in social justice and political arenas. In a way, it has become a buzzword, particularly in its adjective form, “intersectional”. The extent to which the concept is actually understood, both within and outside social justice and political circles, is debatable. Intersectionality has been used as a synonym for diversity and/or identity politics and, whilst it can be linked to these ideas, it isn’t the same as either of them. Indeed, it was introduced to challenge them, as well as other common approaches to discrimination and exclusion.
Now, it must be acknowledged that intersectionality, and the development/application of its meaning, falls within the academic world, which isn’t easily accessible to everyone. So, it’s not surprising that the concept is misused or misunderstood. As a university student, I often recognise how academic language can exclude people, even when it’s content is progressive or revolutionary. That’s why in this post, I will attempt to explain and break down intersectionality without the unnecessary academic jargon.
Where did intersectionality come from?
Intersectionality as a theory can be traced back to 1989, when the Black American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced it to academia (though as a concept, it has been around for longer). Crenshaw looked at a legal case in which an African-American woman complained about an employer being discriminatory against her (because of her race and gender) in their hiring process. The woman’s case was dismissed because it was found that the employer had hired both African-American people and women. Yet, African-American women weren’t part of any of those two groups (i.e. it was only African-American men or white women). According to Crenshaw, what was ignored here was how the experiences of African-American women were different from those of African-American men and white women, in spite of them being African-American and women.
The woman’s complaint was not about being discriminated for being an African-American and a woman: it was about being discriminated for being an African-American woman. Her race and her gender couldn’t be separated. From this, and other examples, Crenshaw concluded that the problem was how different forms of discrimination were perceived, often ignoring how they are connected to each other, and how there are big differences within members of discriminated groups. Though her critique was rooted in a black feminist perspective, her view was also applied later to other issues such as ableism, classism, transphobia and homophobia.
What does intersectionality mean?
The concept of intersectionality can be defined as a critical framework of analysis: a way to understand and explore how different identities (and the discrimination/exclusion that might come with them) are related and connected to each other; how they “intersect”. General social groups (e.g. men, women, LGBT+ etc) aren’t seen as homogenous, and social issues (e.g. racism, sexism, queerphobia) don’t have just a single dimension. Multiple forms of discrimination and exclusion can affect a single person and a social justice movement, from visible to “invisible” identities, backgrounds and situations. It means that, for instance, black women can’t be seen by antiracism work as just black, or by feminist work as just women. This is also true when making generalisations about supposedly-dominant groups in societies. Someone might be white (in a white majority country), and hence be assumed exempt from the consequences of racial discrimination, yet they might be working class, LGBT+ and/or disabled, still struggling, but just in a different way. Intersectionality attempts to highlight how issues and identities aren’t just black or white: there are plenty of grey areas with multiple layers to them, and their context matters.
How is intersectionality useful (or not)?
Just like many other many ideas and perspectives, intersectionality isn’t free from critique. Aside from being a complicated term to understand, it can also be seen as vague and ambiguous. Given that it is rooted in specific people’s experiences, some worry that it is a method too subjective and not general enough to act on discrimination and exclusion. Others believe it is still too rooted in (often smaller) identities, pushing identity-politics that lead to division within social movements. In addition, it has been pointed out that just like diversity, it can still lead to a problem of not all perspectives being considered within a discriminated social group, as experiences still differ even among subgroups. And often, its use leads to the creation of a hierarchy of different forms of discrimination and exclusion, which tends to have negative consequences, as people downplay others’ situations based on a theory.
None of the critiques above are to be dismissed, as elements of truth can be found in each of them. But, in my opinion, none of them make intersectionality a less useful or less important concept. For me, the value of intersectionality theory is how it is used and applied. The term being open-ended and indefinite leaves a lot of room for it to evolve and expand overtime, as it did (it went to applying to black feminist critique, to being used in broader social movements such as economic justice).
I value people’s experiences, I think there is power in personal stories, even if subjective. Conflict and tension don’t have to lead to division if we are open-minded and less self-centered. You can’t always make all perspectives count, but you can still try your best. And, theory is useless if it is not adapted correctly to reality. I just firmly believe our personal and intersecting situations, identities, backgrounds and experiences always affect the way we see and understand things, consciously and unconsciously. That’s why having as many different stories as possible helps to better deal with problems, as the variety of perspectives helps different aspects to be better understood. Intersectionality allows for this.
On a more personal note, to me, as a climate organiser, “intersectional” isn’t a way to act or to be: it is a lens of analysis that helps me reflect on myself and on the social movements and institutions which I belong to. It is about having an honest and critical conversation with myself about who I am, which are the struggles I face, and what environments I am in. Of course, intersectionality mainly applies to higher issues such as social structures, laws and policies, but if we can’t start by examining ourselves, our experiences and our surroundings, we will never reach those higher places. I also think it is important to understand that intersectionality is not something you can achieve and mark as done: it is a way to examine issues and situations, a regular process which requires constant commitment from individuals in society because the world changes every day, and so do the people in it. And if it is truly about experiences, these are infinite.
Now, you might be wondering how all this applies to UKYCC’s work on climate justice. But, I’m afraid that would require a lot more writing from me. Answering that question would require another blog post, probably several… But perhaps, that’s the best option. Discussing intersectionality through specific examples of real and present situations related to climate change, and hearing from a range of voices about what the term means to them might be the best answer.
At the end of the day, it is all about having as many different stories, perspectives and experiences as possible. What would you think about an intersectional blog series to keep learning and understanding more about the concept? I think it sounds great. And, so does UKYCC. So, stay tuned, because this is just the beginning.
P.S. I invite you to watch this video in which Crenshaw talks about intersectionality, from her own words: