What Is…Intersectionality?

Today’s post is the next installment on the “What is _____?” series, where I go over terms used commonly in social justice circles that may sound like jargon to many.

Today’s “What is_____?” post will be on a very big term in social justice circles these days: intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a term to describe how different forms of discrimination overlap, combine, and yes, even intersect, with each other. While the term was originally used by Kimberlé Crenshaw 30 years ago to describe how the discrimination of women of color differed from even that of white women, the definition has since expanded in a way that the term can be used to describe how different forms of discrimination intersect to create a set of interwoven prejudices in daily life.

A few such cases where I’ve seen intersectionality at play include the following:

  • Women with disabilities of various kinds, including my mother (who has fibromyalgia and arthritis), often face ableism from people who don’t believe that they should accommodate for someone else’s aches and pains. At the same time, many of the women I know who have chronic illnesses have said quite openly that the fact that they’re women has, without a doubt, made them less likely to be believed when talking about their disabilities with friends and doctors. In the case of women with disabilities, ableism and sexism often intersect.
  • Transgender women of color face discrimination for being transgender, for being a woman, and for being a person of color. Each of these individual statuses (being transgender, being a woman, or being a person of color) is often enough, in many cases, to be at risk in certain ways, but the combination of these three identities has arguably resulted in transgender women of color being disproportionately represented in murder counts, even in the transgender community.[1]
  • Younger people with disabilities (whether visible or invisible) are often thought to be “faking it” because they look “too young” to have a disability. This attitude, and its results, means that there are a lot of young people with disabilities face discrimination at the intersection of ageism and ableism.

An understanding of intersectionality is important because, quite frankly, intersectionality also allows us to have a basic understanding of how different groups of people, even within a community that faces discrimination, can face other forms of discrimination too (or further discrimination because of another oppressed identity). Such an understanding can result in greater empathy for others on an individual level, but also hopefully better policy on the governmental level.

[1] The majority of transgender people who were killed due to violence in 2018 were transgender women of color: https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019

19 Replies to “What Is…Intersectionality?”

  1. Hi! Thank you for writing this post.

    I’ve been reading on intersectionality lately and it seems like a very useful tool and approach to navigate systemic injustices. More than looking into individual disadvantages, an intersectional approach can uncover systemic injustices and help to pave the way to a more just society by taking into consideration which groups of people are facing the most difficulties.

    Are there any resources that you especially recommend on intersectionality, other than Crenshaw’s writings?


    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Claudia.

      Intersectionality has gained enough traction at this point that I think there are quite a few authors who do a good job talking about intersectionality. Two authors that I’ve heard do a particularly good job but still need to read more of are Audre Lorde and Angela Davis. I’ve read much more of Crenshaw than Lorde or Davis I must admit, but that is definitely something I plan to change!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good quick overview of a very complicated issue. As a polio survivor I have been a disability rights advocate for almost fifty years. As a retired health care professional who changed careers to become a policy analyst for the government, intersectionality became a tool to create “holes” in social support programs that allowed more and more people to fall through the holes.

    Both inside the system and the outside. Have a spinal cord injury, go see the Paraplegic Association. Have cerebral palsy, go see the Cerebral Palsy Association. You’re a women in a wheelchair go see the Office of the Status of Women’s. Plus government doesn’t create policy based on specific disability but on the response method required, it is buck passing at its best and a way for government to keep persons with disabilities off balance.

    The most abused I’ve seen is head injuries in those marginalized groups. Tasks are set up that almost require a degree to work your way through the process and when you can get it all together you become the problem in the eyes of the service provider. I’ve done a lot of work with new Canadian families who have a very young child with a disability trying to deal with a system that doesn’t really take “cultural competence” into account. I remember long discussions regarding intersectionality at an International Conference in Montreal (Access by Design). Still a lot of work to do and it becomes almost generational.

    Keep on speaking up

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your story.

      It sounds like these issues were with systems in Canada? If so, all the more reason I appreciate your sharing your story–it shows that issues related to intersectionality are not just an American issue, but an international issue.

      Also, am I correct in my understanding that in a lot of these cases you talk about, the system viewed multi-dimensional challenges (for example, the woman in a wheelchair) in a two-dimensional way?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have been thinking about your post for a couple of weeks now. Over and over again you miss maybe the original case for intersectionality. This is with feminism. Originally, it was a movement with mainly white middle-class women. However, as time went on it was realized by some that black women and their concerns as women were not being addressed in the movement. While, there is more focus on others besides white women, some progress has been made. Gloria Steinman has ended up being a big voice for intersectionality within feminism.

    There is one group that continues to be problematic. This is transgender women. There is some acceptance, but mainly these women remain on the margins. The biggest issue however is with trans-exclusionist radical feminists (TERFs). They

    There is some acceptance, but mainly these women remain on the margins. The biggest issue however is with trans-exclusionist radical feminists (TERFs). They propound that only women born women are in fact women. This happens to be untrue. But, they wish to exclude transgender women from women only spaces, and in fact don’t acknowledge their reality. You may here the term gender critical feminist, which some in that movement call themselves as a euphemism.

    I have been a feminist from early in life (age 11). But, now that I recognize myself as a woman, I am not only a feminist, but a trans-feminist. I seek to be come an advocate for other trans* persons, but of course, I focus my attention on transwomen. So I approach feminism from not only feminism in its standard form, but in terms of intersectionality too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your constructive feedback on this post, Stephie.

      You are correct that the original case for intersectionality was within the feminist movement, with people like Kimberle Crenshaw understanding that the feminist movement (dominated by white, middle class women, as you said) was not addressing the concerns of Black women. I mentioned Crenshaw briefly, but did not go into a deep dive of the original history.

      You brought up transgender women and the challenges transgender women face. I think that the intersecting discriminations of sexism and transphobia (and when we’re talking about transgender women of color, racism, sexism, and transphobia) definitely is problematic, and shows the vital importance of intersectional feminism (and intersectionality in general).

      Liked by 1 person

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