We are all functions of the system that we live in; a system that has taught us how to think about ourselves and others, how to interact with others, and how to understand what is expected of us. These thought processes and expectations are based on the specific set of social identities we were born into that predispose us to unequal roles that allow us to access (or deny access) to resources. 

The information here provides a basic overview of important considerations related to Intersectionality It is crucial that you continue expanding upon this knowledge and look further into the concepts presented that you are unfamiliar with and/or are curious about. 

In addition to the resources provided below, you can also review additional terminology interconnected with Intersectionality here.

Understanding Intersectionality

Intersectionality refers to the interplay of one’s identities, the status of those identities, and the situational context of how, when, and where those identities show up and influence personal experience(s) within multiple dimensions of societal oppression. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined this term in 1989 in reference to her experience of being black and a woman; describing the ways in which social identities influence one another and overlap. Her identities of being black AND being a woman do not operate independently; instead the interactions between the two identities frequently reinforce each other and shape her experience within an inequitable system.

To be clear, social identities are not the focus of intersectionality; yes they shape your experience and influence what intersectionality means to you. However, the overarching hierarchy of power and privilege that have set-up an inequitable system is what Kimberlé was describing.  

In a recent interview with Time Magazine, Kimberlé Crenshaw explained what intersectionality means to her today. Below is an excerpt from the interview.

Interviewer (Katy Steinmetz): "You introduced intersectionality more than 30 years ago. How do you explain what it means today?"

Kimberlé Crenshaw: "These days, I start with what it’s not, because there has been distortion. It’s not identity politics on steroids. It is not a mechanism to turn white men into the new pariahs. It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts."

In this interview, Kimberlé Crenshaw also explained how intersectionality does not fetishize victimization, but merely explains how you have access to, or you are denied access to, certain things in life.

"Intersectionality is simply about how certain aspects of who you are will increase your access to the good things or your exposure to the bad things in life. Like many other social-justice ideas, it stands because it resonates with people’s lives, but because it resonates with people’s lives, it’s under attack. There’s nothing new about defenders of the status quo criticizing those who are demanding that injustices be addressed. It’s all a crisis over a sense that things might actually have to change for equality to be real."

Now that we have come to the collective agreement that people are comprised of more identities than what meets the eye, we must begin to make an active choice to see one another holistically and not what we assume or perceive another person to be. 

Keeping this in mind, we can begin to think critically and strategically about how systems intersect and create compounding effects on an individual. This will allow us to expose the inequities in history, policies, structures, and lived realities marginalized persons have and continue to endure. By doing so, we can begin to institute change in a meaningful and long-lasting way that is social justice oriented and people-centered.

"Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements." 

This talk was presented at an official TED conference.

How has intersectionality been appropriated over the years?

It is important to understand that intersectionality has become appropriated over the past few years since Kimberlé Crenshaw first debuted the concept. When the term was coined, race was the focal point; intersectionality was used to depict Kimberlé's experience as a Black woman in her field. 

When we say it has been appropriated, we are referring to the fact that when this term first came out, folks (mainly white folks) felt excluded because there was nothing to name their experiences of oppression with other marginalized identities outside of race. Consequently, when we use the term now, race is rarely mentioned and instead people argue that there are other marginalized identities to consider; thus deviating from the historical purpose and ignoring race altogether.

While considering other identities is important to name one's experience, by excluding a racial component, you ignore a critical piece of understanding; you cannot understand your holistic experience without acknowledging how your race shapes and influences the barriers you will face when your other identities intersect.



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Credit: Sara D. Anderson, Karissa Stolen, and Paulina Venzor, 2020, Office of Equity at the University of Colorado Denver and University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

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