What is Intersectionality?

I often hear people talk about intersectionality through a lens of oppression or privilege. While this is useful for initial analysis or an introduction to critical sociological concepts. Well, if you believe you know what intersections are keep reading. If you don’t; keep reading I will sum up concisely the fickle understanding.

Yes, the very special mix of racism and misogyny experienced by women of colour is distinct and fits in its own box. For those of you unaware, head to learning about misogynoir for your introduction.

  1. Name five Black men killed in police custody?

2. Now, Name five British Black men killed in police custody?

3. Now, Name one British Black woman killed in police custody?

If you are struggling here; head to this piece of writing: Say Their Name UK.

Hopefully, you understand that being more aware of some injustices than others really means something.

That was a simple way of thinking about the intersectionality.

The origin story of the term used by Kimberly Crenshaw (a lawyer and scholar) comes from her 1989 paper. She starts with DeGraffenreid v General Motors in which five Black women alleged perpetuated discrimination, it was found that the organisation didn’t hire Black women pre 1964 and all Black women hire post 1970 were layed off in a upcoming recession.  The court said:

“[P]laintiffs have failed’ to cite any decisions which have stated that Black women are a special class to be protected from discrimination. The Court’s own research has failed to disclose such a decision. The plaintiffs are clearly entitled to a remedy if they have been discriminated against. However, they should not be allowed to combine statutory remedies to create a new ‘super-remedy’ which would give them relief beyond what the drafters of the relevant statutes intended. Thus, this lawsuit must be examined to see if it states a cause of action for race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, but not a combination of both.”

The court found that “General Motors has hired … female employees for a number of years prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” They found that as women were hired, yes, you guessed it, they were white women. No discrimination along the lines of sex could be bought.

In Moore Vs Hughes Helicopter Inc, plaintiffs brought a case that class representative act and was refused to bring on grounds of race *and* sex even though ‘significant’ statistical evidence was presented with respect race and sex in supervisory roles. People have lots of different characteristics and understanding that they in a sociological sense will intersect into a melee of oppressions and privileges.

What is a next level of analysis and thinking?

Let’s start with thinking about personal ascriptions;

When thinking about what makes you, you. The different parts of you.







Black Country

Native English speaker

Now think of these competing labels as circles in a Venn diagram. The fickle understanding would simply look at the experiences of a person through the intersecting loops. However, the first thing is to recognise the perception of a person and the internal ascription. This game is particularly pertinent when choosing a label – and each characteristic is valid as long it is not antithetical to another. Who gets to choose was is antithetical? and this is really important because the impact of the societies decision also impacts the self.

I would absolutely refer to myself as British but I have been told over a thousand times that you can’t be Brown and British. Hold your shock and opprobrium; keep reading. My retort has commonly been that my Parent were both British Subjects, their parents and their parents before them for around 200 years. There is even a question here to ask, why does this come to mind as a defence. Do any white British folx ever have a salient defence of their own right to determine my ethnicity (this is also consequence of my internalised oppression but that is for another day).

When thinking about intersectionality one must consider the ascription and the right to and importantly society’s sanction. Before we even start to think about a person’s privilege or oppression, we must appreciate the hegemonic impact of society’s acceptance or rejection.

Then most folx will go by the premise that protected characteristics are culminative and there is some truth to this. With our pupils there is a good example here (albeit race is largely ignored and relegated to a footnote). However, the simple assertion that Women are more oppressed than men, Black and Brown women are more oppressed than White women that trans folx are … is way too simple.

Intersections are complex; Black and Brown are treated terribly by the justice system and the oppression is palpable in the statistic concerning incarceration. MoC are 56% more likely to go to prison for committing the same crimes as white people. Black men as you saw in the above article as much more likely to die in police custody. Similar disparities exist in every field that matters, education, health, policing, housing, etc. However, the nuance is really important. An analysis of the way different folx navigate the world has to begin to include it furthers our own knowledge and provides a shield against simplest of arguments. More than that – intersectionality should allow us to appreciate that every characteristic and non-membership means that people navigate the world in ways which are complex and we must start to appreciate that if we are to work towards a fairer world.


Crenshaw, Kimberle () “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8.

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