Nobody knows what intersectionality means. I certainly don’t, and the more I read about it the more confused I become.
There are a few things I think I know: it’s something to do with oppression, especially multiple oppressions; if you run in certain feminist circles, especially online, it’s bad to not be it (intersectional); if you run in certain socialist circles, it’s something to make fun of.
Every time I feel I’m getting closer to an acceptable definition I find someone using a different one, usually to defend or condemn their particular version of the concept.
It’s not just me: the scholar who coined the term, UCLA law professor and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, said in 2009 that she is “amazed at how [intersectionality] gets over- and under-used; sometimes I can’t even recognize it in the literature any more.”
This is perplexing, because Crenshaw’s original work, which she began in 1989, is a clever juridical recapitulation of foundational ideas in black feminism. She took a basic observation – black women are subjected to racism by a predominantly white feminist movement, and sexism by male-dominated anti-racist organisations – and asked why this dynamic repeats itself in places such as anti-discrimination law and domestic violence services.
Using DeGraffenreid v General Motors as a case study, a 1976 employment lawsuit brought against GM St Louis by a group of black women, she noted that one of the reasons the plaintiffs lost was because the plant could show it hired black men and white women.
Under the rigid categories of the Civil Rights Act 1964, the court could not examine a combined claim of race and sex discrimination, and so could not offer a remedy specifically for black women.
In Crenshaw’s 2016 Ted talk on the urgency of intersectionality, she explains the problem like this:
The challenge that I faced was trying to figure out whether there was an alternative narrative […] so it occurred to me,…