Intersectionality is a term used to explain the idea that various forms of discrimination, such as those centered on race, gender, class, disability, sexuality, and other forms of identity, do not work independently but interact to produce particularized forms of social oppression. Intersectionality acknowledges that power dynamics and social systems and structures are complicated and that people can experience multiple forms of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and homophobia at the same time. This synchronicity creates unique experiences of oppression (Taylor, 2019).
Origin and Explanation of the Term
Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term “intersectionality” in her 1989 article, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Her 1991 article, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color builds on her initial thinking. In this video, Crenshaw speaks about how intersectionality expands our understanding of social oppression and how it operates in a given society, culture, or environment.
Put simply, viewing discrimination through an intersectional lens, the inequities and inequalities that people experience are never the result of a single, distinct factor. Rather, they are the outcome of intersection and overlap of different social identities enmeshed in power dynamics and contextual factors in a given environment (YW Boston Blog, 2017).
Application to Gender
Regarding gender, as is explained in What is Intersectionality and What Does it Have to Do with Me? (Hopkins, 2018), intersectionality accounts for gender and its interaction and overlap with other social identities. People experience disadvantages according to the relative value and social standing of their multiple social identities, which creates a complex convergence of oppression:
|Intersectionality is a way of understanding social relations by examining intersecting forms of discrimination. This means acknowledging that social systems are complicated and that many forms of oppression, like racism, sexism, and ageism might be present and active at the same time in a person’s life. Intersectionality is about understanding and addressing all potential roadblocks to an individual or group’s wellbeing. For example, while the career of a young white able-bodied woman might improve with gender equality protections, an older, black disabled lesbian may continue to be hampered by racism, ageism, ableism, and homophobia in the workplace.But it’s not as simple as adding up oppressions and addressing each one individually. Racism, sexism, and ableism exist on their own but when combined they compound and transform the experience of oppression.
Another Angle to Consider
At the same time, Hopkins explains, intersectionality can also consider the privileges or advantages that people experience in line with their social identities, and how those advantages and disadvantages interact and overlap. That is, depending on a person’s society, culture, or environment, they can experience specific advantages over other individuals or groups in line with power dynamics and contextual factors, but if that same person lived in a different setting, they could experience distinct disadvantages. Thus, intersectionality provides an essential framework to truly engage with how privilege, oppression, and power operate in a given environment.
Intersectionality, Gender, and Social and Behavior Change
The Gender and Development Network states that an intersectional approach to gender-transformative programming in social and behavior change (SBC) means being mindful of three main points:
- Anyone can experience gender discrimination in one way or another, with some groups being more disproportionately burdened. But not only gender shapes experiences of discrimination, marginalization, and oppression, but also race, socio-economic status, and other factors.
- An individual’s particular experience of intersecting discriminations is unique; it is not simply the sum of different discriminations.
- Politically, gender equality proponents must tackle all forms of discrimination and oppression whether based on gender, race, or class.
As Hopkins states:
|The concept of intersectionality challenges us to adopt a more systems-oriented and complexity-aware lens in understanding and addressing how gender interacts with other social locations to shape and influence the conditions and outcomes of people’s lives across diverse contexts. It means listening to others, examining our own privileges and asking questions about who may be excluded and adversely effected by our work. By doing so, we can better identify and shift the structures, pathways, and mechanisms through which intersecting inequalities continue to operate and negatively impact lives. By applying an intersectional lens to our work, we can design multi-level, norms-shifting interventions in collaboration with partners and stakeholders that can tackle gender and other social injustices in more transformative ways.
This work is challenging and requires a lot of introspection and reflection on the part of SBC professionals as we negotiate the ways in which our own social identities impact how we do work that is truly intersectional and inclusive.
In this Trending Topic we share resources and tools to help with understanding and applying an intersectional lens to SBC programming, and several examples of intersectionality as applied to gender-integrated programming across the globe. If you have materials you would like to share with us, please upload the items, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hopkins, P. (2018, April 22). What is Intersectionality? YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1islM0ytkE
Taylor, B. (2019, November 24). Intersectionality 101: what is it and why is it important? Womankind Worldwide. https://www.womankind.org.uk/intersectionality-101-what-is-it-and-why-is-it-important
YW Boston Blog. (2017, March 29). What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me? YW Boston. https://www.ywboston.org/2017/03/what-is-intersectionality-and-what-does-it-have-to-do-with-me
Photo credit: MONUSCO Pictures / Myriam ASMANI Retrieved from Flickr