Social Justice Movements Aren’t Complete Without This Key Component

Intersectionality is a framework for understanding the complex way that the many aspects of people’s identities overlap, including their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and more. The term was coined in 1989 by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, LLM, J.D. Intersectionality holds that a person’s various identities do not live in separate vacuums; rather, people exist at the intersections of their identities.

“Intersectionality is one of the many tools that Black feminist thought has generated,” says Jennifer Nash, J.D., Ph.D., a professor of African American Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University. “It has been developed over the courses of decades of Black feminist intellectual labor from scholars and activists including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Deborah King, Frances Beal, and the Combahee River Collective.”

Intersectionality is often used in relationship to feminism. Intersectional feminism acknowledges that while all women face oppression, all women are not equally oppressed, and not all women face the same challenges. Some women face more serious harm and injustices because of how their other identities intersect with their womanhood. For example, Black women face challenges that are a result of both their gender and their race. These challenges are not just additive (gender discrimination plus race discrimination); they actually compound each other (gender discrimination made worse by race discrimination, and race discrimination made worse by gender discrimination) and produce unique forms of inequality that only people at this intersection experience.

“Intersectionality has transformed conversations,” Nash says, so that it is now widely understood that to dismantle oppressive structures, we must think about how they are interlocking and reinforcing. We can not think about misogyny, for example, without thinking about race, class, and sexual orientation.

Intersectionality can also be applied to any social movement from Black justice (which must acknowledge the unique challenges of Black trans women, for example) to climate change (ecofeminism acknowledges how Black, Indigenous, and other people of color disproportionately suffer from environmental destruction) to gay rights (which must acknowledge that trans people face more violence and harm than cis gay people).