In 1976, five black women who labored on the assembly line at General Motors in St. Louis sued their employer, alleging that the auto giant’s seniority-based layoff system, in which the last workers hired were the first to be fired, discriminated against them on the basis of both race and sex. In the subsequent DeGraffenreid v. General Motors ruling, the Court rejected their claim, arguing that protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permitted them to bring forth a complaint of race-based discrimination or of sex-based discrimination, but in the court’s terms, “not a combination of both.” Because the company could prove that it had hired some women (who were all white) who did not face the same seniority-based layoffs experienced by the black women plaintiffs, as well as some African Americans (who were all men) who also did not lose their jobs, the DeGraffenreid plaintiffs found little protection under the prevailing interpretation of the law.
In a landmark law review article in 1989, the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term “intersectionality” to name the complex and uneven ways that the law and social power operated to render the experiences of the DeGraffenreid plaintiffs illegible within dominant legal and political discourse. The keyword posits an analogy between the discrimination faced by black women in the workplace and traffic at a four-way intersection. When an accident takes place there involving cars converging from different directions, it is not always possible to assign liability to a single source. In the DeGraffenreid opinion and a series of similar rulings, the Courts effectively denied black women the recognition and standing to seek protections against the simultaneous and intersecting forces of race and gender discrimination, in part because a definitive and single source of the harm they experienced allegedly could not be identified. The dominant “single axis” conceptualization of discrimination not only tended to “to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis,” but also legitimated a “paradigm of sex discrimination [that] tends to be based on the experiences of white women… [and a] model of race discrimination [that] tends to be based on the experiences” of black men (Crenshaw 1989, 139).
“Intersectionality,” as introduced and deployed by Crenshaw in the analysis of DeGraffenreid and decades-long body of work, names both a structural account of black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination and a political argument about the limitations of prevailing modes of feminism and antiracism (Crenshaw 1991). As developed in a body of scholarship and analysis known as Critical Race Theory, intersectionality disrupts “single axis” conceptualizations of domination that are a hallmark of liberal legal thought. Such conceptualizations assume that “but for” a singular form of discrimination (i.e. “but for racial discrimination”) individuated subjects could exercise their rights within otherwise neutral civil society and markets (Crenshaw et al 1995; Crenshaw 1989; Spade 2013). In contrast, intersectionality provides a means of naming and making legible forms of harm, violence and exploitation experienced by subordinated groups that are often hidden by a “single axis” framework, offering a much more robust and sophisticated understanding of the ways power operates through multiple and mutually constitutive forms of social difference. The keyword thus signifies a practice of analysis, study, and collective social action rather than a totalizing social theory of identity. Intersectionaly names something one does rather than something one is. (2015, 2).
Understood as this kind of “critical praxis” grounded in black feminism (Collins and Blige 2015, 2), intersectionality has a long collective genealogy, even if it has been defined and identified through alternative terms and signifiers (King 1988). Abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s 1851 declaration “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” at the Women’s Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio not only contested patriarchal assumptions used to dismiss women’s fitness for public and political life, it also challenged white feminists to relinquish their interests and investments in white supremacy in their demands for gender equality (154). Anna Julia Cooper’s late nineteenth-century essays, collected in A Voice from the South, similarly cautioned against a mode of antiracism in which the status and rights of black men stood in for the status of black people writ large, asserting, “only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter… then and there the whole Negro race enters with me”(1998, 63). Truth and Cooper interrogate the dominant suppositions of feminism and antiracism and imagine more expansive alternatives rooted in the specificities of black women’s experiences.
When the path-blazing legal scholar Pauli Murray used the word “conjunction” in the 1940s and 1950s to describe the race and sex discrimination faced by black women under what she described as the “Jane Crow” system (1999), she too was analyzing the “intersection” of seemingly singular modes of domination. “Special oppression” was the term used by the Trinidad and Tobago-born journalist and Communist Claudia Jones in 1949 to describe conditions black women faced “as Negro, as woman, as worker.” Frances Beale used the formulation “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female” in a 1969 political pamphlet that insisted that anti-racist and anti-capitalist social movements had to center the gendered experiences of black women, and that gender-based liberation could not be an afterthought to these struggles. When Beale and other women of color founded the Third World Women’s Alliance soon after, they used the term “Triple Jeopardy” to name the ways that imperialism also shaped and produced race and gender oppression. And in the 1970s, groups ranging from the Boston-based Black feminist Combahee River Collective to the pan-indigenous Women of All Red Nations (WARN) to the Chicana feminists who edited the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back (1981) were attentive to understanding what Evelyn Nakano Glenn describes as the “interacting, interlocking structures” of race, gender and class (Glenn 2002, 6).
All of these intersectional analyses and practices emerged from within working class women of color formations as part of their political and analytic responses to material structures of subordination. Indeed, in a another foundational law review article, Crenshaw drew explicitly on this tradition in demonstrating that Latina, Asian-American and indigenous women are subject to intersectional institutional regimes and logics in relation to sex and gender based violence (1991). Thus, intersectionality should be understood both as a practice developed specifically from Black feminist organizing and experience and as an analytic that helps to analyze and interpret relations of power experienced by many other groups..
Since the term entered the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars within a range of disciplines have also used it to describe particular research methodologies and theoretical frameworks. In the social sciences, an intersectional analysis examines the interaction between different social categories, whether in social movement analysis, interpretation of survey data, or the development of research protocols (Lykke, 2011; McCall 2005; Hancock 2011;). As used by literary theorists and other humanists, intersectionality names a reading practice that encourages attention to simultaneity, mutability and multiplicity and attention to variable modes of power in ways that reject such fixed categorical meanings (Ferguson 2012).
The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2015 addition of “intersectionality” signaled the term’s incorporation within popular media and political discourse. But the OED’s definition of the term as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender” distances it both from its theorization and instantiation within Black and women of color feminist praxis and from its circulation within the law (Alexander-Floyd, 2012). The term soon found its way into social media postings and speeches by prominent politicians and candidates, (including by Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 election) and within a growing number of popular culture references in film and television from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to HBO’s True Detective, suggesting an emptying of its movement-building and oppositional political commitments (African American Policy Forum, 2019).
As the term has circulated with greater visibly in public discourse, it has come under sharper criticism from cultural studies scholars and political commentators. In the words of Robin D.G. Kelley, “Intersectionality oscillates between a punching bag and a magic wand” (forthcoming). Some critics eschew Crenshaw’s theorizing of the term, and instead argue that intersectionality is too rooted in fixed conceptions of social identity, implicitly stabilizing the meanings of such identities (distilled into their constituent components of race, gender, or class) rather than understanding such meanings as ongoing processes of social contestation that resist permanent notions of linearity and coherence. These scholars argue that static taxonomies and discrete identity categories can lend themselves to the diversity management imperatives of the state and the forms of administrative violence and regulation undergirding such regimes (Cooper 2016).
Similarly, some detractors on the left have critiqued intersectionality as “the opiate of the professional managerial class,” claiming that it individuates and fetishizes discreet and bounded differences of social identity at the expense of an analysis of structure, class antagonism, and collective struggle (Michaels 2016). To some extent, this critique mirrors the political right’s dismissal of intersectionality as rooted in rigid and derivative investments in identities of race, gender, and sexuality that refuse the allegedly universal categories of national citizenship and liberal subjectivity (Gonzalez, 2018).
These criticisms share an understanding of intersectionality as referencing a status, presuming that some individuals possess or experience an “intersectional identity” while others do not. In this way, they elide the term’s use as a political heuristic and practice that names and call attention to multiple vectors of power and oppression simultaneously. That is, intersectionality is better understood as a “how” of anti-subordination rather than a “what” of identity; as an analytic of structures of power and modes of social categorization rather than a totalizing or dogmatic theory of personhood. (Carbado 2013; Tomlinson 2019).
This “bottom up” and open-ended way of posing questions about social relations and power has generated the most compelling uses of the term within contemporary social movements. For example, scholar-activists affiliated with the Oakland-based Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) explain that “Intersectionality primarily concerns the way things work rather than who people are” (Chun, Lipstiz & Chin 2015, 923). Groups like AIWA have deployed intersectionality to analyze the particular conditions that immigrant women of color face in contesting their exploitation as low-wage workers rather than to make their identity positions more legible or differentiated. Similarly, the Center for Intersectional Justice in Berlin deploys intersectionality to engage lawmakers at the national and European levels about new horizons of anti-discrimination law and practice. The African American Policy Forum, co-founded by Crenshaw, uses the term to surface the often hidden ways that Black girls have been harmed by heavy-handed school discipline policies (2015). Civil rights attorneys have mobilized the term to build more complex legal cases challenging employment discrimination faced by transpeople (Young, forthcoming).
All of these usages of the keyword call attention to the particular forms of analysis, solidarity, and collective action that can be produced through its deployment. They do not presume that intersectionality constitutes a singular or grand social theory that can be uniformly applied to all contexts, structures and dynamics or abstracted from a particular social location and condition. Used in this way, intersectionality affords a necessary optic on the uneven ways that power operates across social groups as well as a set of practices to collectively contest these distinct forms of domination.
As a practice and prism, intersectionality conceptualizes social identities as collective registers of power relations that are always unstable, interconnected, variable and contradictory (Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall 2013). The keyword in this context becomes essential to understanding how oppositional political practices such as anti-racism and feminism can unintentionally occlude some forms of subordination, exploitation, and violence. It thus names one component of a broader political practice that can contest and transform oppressive structures of power.