What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a term that was coined by legal scholar Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw coined the term to describe how different systems of oppression overlap and create unique (and often adverse) experiences for those who identify in more than one identity category. For example, a woman of color would experience oppression through sexism and racism. This is likely to increase the amount of discrimination and adversities in her life. Further, what if this same woman of color had lower Socioeconomic Status (SES)? This woman would experience sexism, racism, and possible classism from society.

People marching for intersectionality rights

The History of Intersectionality

In Crenshaw’s paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” one of the legal cases she highlights is DeGraffenreid vs. General Motors. In this case, five women of color sued General Motors and argued that their seniority policy targeted women of color. This seniority policy was put into play during the recession of 1970. During this time, all employees hired after 1964 would be considered for termination. The employees that were laid off were subsequently women of color. Why is this? It is thought that General Motors needed to retain individuals from certain marginalized communities (e.g., women and people of color) to keep diversity within the company. But with that, they decided to keep white women and men of color, hence leaving women of color to be terminated.

Despite the validity of this argument, Judge Harris Wangelin did not rule in the plaintiff’s favor. He stated that “The legislative history surrounding Title VII does not indicate that the goal of the statute was to create a new classification of ‘Black women’ who would have greater standing than, for example, a Black male. The prospect of the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”

The Ruling

This ruling indicates that women of color were either viewed as purely women or purely Black within the courts. It does not consider that women of color have unique adverse experiences that are not comparable to those of white women or Black men.

Like Crenshaw states, women of color experience sexism and racism. So to say that their experience is no different than that of a white woman or man of color is to ignore women of color’s experience entirely. This does not mean that white women or Black men experience fewer adversities. However, it means that the experiences that they do have are going to be vastly different than that of Black women, due to intersectionality. This analysis done by Crenshaw points to the fact that critical thinking must take place when analyzing the patriarchal structures of our society. It is also important to educate one’s self and others on these oppressive overlaps and work to decenter patriarchal thinking and structures.

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