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What is intersectionality?

If Dictionary.com voted ‘complicit’ the word of 2017, I’m hoping that 2018’s word becomes ‘intersectionality’. You may have already read or heard the word, especially if you cheered on the Women’s March last January, or if you’ve been following the #metoo and #timesup movements, or if you’ve read books by bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Gloria AnzaldĂșa.

The legal scholar and academic Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the word in 1989 when she was researching discrimination against black women in the workplace. She found that while there was awareness of discrimination towards black men and towards white women, black women, who combined characteristics from both minority groups, struggled with cumulative prejudice and were left without protection or representation.

Merriam Webster defines intersectionality as ‘the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect’. If you take your own circumstances for example, your experience of intersectionality is based on where you fall within several social categories- your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your religion, your sexual orientation, your ability. Intersectionality is the idea that all of these different categories overlap and, rather than existing in separate compartments, they merge and change the way that you interact with the world.

The concept is often represented as a Venn diagram, where the individual exists in the centre. The complexity of the idea and it’s nuanced reality for most individuals makes it difficult to research, discuss and represent. The concept has garnered the most attention in the feminist movement, partly because that is where the idea first started, but it’s important to remember that it applies to everyone whether you experience privilege or discrimination or a combination of both.


intersectionality venn diagram

The single-minded nature of our institutions, our politics and our social interactions means that we often forget the complexity of each individual’s situation and some intersectional groups fall through the social cracks. This is what Dr Williams Crenshaw found with black women, and still finds today, as she fights to raise awareness about black female victims of police violence with her campaign #sayhername.

Intersectionality is a hugely important idea for the world we currently live in and for the world we are trying to shape. We will need to constantly keep it in mind as we continue to discuss different issues like gender, sexuality, and religion, always keeping in mind that none of these identities exist in a vacuum.

To learn more about intersectionality, here are 5 videos that I found really interesting and that I thought you might enjoy- KimberlĂ© Williams Crenshaw’s TED Talk, Teaching Tolerance’s ‘Intersectionality 101’, Akilah Obviously’s ‘On Intersectionality in Feminism and Pizza’, Kids Explain Intersectionality and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’.

Photo of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw from TED.com

For more reading on intersectionality, try Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge’s great 2016 book on key concepts.

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