Understanding Intersectionality: Definition, Theory and Critiques

Intersectionality is a term that has been gaining momentum in recent years, especially in feminist circles. It refers to the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, gender, class, and sexuality, and how they intersect to create unique experiences of oppression and privilege. Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal scholar and Black feminist, coined this term in 1989 to describe the ways in which Black women experience both racism and sexism simultaneously, rather than experiencing them as separate, distinct forms of oppression.

Today, intersectionality has evolved into a complex framework for understanding the nuanced experiences of marginalized groups and the ways in which different forms of oppression intersect and compound one another. It has become a crucial tool for social justice activists and policymakers who seek to create more equitable systems and institutions. However, with its growing popularity has come some controversy and criticism. Some argue that intersectionality has led to identity politics and a focus on individual identities rather than collective struggle, while others believe it perpetuates a victim mentality.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the origins, theory, and practice of intersectionality. We will also examine critiques and controversies surrounding the concept, including its relationship to identity politics and class struggle. By the end of this guide, you will have a deeper understanding of intersectionality and how it can be applied to promote social justice and equality.

What is Intersectionality?

The Origins of Intersectionality

KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, a prominent legal scholar and critical race theorist, is credited with coining the term intersectionality in her seminal 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. This paper birthed the concept of intersectionality, which refers to how different aspects of a person’s identity – such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, and more – can intersect and create unique experiences of oppression.

Crenshaw drew on her experience as a Black feminist lawyer fighting against employment discrimination cases to develop her theory of intersectionality. She noticed that Black women were being discriminated against not just because of their race or their gender, but also because of the intersection of these identities. In other words, these women faced a unique form of discrimination that could not be adequately addressed by solely focusing on either their race or gender.

Critical race theory (CRT) was another key influence on the development of intersectionality. CRT is an academic discipline that examines the way racism intersects with other forms of oppression in society. CRT recognizes that racism is not just an individual problem, but is deeply embedded in social structures and institutions. Similarly, intersectionality acknowledges that oppression operates at both individual and systemic levels and that it cannot be fully understood without examining the intersections of multiple identities.

Black feminism, a movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, was also foundational to the development of intersectionality. Black feminists recognized that mainstream feminist movements ignored the experiences of women of color, who face unique forms of oppression due to the intersection of their racial and gender identities. They argued that gender inequality could not be addressed without also confronting racism and other forms of discrimination.

In summary, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Critical Race Theory, and Black Feminism all played important roles in the development of intersectionality. This theory recognizes that individuals have multiple identities that intersect and can create unique experiences of oppression, and that these experiences cannot be fully understood without examining the intersections of various forms of discrimination.

Intersectionality and Identity

Intersectionality and Identity

Intersectionality is a concept that recognizes the complex nature of identity formation. It acknowledges that individuals can be marginalized or privileged based on multiple identities, such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and more. This complexity is well-aligned with social identity theory, which posits that people develop a sense of self based on their membership in social groups.

However, intersectionality goes beyond this basic understanding of identity formation. It recognizes that some identities are privileged while others are oppressed. For example, being white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and wealthy are all identities that come with privilege in many societies. Conversely, being a person of color, female, LGBTQ, transgender, disabled, and poor are identities that often come with oppression.

Oppression occurs when those in power use their privilege to systematically disadvantage those without it. For instance, people of color have historically been subjected to discrimination in housing, employment, education, and criminal justice systems due to their racial identity. Similarly, women have faced barriers in accessing leadership positions, earning equal pay, and achieving reproductive rights because of their gender identity.

Privilege, on the other hand, refers to unearned advantages that certain identities provide. Privilege can manifest in various forms, including economic, political, social, and cultural advantages. For example, being born into a wealthy family provides economic privileges that can open doors to opportunities like higher education, better healthcare, and access to influential networks.

It’s important to note that everyone has multiple identities that intersect in different ways. Some can experience both privilege and oppression simultaneously, depending on the context. A white woman, for example, may experience gender-based oppression but also hold racial privilege. On the other hand, a black man may face racial oppression but also hold male privilege.

In conclusion, intersectionality and social identity theory offer powerful frameworks for understanding how identities intersect and contribute to privilege and oppression. By acknowledging the complexity of identity formation, we can better recognize the ways in which power and privilege operate in society and work towards creating a more equitable world.

Intersectionality in Practice

Intersectionality in Practice

Intersectionality is more than just a theoretical framework; it has practical implications for policy-making, diversity and inclusion efforts, and organizational practices. By recognizing the complex ways in which multiple identities intersect to create unique experiences of oppression and privilege, organizations can create more inclusive policies and practices that better serve all individuals.


At its core, intersectionality is about recognizing and addressing the ways in which different systems of oppression intersect to create unique experiences of marginalization. This recognition can be applied to policy-making at all levels, from local to national. Intersectional policy-making involves considering how policies may disproportionately impact individuals based on their various identities and seeking to address these disparities through targeted interventions.

For example, an intersectional approach to healthcare policy might recognize that individuals from marginalized communities are often underserved by the healthcare system due to a variety of factors, such as language barriers, lack of transportation, and discrimination. By implementing policies that address these barriers, policymakers can work to ensure that everyone has access to quality healthcare regardless of their background.

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion efforts often fall short when they fail to take an intersectional approach to understanding identity and oppression. An intersectional approach recognizes that individual identities do not exist in isolation but are shaped by broader societal structures of power and oppression.

By acknowledging the ways in which individuals experience multiple forms of oppression, organizations can work to create more inclusive environments that better serve all members. For example, a company that focuses only on gender diversity might inadvertently exclude individuals who face discrimination due to their race, sexuality, or disability. By taking an intersectional approach, however, the company can create policies and practices that are more inclusive of all individuals.


Organizations can also use an intersectional lens to examine their own practices and identify areas where they may be inadvertently perpetuating systemic oppression. This includes everything from hiring practices to office culture to marketing and branding.

For example, an organization that claims to value diversity but predominantly hires individuals from privileged backgrounds may be perpetuating systemic inequality. By examining their recruitment practices and implementing policies that prioritize diversity and inclusion, the organization can work to create a more equitable workplace.

In conclusion, intersectionality is a powerful tool for understanding and addressing systemic oppression. By recognizing and addressing the unique ways in which different systems of oppression intersect, policymakers, organizations, and individuals can work towards creating a more just and equitable world.

Critiques and Controversies Surrounding Intersectionality

Intersectionality vs. Identity Politics

Intersectionality vs. Identity Politics

Intersectionality and identity politics are often used interchangeably, but they have significant differences. Identity politics is defined as a political approach that emphasizes the collective experiences of individuals based on their social identity, such as race, gender, or sexuality. It aims to advance the interests of these groups and challenge systems of oppression.

On the other hand, intersectionality is a framework that recognizes how different aspects of identity intersect and interact with one another, creating unique experiences of oppression and privilege. This means that people who belong to multiple marginalized groups face compounded forms of discrimination and must be accounted for in social justice movements.

Identity-based movements tend to focus on issues that affect specific groups of people, such as Black Lives Matter for black individuals or LGBTQ+ rights movements for queer communities. While these movements are important for raising awareness and advocating for these groups, they can sometimes overlook the experiences of those who exist at the intersections of multiple identities.

In contrast, coalitions formed through intersectional approaches prioritize inclusivity and understanding the ways in which various forms of oppression intersect. These coalitions recognize the need to address issues that affect marginalized groups in an interconnected manner. For instance, an intersectional feminist movement would advocate for not only women’s rights but also LGBTQ+ rights, disability rights, and racial justice.

Overall, while identity politics has been instrumental in raising awareness about the struggles of marginalized groups, intersectionality provides a more nuanced and inclusive approach to social justice work. By recognizing how different forms of oppression intersect, we can form stronger alliances and work towards a more just and equitable society.

Intersectionality and Class Struggle

Intersectionality and Class Struggle

Intersectionality has been widely adopted by feminist and social justice movements to describe the interconnectedness of different forms of oppression. However, it has also faced criticism from Marxist scholars who believe that it downplays class struggle. In this section, we will explore the Marxist critique of intersectionality and how it relates to economic determinism and class reductionism.

Marxist theory argues that class struggle is the driving force of history, as it is the conflict between the ruling class and the working class that shapes society. According to Marxists, intersectionality focuses too much on identity-based struggles and ignores the systemic oppression caused by capitalism. They argue that this approach leads to a neglect of the primary forces that lead to inequality and perpetuate the status quo.

In addition, some Marxist scholars accuse intersectionality of promoting economic determinism, which suggests that all social phenomena can be explained by economic factors. They argue that intersectionality fails to consider the role of culture, ideology, and other non-economic factors in shaping social relations. This narrow focus on economics neglects important aspects of social life and overlooks the complex interactions between different forms of oppression.

Another critique of intersectionality by Marxists is that it can lead to class reductionism. Class reductionism refers to an overemphasis on class as the only form of oppression. Those who subscribe to this view often dismiss other forms of oppression such as race, gender, or sexuality as secondary to class, effectively erasing the experiences of marginalized groups.

However, proponents of intersectionality argue that it does not ignore class struggle but rather acknowledges that class is just one aspect of social identity. They believe that the fight against exploitation and oppression cannot be reduced to just one category and that understanding the intersections of different forms of oppression is crucial for creating effective social change.

In conclusion, while intersectionality has been criticized by some Marxist scholars for overlooking class struggle, it remains a valuable tool for understanding the interconnectedness of different forms of oppression. By acknowledging the complex interactions between race, gender, sexuality, and class, intersectionality helps to create a more nuanced understanding of social relations and can be used to inform effective activism and policy-making.

Cultural Appropriation and Intersectionality

Cultural Appropriation and Intersectionality

One of the most contentious issues surrounding intersectionality is cultural appropriation. This phenomenon occurs when members of a dominant culture adopt elements from a marginalized culture, often without regard for their cultural significance or historical context. Examples of cultural appropriation range from wearing Native American headdresses at music festivals to using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) slang without understanding its roots in Black culture.

Cultural appropriation has significant implications for intersectionality because it perpetuates power imbalances between dominant and marginalized groups. The commodification of marginalized cultures can lead to their further marginalization by reducing them to mere objects of consumption. This process often leads to the erasure of their cultural identities and contributes to systemic racism.

In the context of intersectionality, cultural appropriation is particularly problematic because it reinforces the existing power dynamics between various social identities. For example, when white people appropriate elements of Black culture, they are taking something that belongs to a historically oppressed group and turning it into a commodity. This reinforces the notion that Black culture is less valuable than white culture and perpetuates the systemic racism that exists in our society.

To combat cultural appropriation, we must be aware of our own privilege and power dynamics. We need to listen to marginalized voices and respect their cultural practices rather than appropriating them for our own use. Additionally, we must hold individuals and institutions accountable for their actions and ensure that they are not engaging in cultural theft.

In conclusion, cultural appropriation is a vital issue that intersects with the broader concepts of intersectionality and systemic oppression. By recognizing the power dynamics at play and being respectful of other cultures, we can work towards a more just and equitable society.
In conclusion, intersectionality is a crucial concept that helps us understand the complexities of social identities and how they interact with systems of power and oppression. It recognizes that people have multiple social identities that intersect and can lead to unique experiences of discrimination and disadvantage. Intersectionality theory has been instrumental in shaping social justice movements and policy-making efforts around the world.

However, intersectionality is not without its critiques and controversies. Some argue that it can lead to identity politics and divisiveness, while others believe it does not adequately address class struggle or cultural appropriation. Nevertheless, intersectionality continues to be a valuable tool for promoting diversity and inclusion in organizations and society as a whole.

As we continue to navigate the challenges of a rapidly changing world, understanding intersectionality and its implications becomes increasingly important. We must strive to be mindful of our own biases and the ways in which they intersect with others’ experiences. By doing so, we can work toward creating a more just and equitable society for all.

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