By Michelle Wheeler
Intersectionality is a way of understanding the complex web of identities that compose each human being. The study of intersectionality seeks to understand how intersections of identity impact individuals while also acknowledging oppression and privilege. Intersectionality encompasses the idea that “various forms of oppression interact with one another in multiple complex ways” (Garry 826).
Coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality relates to the systematic oppression of minority populations—a crucial element of modern Feminist theory. Crenshaw’s work surrounding identity politics and violence against women was pivotal in developing a deeper understanding of the implications intersectionality can have in daily life (Crenshaw 1244). Discussions of intersectionality often include: sex , gender , race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religious belief, sexual orientation , age, ability, etc. Spawning from the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, intersectionality is a staple of third wave rhetoric.
Examples of intersectionality surface almost every day in our interim class. The characters Louis Ironson and Belize of Angels in America are wonderful examples of intersectionality. Louis is a queer identified Jewish-American and Belize is a queer black man. The study of intersectionality would argue that although both characters identify as queer, their experiences are inherently different because of the added element of race difference and religious belief.
Understanding the term “Identity” is crucial to developing a framework for intersectionality. Intersectionality assumes that each person possesses a multitude of identities that shape who they are and how they experience the world around them. Humans embody their identities in a way that is unique to them. Singular identities may be shared among large populations (ie. mother, husband, Muslim, deaf, woman, American, etc.), but very few terms account for the interplay of these identities.
Because intersectionality is a result of oppression, the possibility of finding it in a Utopian society is arguable. The homogenous community of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s Herland had such little variability in the population that the idea of intersecting oppressions is irrelevant. The women of Herland shared the identities of womanhood, sisterhood, ethnic heritage, general appearance, and religious belief. A land free of oppression is a land free of intersectionality.
Conversely, the dystopic landscape in Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds ” was a hotbed of oppression and difference. Rye, the protagonist, experienced oppression through her womanhood, lack of written communication, and ability to speak. Her intersecting identities made her a target of oppression and violence throughout the story.
Intersectionality is a complex subject that often receives criticism for being too abstract, yet it is a common theme in many higher-level education courses. Intersectionality, however multifaceted, allows fore more space to interpret and understand the diverse experiences and oppressions of all people. In essence, intersectionality is the study of what makes us who we are. It assumes that every individual is a melting pot of unique identities, and can only been seen when society considers all identities.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color." Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241-299. Print.
Garry, Ann. "Intersectionality, Metaphors, And The Multiplicity Of Gender." Hypatia 26.4 (2011): 826-850. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.