Updated: Jun 10
When you think of ‘intersectionality,’ what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine of crowd of protesters marching for social justice. Maybe you think of a vague, complicated sociology theory. Intersectionality is a major idea today, so it is important to understand the term.
Maybe you guessed it already, but intersectionality has to do with intersections. Imagine a road called ‘racism.’ Anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in that road will be the victim of racism. Now, imagine another road, labelled ‘sexism.’ Anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in that road will be the victim of sexism. So, what happens when you stand in the intersection of the roads ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’? You experience a unique, ultra-strong form of discrimination.
Basically, that is what ‘intersectionality’ refers to – the fact that some people have to deal with multiple forms of discrimination. The discrimination that occurs in these ‘intersections’ is unique. In other words, you can’t describe the discrimination that a black woman might face just by considering the discrimination that black men might face, or the discrimination that white women might face. The discrimination that a black woman might face will be unique.
This is common sense – the experience of one group of people will be different from the experience of another group of people. But, as you might imagine, intersectionality stands for more than just this idea. Intersectionality is also a theory.
The Intersectionality Theory
Today, intersectionality is more than just an idea. It is also a rallying cry, the so-called ‘NATO of social justice’ that unites many diverse groups of people. It is a movement that combines social justice activists. This is clear just by looking at how the term is used and defined. One article that aimed to define intersectionality described it as “building solidarity in the fight for social justice.”
Intersectionality posits that there are many different forms of oppression and discrimination – against race, class, gender, disability, sexual expression, religion, ethnicity, etc. These forms of discrimination are related to each other. You can’t separate them. Hence, where you find one form of discrimination, you are likely to find others.
Intersectionality is often paired with Critical Race Theory, which argues that America is fundamentally racist. Intersectionality goes farther and sees interlocking systems of oppression that create a ‘matrix of domination.’
In order to remedy this oppression, intersectionality urges us to listen to the voices of those in unique ‘intersections’ – like the gay African-American man, or the transgender Latina woman. Because the oppression that these people might experience is unique, all those who care about social justice should rally to stand up against all oppression.
Intersectionality wants us to be proactive in identifying the oppression that other people face. In order to do so, we should listen to those who are in the ‘intersections.’ Those who are not facing oppression, on the other hand, should ‘check their privilege,’ recognizing that they have unique privileges that other people don’t have.
Critiques of Intersectionality
While intersectionality draws attention to a true fact – that people experience discrimination in unique ways – it is also a movement that has some weaknesses.
The primary critique of intersectionality is that it creates a new social hierarchy. For years, oppressed people struggled against powerful oppressors. Abolitionists fought against slavery. The civil rights movement struggled against institutional racism. Suffragettes marched for a vote. The goal was to destroy a hierarchy in which individuals were judged by their birth gender or the color of their skin.
Today, intersectionality is creating a new hierarchy that reverses the triangle. The person who stands in the most ‘intersections’ – the more ‘victim groups’ that someone is a member of – the more ‘right’ that person has to speak against oppression. On the other hand, if someone is not a member of a ‘victim group,’ they must ‘check their privilege.’
While this may seem like a good attempt to reverse decades of injustice, it is actually the same sort of thinking that creates discrimination in the first place. Discrimination results when individuals are judged by the group that they are in, not based on who they are as an individual. Intersectionality falls into this thinking by reducing individuals to ‘members of the oppressed’ or ‘privileged people.’
Based on this social hierarchy, intersectionality theory stifles free speech. Rather than encouraging oppressed minorities to reject ‘victim culture,’ intersectionality tries to remove them from any ‘microaggressions’ (according to one estimate, at least one hundred higher education institutions now have ‘bias response teams’ that harass anyone who is guilty of a ‘microaggression’).
This is why intersectionality is ineffective in actually helping people – it teaches them to view themselves as ‘oppressed’ by listening to their own stories, and the stories of others who are in intersections of oppression. At the same time, it fights against free speech, the very cornerstone of the free world. With this in mind, it is understandable why some people are very worried about the effects of intersectionality in the world.
You may not have thought much about intersectionality, but most young people are being taught intersectionality in their education. Now that you know what it is, hopefully you will engage in the discussion – and maybe share this article with friends, so they can understand it too!