What Is Intersectionality?

Here's what to know about this term

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Intersectionality acknowledges that each individual has multiple identities and is subject to various forms of intersecting oppression.

This article will review the term's history, examples of intersectionality, why it is important, and how you can use this knowledge to create change. 

History of the Concept of Intersectionality

The term ''intersectionality" was first coined by civil rights scholar and the founding voice behind critical race theory Kimberlé Crenshaw.

The Term Intersectionality Was Coined in 1989

Crenshaw first introduced the term in 1989 in her seminal article for the University of Chicago Legal Forum titled, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.”

The Term Was Used to Explain the Varying Layers of Oppression

She later expanded on the term in her 1991 article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” In this latter article, Crenshaw illustrated a Black woman’s experiences navigating interpersonal violence.

This article spoke to examples of Black rape survivors being silenced, differences in how Black men are treated in the court of law, and how domestic violence survivors are subjugated to layered experiences of oppression based on their race, gender identity, and socioeconomic status.

Thus, Crenshaw integrated the term intersectionality into scholarly discourse in the following years to illustrate how Black women can be excluded from interrogations of gender or racial oppression due to the complex layers of oppression Black women experience.

Though the term was conceptualized in 1989, it didn’t become mainstream until much later. Then, in 2015 it was added as a sociological term to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Examples of Intersectionality

While we have the underpinnings of the theory under our belts after a brief primer of its origin story, that isn’t enough to understand how intersectionality applies in practice. 

So here are some examples:

  • Transgender people of color have reported increased experiences of injustice and abuse within the medical system compared to their White counterparts. This is due to them not only experiencing the oppression of being transgender but also being non-white.
  • A Black man with an Ivy League degree is hired simultaneously as a White man with an Ivy League degree. Despite working extra hours each week, regularly exceeding the expectations of the job requirements, and receiving flawless performance reviews, the Black man is not promoted to partner. In contrast, his White colleague did not work overtime, didn't take on any extra projects, and received mediocre performance reviews, but he was promoted. The Black man was not. The main difference between these two people is the color of their skin. Both experience the social privilege of gender since they are both men in a patriarchal society. However, the Black man holds less privilege due to his racial identity, and the White man experiences increased privilege due to his race.
  • Latina women earn lower wages and are overrepresented in jobs that offer low compensation, specifically when compared to White women.

Why Intersectionality Is Important

Racism, sexism, ageism, and differences in economic status have led to significant divides in our country. Finding language to better understand the systems of oppression existing in our country can support us in building a better future.

Civil rights activist, scholar, and writer Audre Lorde once wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” In this quote, she references the intersectional oppression many people face in our country and acknowledges that a more equitable world will not be built by simply continuing in a broken system.

Following this logic, understanding the tools of oppression offers us the opportunity not to use them so we can dismantle them.

Understanding Intersectionality Can Help You Minimize the Oppression That Others Face

To help close the oppression gap, you must take stock of your interpersonal relationships. Your experiences will differ from others, and if you are someone who happens to have more privilege than your counterparts, explore what you can do to minimize the amount of oppression they face. For example, if you’re in charge of a hiring process, explore what you can do to cultivate a diverse candidate pool.

For another example, if you’re in a relationship with someone with an identity that is subject to more oppression than you are, be mindful of how experiences with family and friends might impact them.

When you advocate for anyone, please don't do that to receive praise or attention from others. That can feel disingenuous and performative.

How to Care for Yourself

If you belong to a marginalized group, you've likely experienced discrimination. The mental health impact of painful experiences can be debilitating so it's important to find support and safe spaces.

Consider Seeing a Therapist

Consider reaching out to a therapist for support. If finances are an issue, Open Path Collective is an organization with a diverse range of therapists offering sessions for as low as $40.

Hoping to find a therapist with an identity similar to yours? Therapy for Black Girls, Inclusive Therapists, and the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network are great directories to look at in your search.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Crenshaw K. Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. Univ. Chic. Leg. Forum. 2015;1989(1).

  2. Crenshaw K. Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. SLR. 1991;43(6):1241. doi: 10.2307/1229039

  3. Merriam-Webster. Word We're Watching: Intersectionality.

  4. American Progress. LGBTQ People of Color Experience Heightened Discrimination

  5. Washington Center for Equitable Growth. The intersectional wage gaps faced by Latina women in the United States

  6. Bowleg L. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”: ten critical lessons for black and other health equity researchers of color. Health Educ Behav. 2021;48(3):237-249. doi: 10.1177/10901981211007402

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.