October 24, 2020
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Teachable Moments – Intersectionality

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
September 18, 2020

This week we’re exploring the concept of Intersectionality. The term is often used in discussion of privilege as in you have more privilege than I, because my voice is more marginalized than yours. When used, or misused, like that – what they’re basing it on is this concept of Intersectionality. Let’s look at what this concept is about. First the definition. Merriam-Webster says it is “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw is credited with the creation of the term in 1989. A black feminist scholar and lawyer, while at Harvard Law School, she was a founding organizer of the “Critical Race Theory Workshop.” This is where the term intersectionality originated from. She has taught at UCLA School of Law, Columbia Law School and Stanford University. Her courses have included “Advanced Critical Race Theory; Civil Rights; Intersectional Perspectives in Race, Gender and the Criminalization of Women and Girls; and Race, Law and Representation.” She is the founder and director of the Center for Intersectionality & Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School.

Although first used in the feminist movement over thirty years ago, the term wasn’t widely adopted by feminists until the 2000s. It has grown in use ever since. The theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women of color within society. Today it has expanded to include many more aspects of social identity. These include race, gender, sex, sexuality, class, ability, nationality, citizenship, religion and body type. While associated with the feminist movement, the term has been adopted by other marginalized groups. So, what does it mean?

It means that discrimination against a marginalized group might not be based on a single factor. If women as a group are discriminated against, is that discrimination just based on being female? Perhaps it might. But if she’s married or a single mother, could it be based on marital or family status? What if she’s heavy set, has tattoos, or body piercings? How about if she’s an immigrant or homeless? If these complex identity factors cause her to be discriminated against, which one is “the reason?” Where is that tipping point where the combination of factors become so great that discrimination in employment, housing, or education becomes difficult to identify and correct?

And if not complex enough add that she’s Lesbian or Transgender, a person of color, speaks English as a second language or with an accent. Toss in that she is differently abled or dresses in an alternate cultural manner than our majority culture. These are some of the complex factors that make up who we are. The more you have, the more you may be at risk for illegal discrimination. Therefore, a concept that started in the feminist movement has migrated to a wider use in other marginalized groups. 

So yes, a gay man can be discriminated against based on his sexual orientation; but a transgender gay man may be more discriminated against and a black transgender gay man who is homeless may suffer even greater discrimination. These levels of marginalization are indeed complex and cumulative, making it difficult to address solutions to illegal discrimination. For that reason, the concept isn’t without its critics. They say the concept is “inherently ambiguous.” Because of that, the theory can “be perceived as unorganized and lacking a clear set of defining goals.” It can focus on “subjective experiences” and thus “lead to contradictions and the inability to identify common causes of oppression.” So, whatever the concept means to you; whether you agree or differ, understanding the history and framework of the concept is still important. 

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights or Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. She is also a member of the Transgender Journalist Association (TJA). The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.