Why we need to talk about intersectionality

Intersectionality is a word that we’ve heard a lot over the course of recent years. In a world as diverse as ours, it only makes sense that intersectionality is becoming a more widely spoken about topic. The term “intersectionality” was originated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar and a critical race theorist in the 1980’s. Intersectionality is defined as being the overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage, arising from the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender.

Kimberlé Crenshaw and the case of Emma DeGraffenreid

Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar and originator of the term of ‘Intersectionality’

In her highly recommended TED talk, The Urgency of Intersectionality, Crenshaw discusses how intersectionality came about as a concept. While focusing on a case brought against a car manufacturing company by a woman named Emma Degraffenreid, Crenshaw realised there was a massive problem with the justice system and policy. In the case, Emma was denied a job at the firm, and was claiming it was done so on the basis that she was a black woman. However, the court ruled that there wasn’t a case of discrimination; the firm hired black men, primarily to work in the garages, so it there was no racial discrimination; the firm hired white women to work in the office, so there was no basis for a case of gender discrimination. The firm hired people of her gender, and of her ethnicity, but just not people who were both. This case made up large part of the groundwork for Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality. Emma faced gender discrimination from one direction and racial discrimination from the other. The law failed to address the double discrimination, and this is the case in many other aspects of society today.

The media is guilty of this too; looking at cases of police violence against black people, it becomes clear that there is a massive under-representation of the acts of violence against black women in comparison with that of black men. In her talk, Crenshaw starts by naming people, and asking members of the audience to sit down when they hear a name they don’t know. A majority of the audience remain standing as she reads the name of black men killed by police violence. However, as she reads the names of black women killed by the police, there are only 4 out of approximately 500 people still standing, proving her point about the failure of the media.

Politics and policy fail to address the issue of intersectionality. Take the recent case of Shamima Begum; many young males who have gone to Syria in the past have been allowed to return to the UK and have not had their citizenship revoked, on the basis that they were groomed. Yet, Shamima is being painted as a danger to society and has been publicly dragged through the dirt, despite being taken advantage of and groomed, while she was still a child under the eyes of the law. It is clear that there needs to be a better understanding of intersectionality in the political sphere, as well as its effects on certain marginalised groups, particularly women of colour.

What needs to change?
Society likes to place everyone and their various identities into nice, neat boxes that don’t crossover or intersect. We need to change and evolve our understanding of the way different identities interact, and the way in which certain overlaps of identity relate to structures of oppression and discrimination; spheres of social identities that operate on multiple levels, and result in a range of multidimensional experiences. It’s not just about gender and race. This can be applied to a range of identities, from disability to sexuality to age. By being aware of the fact that this problem exists, that policy, law, politicians and the media continuously fail to address the discrimination that exists as result of oppressive structures, we can begin to take strides towards being better. Ultimately, you can’t fix something that isn’t seen as a problem. People are not one dimensional, there are many aspects to a person’s identity, and this diversity shouldn’t be penalised, but instead should be celebrated.

by Zoya Chishti


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