What is “intersectionality”? And why should you know and care about it?

May 30, 2016

People who experience discrimination tend to form groups to support each other and work for change in unjust systems. The groups they form are usually based on a particular identity that its members share in common, for example, race, sexual orientation, or gender (either the gender assigned at birth or the gender by which persons identify themselves).

But what if a person’s identities overlap, as in someone who is both female and black, living in a predominantly white society that is both patriarchal and racist?  That’s where the term intersectionality—used often in feminist circles— comes in handy. It captures a situation where two identities intersect.

Sociologist Lisa Wade explains this concept by reproducing a humorous cartoon-style graphic by Miriam Dobson. It shows that the intersectionality idea can go beyond the injustices endured by one particular identity group to focus instead on what all the groups have in common—opposing oppression and working to end all forms of discrimination. Dobson’s cartoon features a blue triangle figure named Bob. Apparently, in this imaginary cartoon world, triangles are marginalized because of their shape. Figures of a different shape are dominant in that society and hold the power.  At the same time, Bob is not only a triangle but is a striped triangle and  for that reason is also considered part of a different minority likewise facing discrimination. So what should Bob do—join the “Up with Stripes” movement or the “Triangle Liberation” group?  What if neither seems to provide a welcoming, understanding, safe place of belonging?

Read “Issues, Identities, and Progressive Social Change” on the Sociological Images website.

Related Reading

Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989. She tells how the term came about and further discusses its meaning in this 2014 article from the New Statesman. In another article for the Washington Post in 2015, she explains “Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait.”  See also “Intersectionality—A Primer,” in which Christine Emba says the meaning of the word has been expanding. She introduces us to a series of Washington Post articles, including “Intersectionality Is Not a Label” by Latoya Peterson;  “How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Wins at Illustrating Identity” by Alyssa Rosenberg; and a number of other articles discussing intersectionality.

See also this Sojourners article by Inez Torres Davis, “How to Erase a Person: The Blind Intersection of Race and Gender.”  

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


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