What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a term coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1989, 1991). It is a theory that allows for study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.

“Rooted in Black feminism and Critical Race Theory, intersectionality is a method and a disposition, a heuristic and analytic tool. In the 1989 landmark essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term to address the marginalization of Black women within not only antidiscrimination law but also in feminist and antiracist theory and politics. Two years later, Crenshaw (1991) further elaborated the framework in “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. There, she employed intersectionality to highlight the ways in which social movement organization and advocacy around violence against women elided the vulnerabilities of women of color, particularly those from immigrant and socially disadvantaged communities” (Carbado, Crenshaw, Mays, & Tomlinson, 2013: 1)

Intersectionality brings an alertness to complexity. We have to stay wary of what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls ‘the danger of a single story’ in this TED talk.

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family. Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them. Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

… It is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.



Identity and social location shape the experience of privilege and oppression. The experience of an isolated sponsored-immigrant wife fleeing her in-laws and husband or the experience of a young sex worker fleeing a pimp or a gang will be different from that of a well-educated English fluent professional with stable immigration or citizenship status who is able to access supports and access (relatively better) the legal and service landscape relevant to her situation. Violence affects us all, but it doesn’t affect us all quite the same way. Similarly, all women facing violence are confronted with a resource-strapped anti-violence service sector. But some women have greater resources than others and can mobilize external supports and resources better than others. E.g. Look at cases in which female temporary foreign workers may suffer sexual and labour exploitation by male employers from their communities. So here one would see an intersection of vulnerabilities and associated abuse – gender, economic, immigration, linguistic, and sociocultural. One needs to consider here that temporary foreign workers have very limited access to social supports and services, unless they are highly skilled and savvy global nomads with many option).

Intersectionality enables the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness (as well as other aspects of identity, or forms of social location) intersect to form a whole that is more than the additive combination of the component aspects. Intersectionality urges a view of identity as a complex multiplicative interlinkage of diverse elements, traits, and social positionings. The theory has application in diverse fields of study and practice, including those related to gender-based violence and health (Barlow et al., 2008; Hankivsky & Kapilashrami, 2020; Hankivsky et al., 2010).


Image (slightly cropped) from http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/learning-network-resources/learning-network-infographics.

Intersectionality pertains to the formation and location of identity as a complex overlap of gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. No aspect of identity exists as a unit, whole unto itself. Identity is a shifting construct rather than fixed object; and the interlinked and mutually influencing factors that constitute identity are linked to systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Injustice and social inequality are multidimensional and the dimensions are mutually interactive. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and faithism do not exist in siloes – they interact, intersect, separate in some cases, and intersect again elsewhere.

In intersectional thinking, gender oppression is part of an interlinked matrix of oppressions – existing not alongside but blended and merged with racism, ageism, classism, ablism, and heterosexism.

In this context, therefore, what one sees, feels and experiences of systems of privilege and oppression has everything to do with social location. Identity is not just personal and individual – it is social, relational and locational. A person’s experience of oppression, domination and discrimination is multidimensional and multifactorial.


Barlow, K., Loppie, C., Jackson, R., Akan, M., Maclean, L., & Reimer, G. (2008). Culturally Competent Service Provision Issues Experienced By Aboriginal People Living With HIV/AIDS. Pimatisiwin, 6(2), 155–180. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20835301

Carbado, D. W., Crenshaw, K. W., Mays, V. M., & Tomlinson, B. (2013). INTERSECTIONALITY. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 10(2), 303–312. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X13000349

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Feminist Legal Theory: Readings in Law and Gender, 1989(1), 15–34. Retrieved from http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039

Hankivsky, O., & Kapilashrami, A. (2020). Beyond sex and gender analysis : an intersectional view of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and response. Retrieved from https://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/global-policy-institute/Policy-brief-COVID-19-and-intersectionality.pdf

Hankivsky, O., Reid, C., Cormier, R., Varcoe, C., Clark, N., Benoit, C., & Brotman, S. (2010). Exploring the promises of intersectionality for advancing women’s health research. International Journal for Equity in Health, 9. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-9276-9-5

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