What is intersectionality? 

Intersectionality, or intersectionalism, is a concept in sociology and political theory that describes the situation of individuals who find themselves at the intersection of several types of exclusion, simultaneously suffering several forms of stratification, domination, or discrimination in a society.

Coined by the American Afrofeminist academic Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, the term was initially intended to illustrate the intersection of sexism and racism experienced by African-American women, in order to explain why they were ignored in feminist discourse at the time. Since the 2010s, the concept of intersectionality has been broadened to include all forms of discrimination that may intersect.

Intersectionality therefore makes it possible to understand that the different forms of discrimination do not simply add up, but combine to create unique situations of oppression and privilege. Thus, according to this approach, a working-class black woman’s experience of discrimination cannot be fully understood by analysing sexism, racism, and economic class separately: it is necessary to consider how these three forms of oppression interact and reinforce each other.

Intersectionality: what is at stake?

Intersectionality seems to be both encouraged and criticised. Defenders of the concept argue that it enables a global analysis of systems of power and domination by taking into account the multiple dimensions of oppression, leading to a more complete and nuanced understanding of individual experiences. More inclusively, the intersectional approach takes into account the complexity of human identities and forms of discrimination, avoiding the reduction of individuals to a single dimension of their identity. Such an approach fosters solidarity between different marginalised groups by recognising their common struggles.

While ignoring certain forms of discrimination risks perpetuating injustice and divisions within society, adopting an intersectional perspective ensures that no one is left behind and encourages progress toward a fairer society.

However, some people criticise intersectionality for being difficult to apply in practice in terms of public policy and/or activism. In particular, some fear that intersectionality creates competition between different marginalised groups to determine who is most oppressed, rather than promoting a collective understanding of systems of domination. There are also concerns about the political instrumentalisation of intersectionality, insofar as certain actors might exploit the concept for partisan purposes or to rank discrimination. For example, some authors feel that intersectionality focuses more on race and gender than on class, creating an unjustified imbalance. 

Finally, the intersectional approach is criticised for going against the universalist ideal, which is an abstract conception of citizenship according to which the best way not to discriminate against a citizen is to define him or her by disregarding his or her race, religion, political opinions, sexual orientation, gender, etc. The risk of this universalist vision is that it makes the discrimination suffered by certain groups in society invisible, and is sometimes used as an argument not to address problems such as racism, validity, or classism.

Between segmentation and the articulation of struggles: how to combat discrimination?

In short, although intersectionality offers an enriching approach to understanding the dynamics of power and oppression, it also presents challenges in terms of practical applicability and risks of political instrumentalisation. While the many advantages of this concept make it a welcome one, it still needs to be used wisely, and not in such a way as to ignore the specific features of each form of discrimination. 

Segmenting discrimination and approaching it on a totally individual basis enables action that is potentially more effective and better adapted to the specific identity issues in question. The intersectional approach recognises the complexity of structural inequalities and the links between them, while promoting solidarity between oppressed individuals. Striking a balance between these two approaches could be the key to an inclusive and effective fight against all forms of discrimination.

Translated by Samantha Frary–Aubert and Iman Seepersad

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.