"There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives." These words, spoken by Audre Lorde, capture the essence of intersectionality.
Chances are, you've come across the term before. Intersectionality, as a term and concept, has surged in popularity in the United States and around the world, informing the work of activists and policymakers alike engaged in the fight for equity.
Yet this critical framework is often misunderstood. Even within progressive circles that embrace intersectional thinking, there are countless encounters with "intersectionality" used as a vague description for the simple fact of being a member of more than one social group whose voice deserves to be heard.
Intersectionality runs much deeper, and it offers a powerful lens to help us understand — and overcome — deep-seated inequity.
What Is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is, in short, a framework for understanding oppression.
Originally coined by American lawyer, scholar, and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, the term has its roots in activism and the concept of "interlocking" systems of oppression was commonly referenced by the Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian social justice collective formed in Boston in 1974.
Drawing on these unique struggles and experiences, Crenshaw further defined the term in the context of anti-discrimination laws, which she felt insufficiently addressed the experiences of Black women who faced discrimination and exclusion in a variety of contexts. At the time, she argued, existing laws only accounted for gender and race, not the ways that the experiences of Black women are compounded by sexism and racism. Instead, Crenshaw said, oppression should not be analyzed separately but rather as interdependent, and "intersectionality" was born as the idea that individuals experience oppression differently based on where they stand across social markers.
To help visualize what that entails, Crenshaw offers the illustration of intersecting roads: "Racism road crosses with the streets of colonialism and patriarchy, and ‘crashes’ occur at the intersections,” she wrote. “Where the roads intersect, there is a double, triple, multiple, and many-layered blanket of oppression.”
Take the pay gap as an example. In the US, women earn 83 cents for every dollar a man earns. However, this number quickly changes when you factor in additional identities, with Black women earning a mere 64 cents for every dollar a white man earns. If we were to consider this solely as a gender issue, we wouldn’t be addressing how race magnifies this disparity. Similarly, if we were to understand pay gaps only through the lens of race, we would miss how gender affects Black women’s oppression.
This is why intersectionality is such a useful framework — it highlights how discrimination and exclusion are not simple and can't be solved by focusing on a single issue. Instead, it can help us understand how the experience of poverty is gendered and racialized and how it differs within different social contexts. This approach is crucial in understanding the inequalities different groups face — and by extension, how to overcome them by considering the complexity of the identities and patterns of oppression that individuals face within a given society.
What Are 3 Key Facts That People Should Know About Intersectionality?
- Intersectionality is how multiple identities interact to create unique patterns of oppression.
Originally coined by American scholar and lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw, who drew inspiration from Black feminist movements in the US, the term highlights how race, gender, class, and other factors are interconnected.
When it comes to fighting extreme poverty, intersectionality means looking at how these factors fuel various issues, ranging from health inequity to climate change and more.
How Does It Relate to the Global Goals and Extreme Poverty?
Extreme poverty — and the forces that exacerbate it — are deeply rooted in the social, cultural, political, and economic structures that shape our world.
The United Nations’ Global Goals operate as a framework for the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030, but achieving them requires paying particular attention to how certain groups are disproportionately affected by inequity due to an underlying set of social factors. Failing to look at them from a multitude of perspectives could jeopardize the achievement of the Global Goals and perpetuate inequalities in a vicious cycle of poverty globally.
When looking at issues on a global scale, intersectionality can help us understand just how interconnected these challenges are.
Environmental racism is a prime example of that. According to a recent study from the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Black people in the US are 75% more likely to live near fenceline zones near chemical facilities than the rest of the population. This, in turn, exposes entire communities to chemicals that are linked to cancer, birth defects, and chronic illnesses, fuelling a cycle of poor health and living conditions. Globally, the trend follows the same pattern, with low-income and vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.
Child marriage is another example of how gender, age, and health intersect with poverty. Young girls are particularly vulnerable to the practice of forced marriage, with an estimated 40% of young women in developing countries married before the age of 18, posing a serious threat to their full economic participation and access to reproductive health care.
The list goes on, but the takeaway remains the same: Poverty is a complex problem, and while the Global Goals are a step in the right direction toward its eradication, it cannot be eliminated through the siloed approaches of single-issue activism. It will take an intersectional approach — understanding how social factors such as class, gender, race, and others come together to affect people's quality of life — to move us forward.
What Can I Do?
You can put intersectionality into practice in your day-to-day life by being aware of how your own identity and relative privilege affect how you experience the world. And you can make room for those at the crossroads of multiple oppressions and compounded marginalization to share their stories.
As a step toward creating a more inclusive and just world, you can also support initiatives that work to combat discrimination through an intersectional approach. This list of Black women-led organizations is a good place to start.
Finally, you can make sure your activism doesn't end with Black History Month by staying engaged in the process of questioning, learning, and unlearning continuously.