Over the past several years “intersectionality” has become a feminist buzzword, deployed in discussions of pop culture, political action and academic debate. Considering its recent prominence, it’s surprising to realize that the term has been around only since 1989: It was coined by legal scholar and critical theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, in a paper illustrating how black women were often marginalized by both feminist and anti-racist movements because their concerns did not fit comfortably within either group. The term “intersectionality” was used to describe how different forms of discrimination can interact and overlap, and why it was necessary for feminists to take into account the needs of women from a variety of backgrounds when considering social questions and issues to advocate for.
Although the term was originally used to describe how race and gender could intersect as forms of oppression, intersectionality has broadened to encompass a number of additional social factors — sexual orientation, nationality, class, disability and others. And more recently, the term has been used by social activists as both a rallying cry for more expansive progressive movements and a chastisement for their limitations.
But the growing focus on the concept has resulted in backlash and confusion. Some critics believe that a fixation on intersectionality resurrects and empowers “identity politics,” reinforcing harmful structures of gender, race and class that the progressive movement was meant to break down. Others say that the term is leading to infighting within the feminist movement, encouraging “privilege-checking” as a form of bullying and silencing. And yet others say that the movement for intersectionality remains all talk and no action — while the need to recognize different identities spawns thinkpieces aplenty, intersectionality still isn’t reflected in law, policy or day-to-day action. Are these concerns valid? What does intersectionality look like outside of the academy, and why — if at all — does it remain necessary?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from: