Black feminism

What Is Intersectionality?

Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins
Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins

Most references in intersectional scholarship point to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1991 Stanford Law Review article “Mapping The Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” as the initiation of intersectionality as a concept into academia. Crenshaw combines literature on critical race theory to examine antiracist and feminist discourse on women of color as victims sexual violence, arguing that racism and sexism act as mutually interlocking systems of oppression, resulting in a form of disadvantage that affects Black women uniquely at three levels. Structural intersectionality refers to where systems of domination converge; political intersectionality addresses how individuals who identify with multiple subordinate groups may face challenges due to conflicting agendas of political discourse; and representational intersectionality involves a political discourse that acknowledges the significance of other discourses in addition to the power relations that both challenge and strengthen them.

As a Black feminist scholar, Crenshaw makes the case that mainstream feminism centered on White women while mainstream antiracism focused on the inequality Black men faced. Black feminism aims to empower Black women by developing new forms of knowledge based on critical scholarship that centers Black women’s in analyses the social issues and inequalities that arise from of mutually constructed systems of oppression 1. Women such as Sojourner Truth, women’s right advocate and abolitionist, and Anna Julia Cooper, author of A Voice from the South, exemplify Black feminist activism in the nineteenth century.They pursued Black community politics as a form of social justice and emphasized criticizing sexism from Black men, marginalization from White feminists, and disenfranchisement under White male privilege2.

During the twentieth century Black women remained active in social justice movements as intersectionality expanded into academic discourse. Black feminists saw intersectionality as integral to the distinction between their movement and that of White feminism because “the major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions” 3.

This highlights that lack of status relative to White men remains the primary disadvantage for White women in America, while women of color must combat racism as well. This historical context of power relations within a society shape how women of color respond to the mutually reinforcing, interlocked systems of oppression that affect them. For instance, in the United States, Black feminists advanced the concept of race, class, and gender studies initially served to challenge feminist scholarship in the academia because it ascribed to hegemonic logic of stratification theory and reified identity politics as a framework for knowledge production, thus failing to address differences among women 4.

Today academics treat intersectionality as a “heuristic device or orienting framework that potentially generates new questions, avenues of investigation, and interpretations of existing and new knowledge” 5. Outside of academia, intersectionality as a form of critical praxis involves grassroots work aimed at solving social problems 6. Within academia this includes both intersectionality as an interdisciplinary field of study such as race, class, and gender studies and intersectionality as an analytic strategy used to rethink core concepts such as identity. Intersectionality acknowledges that power is irreducible to static units of measurement because power-as-relational results in a dynamic process in which it gets dispersed within a matrix of domination. According to Patricia Hill Collins the matrix of domination is “the form assumed by intersecting oppressions in one social location… and can be seen as a historically specific organization of power in which social groups are embedded and which they aim to influence”7.

  1. Patricia Hill-Collins (2015a) ↩︎
  2. Avtar Brah and Ann Phoenix (2004):; Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd (2012); Collins, Patricia Hill. 2015b. “On Not Getting the History of Intersectionality Straight.” Presented at University of Maryland, September 23, College Park, MD. ↩︎
  3. Combahee River Collective 1983; Verna L. Williams and Kristen Kalsem 2010 ↩︎
  4. Gudrun-Axeli Knapp 2005; Nira Yuval-Davis 2006 ↩︎
  5. Patricia Hill Collins 2007, p. 598 ↩︎
  6. Patricia Hill-Collins (2015a) ↩︎
  7. Patricia Hill Collins 2007, p. 595 ↩︎