Intersectionality: A Primer
By Kirthi Jayakumar
The concept of Intersectionality was introduced by Kimberle Crenshaw in an article in 1989. It refers to the overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. It is simply the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include 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.
Intersectionality is essential to our understanding of gender and sexual diversity because gender and sexuality is impacted by other social categories. Not just in some cases, but in all cases. It helps us study of how our social categories intersect and how these intersections impact experiences, structures of power and oppression. It examines how social categories such as gender, race, and ethnicity overlap and shape our experiences, our life outcomes, and our views of the world.
Before we attempt to understand how intersectionality operates, let’s look at some key terms:
– Sex refers to the categories into which humans and most other living beings are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions. It goes beyond the binary — including within its fold male, female and intersex.
– Gender is a social construct. It refers to the internal perception of one’s gender, and to how an individual labels themselves depending on how much they align or don’t align with what they understand their options for gender are. Common gender identity labels include man, woman, gender queer and trans among others.
– Sexual orientation is a term used to denote the type of sexual, romantic, emotional or spiritual attraction that one has, as their capacity to feel for others. It is generally labeled as the gender relationship between the person and the people they are attracted to.
Sam Killerman’s Genderbread person is perhaps one of the best ways to explain and understand what gender identity, expression, sex and attraction amount to. Although the diagram below is pretty indicative, let’s take a moment to understand how each aspect of one’s identity operates.
Gender identity flows from a spectrum of a-gender, or no gender, and extends towards a state of identifying as a woman, or, a state of identifying as a man. Gender expression, which refers to the expression of one’s gender through dressing, appearance and personal grooming, tends from no gender expression, towards feminine and masculine. Biological sex, which refers to the classification based on reproductive systems, is a spectrum too. In terms of romantic and sexual attraction, one may be attracted to women / females / femininity, to none at all, or to men / male / masculinity, or, fall anywhere on the spectrum. Combinations of any of these can culminate in unique experiences of identity.
The CRIAW / ICREF’s Intersectionality Wheel is perhaps the most interesting graphic description of how intersectionality operates.
The innermost circle comprises unique circumstances of privilege and power that come with one’s personal, unique identity: for instance, what family you belong to, what opportunities you’ve had, what you’ve done with these opportunities and what exposures you’ve been privy to.
This is then compounded by a second layer, which comprises personal identity aspects: these things are a mix of identity factors that can change (age, education, occupation, social status, religion etc.) and those that cannot change (skin colour, indigeneity, caste, work history). In combination with unique circumstances of power, privilege and identity, your personal identity factors can create a very unique experience for you — one that’s anywhere between marginally and markedly different from those of others.
Next, we have types of discrimination that impact your identity: such as racism, ableism, ageism, discrimination, heterosexism, sexism, among others. Merely possessing a certain identity is all it takes to determine whether one falls at the receiving end of discriminatory treatment. The basis for discrimination is often a combination of historical practices of discrimination, radicalized perspectives, ignorance, demonization and fear psychosis around certain identities.
The final layer comprises structures that either augment, or keep existing discrimination alive: economy, globalization, war, education systems, politics and such.
When these factors interact, we find ourselves in a place where our personal identities (with or without unique privileges, powers and identities) interact with social forces that operate certain kinds of discrimination, which are propped by social structures that keep this discrimination alive.
Why does Intersectionality matter?
Intersectionality is essential to our understanding of gender and sexual diversity, both of which are certainly impacted by other social identities. In order to create diverse and inclusive spaces, be it at work or in public spaces, we should be open minded enough to be willing to think about difference, power and oppression in increasingly complex ways. It gives us ways to understand conceptually how multiple identities intersect, and produce understandings of difference that impact our lives.
If we have intersectionality driving our perceptions, policies and legislations, we will be able to see that multiple oppressions lead to “circumstances” that affect the choice-consequence axis.