On the Roots of Intersectionality

Hi, folks! So it’s been a hot second since Episode 285 of the Our Hen House podcast aired, in which I interviewed Hana LowAph Ko, and Jaqueline Morr on the importance of intersectionality in anti-speciesist activism. In my intro with my good friend Kaden, we briefly discuss the origins of the praxis (theory + practice) of intersectionality, but I want to further emphasize those origins here, since they often get lost in a white-dominated rhetoric of social justice activism (as emphasized in this important essay by Dr. C. Michele Martindill on the Vegan Feminist Network blog, which I would highly recommend to all y’all).

In my experience, many conversations among white activists employ intersectionality as a buzzword of sorts, a trendy thing to “do” that will further one’s own reputation as an activist. This phenomenon is pretty predictable, seeing as white supremacy functions to center whiteness and white people in every situation, especially when it comes to talking credit for the ideas and practices of people of color. As such, when we white activists refer to our activism as “intersectional” without understanding the original meaning of the term, we are upholding the very system of white supremacy that we purport to struggle against.

So. Intersectionality. Black legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw first coined the term in her 1989 essay entitled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine,” proposing intersectionality as a theory and practice of understanding the way multiple oppressions – specifically, racism and sexism – are experienced. Crenshaw uses the following description of a street intersection to illustrate the concept:

“Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. . . . But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.”

As part of this lived experience of multiple oppressions, Black women also tend to be invisibilized in analyses of gender oppression and racism, since the former prioritizes white women while the latter prioritizes Black men. Think of White feminism, for example, described by Cate at BattyMamzelle as “a set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of color. It is ‘one size-fits all’ feminism, where middle class White women are the mold that others must fit. It is a method of practicing feminism, not an indictment of every individual White feminist, everywhere, always” (qtd. in Uwujaren and Utt).

Of course, Crenshaw was not the first to experience and recognize the multiple oppressions faced by Black women. Indeed, since the days of plantation slavery in the U.S., Black women have described their lived realities under systems of white supremacy and patriarchy with such terms as “interlocking oppressions,” “simultaneous oppressions,” “double jeopardy,” and the like (Smith). Think, for example, of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, which describes the disparate treatment of Black and white women in 19th-century United States.

As you can see, intersectionality developed as a way to understand the particular experiences of Black women, oppressed under intersecting systems of white supremacy and patriarchy. So, when we call our activism “intersectional,” we are claiming that we are working to dismantle those two systems (perhaps among others), which we understand as being interconnected. We cannot use the term “intersectional” to describe activism that connects any and all forms of oppression, because to do so erases the specific experiences of Black women in order to uphold a white-centric narrative of social justice.

Additionally, we white activists cannot call ourselves “intersectional.” As Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins notes, those with power in systems of white supremacy and patriarchy cannot claim to “be intersectional,” since we do not live as the people by and for whom the concept was developed (i.e., Black women). We can strive for our activism to incorporate an intersectional understanding of white supremacy and patriarchy, but we ourselves cannot “be intersectional.”

In a time when intersectionality has become a buzzword and a trend, I think it’s of supreme importance to remember, honor, and act on the Black feminist origins of the praxis. For more information on the topic, check out the (few among many others out there) References I’ve included below.

In solidarity, Ali.


Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 139 (1989): 139-168. Web. Hein Online. 9 August 2015.

—. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43 (1993): 1241-1299. Web. 9 August 2015.

Martindill, Dr. C. Michele. “Lessons in White Fragility: When Vegan Abolitionists Appropriate Intersectionality.” Vegan Feminist Network. 6 May 2015. Web. 9 August 2015.

Smith, Sharon. “Black Feminism and Intersectionality.” International Socialist Review 91 (July 2013): n. pag. Web. 9 August 2015.

Uwujaren, Jarune and Jamie Utt. “Why Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional (And 3 Ways to Practice It).” Everyday Feminism. 11 January 2015. Web. 9 August 2015.

6 thoughts on “On the Roots of Intersectionality

  1. Pax Ahimsa Gethen says:

    Thanks for posting this. Since learning the history of the term intersectionality, I’ve been preferring to speak in terms of disrupting the kyriarchy when speaking more generally about interconnecting systems of oppression.

  2. onesonicbite says:

    This is a great explanation. I feel like people never get down to the nitty gritty and explain a word/movement because it seem very basic. But by not refreshing people’s memory or not explaining it right off the bat leaves room for confusion. I am not too educated about the matter and didn’t have a clear definition of “intersectionality” and had a vague idea.

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