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What is intersectionality and where do I start?

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

What is intersectionality and where do I start?

Matt Solomon

Intersectionality is many things, depending on the will of its user. It can be a critical lens, a theory, a methodology, a political rallying cry, and much more. Often, people do not know the historical context of the concept, or how it has come to be used as a calling card both for progressives and conservatives alike. On one side, intersectionality is whittled down as a simplistic substitute for the concept of unity. On the other, it represents division and adherence to identity politics. Both interpretations ignore the more nuanced reality of the concept.

Kimberlé Crenshaw is regarded as the founder of intersectionality, as she describes the term in her seminal work “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” in 1989. While the beginning may seem like the best place to start, unless you are a legal scholar, it would not be wise. Crenshaw developed the concept as she lived the experience of attempting to make the case in court that a Black woman could be the target of both gender discrimination and racial discrimination.

If a legal text does not sound like a good place to start exploring an often misunderstood concept, you may be asking yourself, well then, where do I start? The answer depends on what kind of information you seek.

If your only experience with intersectionality is what you saw pundits on competing news channels yell about, it would probably be a good idea to start with Vox’s “The intersectionality wars.” This article, conversational in tone, explores the politicization of the concept, along with an easy-to-follow narrative that explains the origins of the concept and the debate which surrounds it.

If you’ve never heard of intersectionality, and you want an introduction that does not expect any prior knowledge of the general fields of sociology, gender studies or history, try out either of these TED talks. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “The urgency of intersectionality,” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The danger of a single story.” Both videos explore the main ideas behind intersectionality in a way that does not require any background knowledge.

If you have some history with the term but believe that it is primarily the product of Crenshaw’s scholarship, try reading “The intersectional approach,” a conversation between Kimberlé Crenshaw, Nira Yuval-Davis, and Michelle Fine. The thinkers do an excellent job of showing the various historical origins of intersectionality and how it came to be utilized in different contexts.

This is most definitely not an exhaustive list of resources. There are plenty of resources for those interested in learning more about intersectionality on our I-Lab Website. Check it out!

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