What “Intersectionality” Really Means

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024

Kimberlé Crenshaw – both Distinguished Professor of Law and Promise Institute Chair in Human Rights at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law and Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School – may be best known for coining the term “intersectionality.” A key idea in today’s zeitgeist, intersectionality is Crenshaw’s metaphor for how multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage come together as if at a traffic intersection, compounding prejudice.

Crenshaw is also a pioneer in the field of critical race theory, an expansive framework for examining race and racism embedded within the very structure of law and society. Among her key insights is that the law is often a result of cultural biases, rather than a cause of them.

In 1991, she was part of the legal team that represented law professor Anita Hill when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings. In the wake of that complex moment, when race, gender, and sexuality converged publicly, Crenshaw co-founded the African American Policy Forum, an innovative think tank that connects academics, activists, and policymakers to promote efforts to dismantle structural inequality.

Internationally, Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on intersectionality influenced the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution. She also wrote the background paper on race and gender discrimination for the United Nations’ World Conference on Racism in 2001.

Crenshaw co-authored the report Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, which led to the #SayHerName movement to call attention to police violence against Black women and girls. 

Crenshaw’s forthcoming book, coauthored with Luke Charles Harris and George Lipsitz, is The Race Track: How the Myth of Equal Opportunity Defeats Racial Justice. She provides commentary for media outlets including MSNBC and NPR and hosts the podcast Intersectionality Matters!

Giving List Women: You’re credited with coining the term “intersectional feminism,” which gets overused and sometimes misused. Why did you coin this term?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: The term intersectionality is a prism through which to see things that have slipped through the cracks. … As a young law student, I grappled with the fact that the way the law thought about things like race discrimination and gender discrimination and disability and sexuality was often as separate and mutually exclusive experiences. And when Black women would raise questions about their discrimination or experiences, courts were confounded. They didn’t know how to respond to it, especially because in some of these industrial settings, the employer might have hired Black people, but all the Black people they hired were men for a particular kind of job. And they might’ve hired women, but the women they were hiring were front office workers, secretaries, receptionists – jobs that Black women weren’t considered for. I found a case where the employer said, “You can’t charge us with discrimination because look, we hire Black people, and you can’t say we practice gender discrimination because we clearly hire women.” It’s just subtext that all the Blacks are men, and all the women are white. … We hadn’t made progress in getting the law to see that Black women received both exclusions at the same time, and the courts were effectively saying that exclusion is excluded from the law.

I was looking for a way of explaining that there are various avenues through which disempowerment happens, and Black women are often situated exactly where that traffic converges. I thought, maybe if we use the term intersection, I can explain to judges why being protected against gender discrimination means that you get protected all the way down to the intersection of it with another form of discrimination.

GLW:Did that help in your experience working on the Anita Hill case?

KC: No, because the problem wasn’t just the law. The problem was our culture, our organizations, our media. When Anita Hill came forward, I was working on an article called “Mapping the Margins,” prompted by recognition that the law will continue to be a problem if all our organizations and advocacy strategies continue to produce this idea that racism is exclusive from gender discrimination and vice versa. So, the whole framework around anti-rape organizing frequently didn’t consider that Black victims were far less likely to be believed, far less likely to see their assailant arrested even when they were arrested and prosecuted and convicted. There was race discrimination within gender discrimination, but we weren’t talking about that.

And the same thing on the other side. We weren’t talking about the disparities in rape prosecution when it was anti-racism in any way that paid attention to women. It was basically about the false accusation of Black men, which is a real problem. But there’s also the devaluation of Black women when they were raped, and anti-racism wasn’t addressing that. … When Anita Hill came forward, I worried that everything I was seeing about how Black women who make claims about being sexually abused were treated would play out in this political arena, and surely it did. She was called the angry Jezebel and promiscuous. The very fact that she testified as to what Thomas said to her was used to discredit her. What was disappointing was how much the African American community would read her as not being a Black woman because she was making a claim about sexual harassment.

If you want to know why intersectionality matters, look at all the things that Clarence Thomas’ elevation to the Supreme Court made possible, including destroying campaign finance reform. So now we have politicians for sale destroying the Voting Rights Act, which means a huge amount of voter suppression, destroying affirmative action, environmental [injustice] … all because we did not have a sufficiently intersectional understanding of this Black woman’s story in one of the most pivotal moments in our history. It hurts all of us.

GLW: How do feminism and Black feminism overlap, and do they ever work against each other?

KC: Feminism has always had to struggle with some unfortunate histories of its initial articulation. Initially, abolitionists and feminists worked together to denounce enslavement. And the metaphor for enslavement was also used to capture the experience of women in the home in relationship to men. The beginnings were bumpy because when the 14th Amendment was created, men decided that they weren’t going to push for women’s suffrage at the time; “This was the Negroes’ hour” is what they said. Of course, the Negro included women, but people weren’t thinking about what Black women might need to fully emerge from enslavement. That kind of disempowerment of being laborers and being forced into reproductive labor – nobody talked about that. Even white feminists were mad that this wasn’t a moment for suffrage. So, there was an ugly spin-out, and some – not all – of our most beloved feminists said some horrible, racist things. And feminism has had to grapple with that historical moment. The second and third wave [of] feminism have been more responsive to the recognition that that was a political and historical mistake, but it cast a long shadow over feminism. Intersectional thinking helps us understand why feminism must have an interface with anti-racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia because women experience our lives in all these contexts. 

GLW: Do you think that narrative is understood well enough?

KC: No, but I don’t think anything is right now. Every aspect of the post-civil rights consensus from the ‘60s onward has been intentionally distorted at this moment. You can’t really talk about making America great again by looking in its past without trying to erase everything that’s happened since 1960. Because if you go back before 1960, it wasn’t great for most of us. The brilliance of the latter part of the 20th century is that every decade brought about a deepening commitment to making America great by grappling with the ways that it was not.

But we didn’t do the things we needed to do to sink it in cement. We did not dig a deep enough trench so that we could actually fly high enough to meet our aspirations. And the other side was fully aware that we weren’t tending to the foundation, and they forced us to swing too high and to topple over. And so now we are not sure about feminism. We’re not sure what women’s rights are. We’re not sure how to frame it. We’re not sure about intersectionality. We’re not sure about democracy. All these things are up for grabs right now, and it is our failure to articulate a common narrative and aspiration that is our Achilles’ heel.