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Intersectionality: A tool for justice

| Monday, August 28, 2023

Intersectionality, a term coined by Columbia and UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes how identity groups overlap and intersect to determine one’s experience in the world. This term provides insight into the different ways multifaceted identities are both oppressed and privileged, how every individual’s lived experience is different based on the identity group they belong to. When it comes to social justice, it is essential for people to have an accurate understanding of the different ways parts of one’s identity influence them in different ways. 

First, it is important to have an accurate understanding of oppression and privilege. Retired Michigan State professor of philosophy Marilyn Frye defines oppression as a network of forces that restrict the freedom of individuals. Oppression should not be confused with suffering, a state of unhappiness that is not a result of systemic forces that deprive people of basic civil rights and liberties. On the other hand, privilege, as defined by writer Allan Johnson, is any advantage that is unearned, exclusive or socially conferred systems organized around dominance, identification and centeredness. In other words, it is a characteristic of a system in which everyone participates. Understanding oppression and privilege is critical to developing an understanding of intersectionality, for everyone’s identities contain different components that dictate their experiences in society. 

Identity impacts every facet of an individual’s life. While some people are fully oppressed or privileged based on their identity, others hold both privileged and oppressed identities. Regardless, every individual’s encounter with the world is multidimensional because people are privileged and oppressed in different ways. Identity categories include gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class and age. In our society, the identity of a man who is cisgender, straight, white, Protestant, middle-class and middle aged holds the most privilege because they belong to the dominant group of systems in our white supremacist patriarchal heteronormative capitalist society.

As described by the black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde, this can be explained as the mythical norm where the trappings of power reside in society. Therefore, any identity that does not hold or has some of these characteristics or falls outside the mythical norm, experiences systemic oppression. By understanding our hierarchical society as a combination of overlapping systems based on identities, it is clear how oppression is deeply ingrained in our society as it manifests itself through discrimination and marginalization. 

People experience discrimination in different ways. A black woman experiences a different form of oppression than a white woman. The nuanced ways people experience oppression give insight into the way systematic marginalization functions. People can be fully privileged, fully oppressed or both privileged and oppressed based on the identity groups they belong to.

It is important to analyze identities as a combination of different facets that intersect rather than separate components that are not related to each other. As emphasized by Crenshaw, 3 legal cases – DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc. and Payne v. Travenol – dealt with issues of sex and racial discrimination in a one-dimensional way. They failed to acknowledge the fact that black women, for example, can experience discrimination from their sex, race and oftentimes both at once. This limited analysis of discrimination highlights the lack of understanding of social institutions and how they oppress marginalized identities in different ways. In another sense, white women experience both white privilege and gender oppression. One form of privilege or oppression should not be given more emphasis than the other, all identity groups are important in understanding how an individual interacts with and experiences the world. Every individual experiences the world differently based on their identity, developing an understanding of this within our society will create more empathy and promote conversation around people’s experiences. 

When it comes to social justice, understanding intersectionality is pivotal to combating systemic inequalities. Developing an understanding of identity allows you to analyze the ways in which privilege and identity intersect and influence humanity. By promoting the theory of intersectionality, people can accurately understand how our society functions. To fight for a more just and equitable society, we must combat social institutions that discriminate against oppressed identity groups. Justice is possible if people listen to the experiences of silenced voices.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Using intersectionality as a tool of understanding can promote empathy and motivate people to fight against oppression by protesting against the unjust treatment of identities that fall outside of the mythical norm.

Grace Sullivan is a sophomore at Notre Dame studying Global Affairs with minors in Gender and Peace Studies. In her column I.M.P.A.C.T. (Intersectionality Makes Political Activist Change Transpire), she is passionate about looking at global social justice issues through an intersectional feminist lens. Outside of The Observer, she enjoys hiking, painting and being a plant mom. She can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Grace Sullivan

Grace Sullivan is a sophomore at Notre Dame studying global affairs with minors in gender and peace studies. In her column I.M.P.A.C.T. (Intersectionality Makes Political Activist Change Transpire), she is passionate about looking at global social justice issues through an intersectional feminist lens. Outside of The Observer, she enjoys hiking, painting and being a plant mom. She can be reached at [email protected].