Over a recent dinner with my friend Diandra, co-founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, we reminisced on the first time we met. It was last summer over FaceTime (I also interviewed her co-founder Leah, here.) We were both quarantined, dealing with the madness of the world yet finding ways to stay engaged. I’ll never forget her face lighting up as she said, “We started this really important platform and it’s going viral.”

Intersectionality, the interconnected nature of race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics, was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. In the past five years or so it has gained global recognition as it unveils the hierarchies that exist around our most important identity markers in an effort to eradicate them.

Language is one of our most precious tools. It is crucial that a word exists to help us understand (and cope) with what it means to face oppression because of how we look or identify. A person’s multiple identities do not live in separate containers; in fact, people exist at the intersections of their identities.

Below is a breakdown of intersectionality–what it means, answers to some of the most frequent questions around, and resources to learn more.

When is intersectionality relevant?

“Intersectionality is one of the many tools that Black feminist thought has generated,” says Jennifer Nash, J.D., Ph.D., a professor of African American Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University. “It has been developed over the courses of decades of Black feminist intellectual labor from scholars and activists including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Deborah King, Frances Beal, and the Combahee River Collective.”

Feminism is the most common space for intersectionality. While all women face oppression, not all women face the same challenges. It’s not about competition or comparison. Rather, this practice is a tool to dismantle a flawed system. Challenges are not in addition to one another. They actually join and intensify one another and produce unique forms of inequality.

Intersectionality can be implemented in many social impact spaces, including a few of the following examples:

  • Climate change. Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to reside in communities with higher rates of pollution and particulate matter. Climate change plays a role in the etiology of inadequate air quality, amplifying these disparities.
  • Healthcare. In the United States, we saw significantly greater COVID morbidity and mortality among Black and Latinx people.
  • Gay rights. Society, particularly during the beginning of the LGBT+ advocacy, tended to favor affluent, white males who could pass. Thus, they were able to use their privilege to develop and shape the LGBT Rights agenda.

Why is it important?

Crenshaw has said that “contrary to her critics’ objections, intersectionality isn’t ‘an effort to create the world in an inverted image of what it is now.’ Rather, she said, the point of intersectionality is to make room ‘for more advocacy and remedial practices’ to create a more egalitarian system.”

Intersectionality is important because it works to dismantle existing power dynamics which would, in turn, change the very structures that augment our politics, law, and culture.

We aren’t working to flip the totem pole. We are working to level the playing field.

How do we acknowledge intersectionality?

Many large, complex questions come with a better understanding of this important topic. Who is responsible and what do they do about it?

Everyone is responsible. And it starts with the verb in the question: acknowledge.

“Intersectionality operates as both the observance and analysis of power imbalances, and the tool by which those power imbalances could be eliminated altogether. And the observance of power imbalances, as is so frequently true, is far less controversial than the tool that could eliminate them.” – 

If you want to learn more about intersectionality, here are some resources to dive deeper:

Podcasts

Books

Articles

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