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Intersectionality: What It Means and Why It Matters

Ian Berry/CNN
A term coined by a legal scholar in 1989, "intersectionality" has become a hot topic in recent years.

Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how issues like sexism, racism, classism and more can overlap and affect people in multiple ways.

(CNN) — Intersectionality. Intersectional feminism. These are phrases you may have heard, either on the news or from your local politicians.

Though these terms have become commonplace over the last few years, "intersectionality" was first coined more than 30 years ago by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, as a relatively obscure concept analyzing how the oppression of Black women was being overlooked in the eyes of the law.

But the term itself has become verbal clickbait. Akin to phrases like "critical race theory" and "diversity, equity, and inclusion," intersectionality has sometimes been interpreted outside its original definition and has morphed into a political talking point.

Here's what you should know about intersectionality — what exactly it means, and why it matters.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how issues like sexism, racism, classism and more can overlap and affect people in multiple ways, Crenshaw has said.

The term comes from a 1989 paper by Crenshaw, in which she analyzed a discrimination suit brought against General Motors, where five Black women alleged that the company's seniority-based layoffs had affected Black women first, perpetuating the effects of past racism. GM denied the allegations.

In that case, the court declined to recognize a discrimination claim based on a class of "Black women," as opposed to separate claims based on race and/or sex — i.e., claims based on being Black or being a woman.

The court, then, was unable to acknowledge how the women encountered discrimination based on both their race and their sex, Crenshaw wrote, not understanding how the duality of their identities came into play.

"Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated," she wrote.

That intersection, so to speak — of race, sex, and other identities — is precisely what intersectionality aims to highlight.

So is intersectionality a legal term?

Yes and no.

Yes, Crenshaw — a legal scholar — first used the term to point out how courts were failing to see the intersections of multiple identities in discrimination lawsuits.

Now, the term has been expanded outside its original framework, largely showing how society writ large impacts people differently based on their intersecting identities.

Some of that expansion is due to the feminist outcry against former President Donald Trump and his rhetoric toward women, including references to sexual assault, which many called sexist and misogynistic at the time. That dissent culminated in the 2017 Women's March, when thousands protested in Washington, DC following Trump's inauguration.

As part of that larger movement, terms like intersectionality and intersectional feminism became much more prevalent in left-leaning circles. The phrase "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullsh*t," which came from a 2011 essay by writer Flavia Dzodan, was made into something of a slogan at the time -- also bolstering the popularity of the term outside of its origins.

What's an example of intersectionality?

Asale Angel-Ajani, director of the women's and gender studies program at the City College of New York, used a person with a physical disability as an example. We already know that people with physical disabilities face numerous barriers to employment, as described by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020, with more than half experiencing difficulty completing tasks because of their disability. As a result, finding and retaining work can be especially difficult, in addition to whatever other barriers they may face (such as mobility or finding transportation to work).

Now, let's say that person is also Hispanic and also a woman. According to the US Government Accountability Office, Hispanic or Latina women earn just 58 cents for every dollar earned by White men in 2022.

Intersectionality does not imply that this person is more or less oppressed than someone else, Angel-Ajani told CNN. Instead, it's trying to understand how multiple identities can affect how someone experiences the world around them in different ways.

A Hispanic woman with a physical disability is going to face different challenges than, say, a Black transgender woman, or a White man living in poverty.

Even people who may appear in the same communities can face challenges differently.

Angel-Ajani used Jewish activists as an example, noting how many are addressing antisemitism through an intersectional lens. People practice Judaism differently, and thus different sects may face different problems. Even within the same sect, education and economic levels may vary, which also comes into play. An intersectional lens allows for nuance when considering these communities and the issues they may face, Angel-Ajani said.

Why does intersectionality matter?

It comes down to understanding, Angel-Ajani said.

All these interlocking identities — our race, socioeconomic status, gender, etc — matter to our experiences. Acknowledging that those intersections impact our lives helps us understand how systems that are in place can affect us differently.

Why are so many conservative politicians against intersectionality?

Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator, called intersectionality "a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depends on how many victim groups you belong to."

In some circles, intersectionality has been construed as a hierarchy of races and identity, one that places specifically straight White men at the bottom.

False definitions of the term have bled into rhetoric from politicians, too. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has flirted with making a presidential run in 2024, has used the term as a reason to ban the College Board's new Advanced Placement course on African American Studies, calling intersectionality an example of the course's "political agenda."

Crenshaw has spoken about attacks against the term she coined, noting that critics are not taking aim at the theory, but at those it would impact.

"There have always been people, from the very beginning of the civil rights movement, who had denounced the creation of equality rights on the grounds that it takes something away from them," Crenshaw told Vox in 2019.

Angel-Ajani argued that intersectionality is instead a call to think about identity in a more nuanced way.

She pointed to medical trials as an example. If one were to conduct a trial with all White men, between the ages of 45 to 65, looking at the subjects through an intersectional lens might prompt researchers to look more closely at different aspects of the men's identities. In that group alone, there may be LGBTQ+ men, men from lower economic backgrounds or men with disabilities. Those factors could have different effects on their lifestyles, which could also affect the type of and amount of medication they need, she noted.

"Especially in this political moment, where we are so incredibly divided, it becomes easier to create talking points that do not honor people's nuanced perspectives," Angel-Ajani said. "Nuance takes a little bit of work. It takes a little bit of compassion. I just don't think we're in that space, because people are in a position to feel afraid that they may not be heard, and other people are saying 'Look, we don't feel like we're being heard.'"

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Leah Asmelash