Language Corner

The origin of the term ‘intersectionality’

October 23, 2018

An “intersection,” we all know, is where two streets cross, or “intersect.” We usually think of an “intersection” as a meeting of two roads, though the original Latin word “intersect” means “to cut asunder” or “divide into parts.”

Add the suffix “al,” and you have the adjective “intersectional,” existing between sections or relating to an intersection. Make “intersectional” into a noun, and you have a sports tournament.

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But add another suffix, “ity,” and you have “intersectionality,” a modern sociological term often heard but less-often understood.

“Intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar. In a paper for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, Crenshaw wrote that traditional feminist ideas and antiracist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination unique to them. “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 in the paper. (Emphasis added.)

“Intersectionality” quickly caught on and made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, which calls it a sociological term meaning “The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.” Merriam-Webster’s definition is a little less academic: “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

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But as often happens with new jargon or buzzwords, “intersectionality” has been adopted by groups far outside the original targets. Where Crenshaw was discussing the “intersection” of race and gender, others took their own identities and discussed how their pieces overlapped, whether those pieces were physical ability, race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, politics, citizenship, or socioeconomic status. To be fair, Crenshaw herself acknowledges that the term ranges far beyond black and female.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in 2017, “The word has migrated from women’s-studies journals and conference keynotes into everyday conversation, turning what was once highbrow discourse into hashtag chatter.”

When that happens, everyone claims a piece of it, and fights break out. As the word maven Kory Stamper wrote in New York magazine earlier this year, “Even as the word ‘intersectionality’ is becoming more common, its meaning is becoming less clear.” She added: “When words move from a specialized arena into the mainstream, they often get a little flabby: their sharply delineated corners blur a bit as the word is passed down a long line of speakers.”

So “intersectionality” is called “Marxist culture theory” by a columnist arguing that it is not for Christians; a college’s Pride Week activities include a “Queer Intersectionality Panel” with “students discussing their identities on campus and giving advice to attendees on a wide array from topics, from being comfortable with themselves to embodying allyship”; a college group called “Hillelin’ with Melanin” offers Jewish people of color “a space where aspects of members’ intersectional identities are supported at once”; and a panel sponsored by The New York Times discusses “The Effect of Intersectionality in the Workplace.

Oh, and lots of sports tournaments are still “intersectional.”

The problem is that “intersectionality” becomes a label, like “liberal” or “alt-right,” which can then be “weaponized” in the polarity wars. People don’t understand what it means, only that they are “for it” or “against it.” As Crenshaw said, “intersectionality can get used as a blanket term to mean, ‘Well, it’s complicated.’ Sometimes, ‘It’s complicated’ is an excuse not to do anything.”

Each individual has things in common with some other individuals, a place where our interests “intersect” in the joining way. Any journalist tempted to use “intersectionality” without attempting to explain to an audience what those “intersections” are—and what the history of the term is—would be better served with another term, like the “overlap” of the issues at issue.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.