Definition of the month #08 – Intersectionality

DEFINITION OF THE MONTH #08 - “If we aren’t intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks” - Kimberlé Crenshaw. In recent years, the term “intersectionality” has become a buzz word in academic and activist groups. It has also been adopted by the United Nations and other international organizations, and has started to make its way inside the legal field. However, most people still seem to be unclear on its actual meaning and relevance to human rights. This article will therefore attempt to make sense of an often misunderstood concept, cast a critical eye on the role it could play for human rights, explore its many complexities and discuss the opposition and criticism it faces.



Although the idea of intersectionality has existed for a long time –for instance in Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 “Ain’t I a woman?” speech, in which she used her condition as a Black woman to challenge essentialist notions on femininity [1]- the term was officially coined in the 1980s by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate, feminist legal scholar, critical race theorist, and professor at the UCLA school of law and Columbia law school, were she specializes in race and gender issues. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, intersectionality is defined as “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.”[2]

In her article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”, Crenshaw demonstrates the necessity for intersectional perspectives by highlighting the issue with identity politics (the idea of making the ‘personal’ ‘political’, and recognizing that elements of one’s identity may shape their politics), which is that it conflates or ignores intragroup differences. For instance, the discrimination experienced by women is often constructed by other dimensions of their identities, like class or race. In this sense, women of color are marginalized by discourses that are built to respond to either their gender or their race. [3] Crenshaw illustrates this argument with the example of Black women’s employment experiences. Indeed, they face discrimination linked to the intersection of their gender and their race, which cannot be fully captured by looking at racial or gender dimensions separately. [4] The DeGraffenreid v. General Motors case in 1976 illustrates this idea, as it was brought by five women of color who accused their former employer, General Motors, of perpetuating race and gender discrimination through their “last hired-first fired” policy. However, the court examined the case superficially, and ruled that there was no sex discrimination. The reason behind this ruling is the superficial examination of the facts, and the failure to consider race and gender to recognize the discrimination alleged by the plaintiffs. [5]

The concept of intersectionality has evolved over the years, with the contribution of many authors and human rights activists. The term gained prominence with Patricia Hill Collins’ input in the 1990s, and her theories of “interlocking oppression”. In her work on black feminist thought, Collins speaks of intersectionality and introduces the idea of a “matrix of domination”, which is an organization of power in society with two distinct features, that are firstly that any specific matrix has a particular arrangement of intersecting systems of oppression, and how these systems come together is historically and socially specific, and secondly that intersecting systems of oppression are specifically organized through four interrelated domains of power. These domains are structural (set the overall organization through the law, religion or the economy), disciplinary (manages oppression and organizes human behavior through routinization, rationalization and surveillance, all the while obscuring discrimination), hegemonic (legitimates oppression through language or values produced by school, the media, or religion), and interpersonal (influences everyday life in personal relationships and interactions). [6] Her approach therefore helped untangle relationships among knowledge and power, and represented intersectionality as something that is not bound nor static. bell hooks and Audre Lorde, two American author and eminent social activist, also advanced the concept of intersectionality in putting an important focus on racialization by reminding their readers that race may be the primary oppression, before gender. [7] [8] Finally, notions of class, sexual orientation, and sexual identity were later added to the theory of intersectionality, for instance in This Bridge Called My Back by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, which explored the interplay of sexual orientation and class with race and gender. [9]


Relevance to human rights

Intersectionality has recently become an important theme within the field of human rights, as illustrated by the United Nations’ adoption of new recommendations: the CERD General Recommendation 25, addressing gender-related dimensions of racial discrimination, and the CEDAW General Recommendation 25, which discusses how the discrimination women experience varies based on a number of factors. [10] The reason behind this augmented attention is the realization that intersectionality is needed to understand the experience of individuals suffering from human rights violations.

In her work, Crenshaw claims that structural intersectionality makes the experience of domestic violence and rape different. Her field study on battered women’s shelters in minority communities in Los Angeles showed that most women in these situations are unemployed or underemployed, making it difficult for them to create alternatives to the situation of abuse they face. This reality materializes clearly in US immigration laws, such as the 1986 Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendment, that forced women to remain married for a minimum of two years with the US citizen they had immigrated to marry, before applying for permanent resident status. This created situations of physical abuse immigrant women were reluctant to denounce by fear of being deported. In 1990, Congress amended the marriage fraud provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act in an attempt to protect immigrant women, introducing the “battered spouse waiver”. The issue then became that many women are unable to meet the conditions of the waiver because of their limited access to police, medical personnel, psychologists, school officials, or social service agencies. Additionally, cultural or language barriers disable women from asking for help. [11] According to Crenshaw, “the enactment of the domestic violence waiver of the marriage fraud provisions similarly illustrates how modest attempts to respond to certain problems can be ineffective when the intersectional location of women of color is not considered in fashioning the remedy”. [12]

On the subject of rape within the United States, Crenshaw notices that institutions and services based on non-intersectional contexts are incompatible with the needs of the survivors and make women suffer more. [13] Internationally, the need for an intersectional approach to law is all the more pressing, as while genocide relates to ethnicity and rape to gender, targeted sexual assault during conflicts in Rwanda for instance implicate both aspects. International law must thus respond with a lens that takes into account all facets of victims’ identities when rape is used as a tool for genocide. [14]

Another element to consider is police violence in the USA. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought visibility to the brutality experienced by black men, but the maltreatment of black women does not seem to generate the same amount of media outcry. In fact, more than 70 black women have died at the hands of law enforcement officers in the past three years alone, [15] and their stories are often untold. Recently, the #SayHerName movement has been advocating for these women whose lives were lost to police brutality, and pointing out the overlap of racism and sexism in these crimes. Furthermore, the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a police officer accused of 36 charges of sexual assault against women of color, demonstrates another form of violence that impacts women based on their gender and race. [16]

Law regulations regarding LGBTQ* rights are also in need of intersectional approaches. For example, approximately 80 countries around the world still criminalize homosexuality. Lesbian women around the world suffer more violence, have less access to education or health services, and are at an increased risk of contracting HIV because of their gender and sexual orientation. [17] The position trans individuals find themselves in is even more worrisome, whether in developing countries like El Salvador, - where trans communities are victim of alarmingly high rates of murder because of their gender identity and class (precarious living situations that make them more vulnerable) - or developed countries like the USA, where trans people of color were reported to experience higher rates of violence and discrimination than their white counterparts. [18]


Complexities and resistance to intersectionality

As previously established, intersectionality has become a buzz word that can be dangerous if it is misunderstood or applied incorrectly. To start with, many have discussed the risk of “tokenizing” (making a person or term representative of a larger idea), which in this situation translates in using the term as evidence for good activism. As Ramon Grosfoguel argued, “intersectionality has created a passport for good and bad activism”, suggesting that it is employed as a guilt pacifier and proof of good intentions. [19] However, many have argued that using the word “intersectionality” is a flawed indicator of what has been internalized or not, and simply adopting it is insufficient to conduct inclusive activism and politics.

Another critic concerning the limits of intersectionality is made by Joanne Conaghan, who claims its inability to recognize certain classes of discrimination is due to its basis in the law, which acts as a constraint, prohibiting the theory from encompassing the complexities of discrimination. [20]

Along the same lines, claims have been made about the issue with intersectionality’s positioning as politically far-left, which creates discrepancies in the way it represents women, people of color or LGBTQ*s who do not all identify with this political ideology. For instance, only 24% of the total American population identified as liberals in 2015, and studies have shown that British LGBTQ*s are as likely to be right-wing as left-wing. In other words, in positioning itself on the far-left of the political spectrum, the concept of intersectionality closes itself off to many marginalized groups.

Furthermore, the ideology has been said to be alienating because of the over-intellectualizing of the concept, which makes it difficult for the people who are meant to be represented to relate, as most are not scholars or in some cases university educated, and may not be supportive of all types of discrimination. For example, many have noted the presence of race discrimination within LGBTQ* communities, and vice versa. Therefore, scholars have claimed that intersectionals are not all members of marginalized groups, but in fact a minority ideological view dominated by people with class privilege and a university degree in the social sciences. The implication is thus that the concept of intersectionality itself reproduces discriminations it means to denounce through the process of epistemic privilege.



To conclude, intersectionality remains a vital element to gaining political and social equality and improving our democratic system. Human rights mechanisms should be modified to properly serve their target communities and encompass intersectional approaches. As it stands, the UN and International Criminal Court have made efforts to include an intersectional lens, but much more needs to be done. The general public too is in need of a better understanding of what intersectionality represents and how to practice it to prevent falling into the traps previously outlined. As bell hooks asserts “intersectionality allows us to focus on what is most important at a given point in time”, and although the discussions are flawed and hazardous, its inclusion in human rights should be a priority.


By Manon Arundhati Fabre – Research Assistant at CIPADH



[1] Sojourner Truth. (1851). Ain't I A Woman? Retrieved October 10, 2017, from

[2] Intersectionality [Def. 1]. (n.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from

[3] Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

[4] Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex. U. CHI. LEGAL F. 139.

[5] DeGraffenreid, 413 F. Supp. At 143.

[6] Hill Collins, P. (1990). Black Feminist Thought. Routledge.

[7] hook, b. (1981). Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Routledge.

[8] Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider. Crossing Press.

[9] Moraga, C. & Anzaldua, G. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back. Persephone Press.

[10] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

[11] Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

[12] IBID

[13] IBID

[14] Moser, C. & Clark, F. (2001). Victims, perpetrators of actors: Gender, armed conflict and political violence. Bastrick et Al.

[15] The Guardian. (2016). #SayHerName: why Kimberlé Crenshaw is fighting for forgotten women.

[16] IBID

[17] The Huffington Post. (2015). Intersectionality, Women’s Rights, LGBT Rights and Moving the Conversation Forward.

[18] The National Transgender Discrimination Survey. (2015). Injustice at Every Turn.

[19] Grosfoguel, R. (2014). Racism, intersectionality and migration studies: framing some theoretical reflections. CrossMark.

[20] Grabham, E., Cooper, D., Krishnadas, J. (2008). Intersectionality and Beyond: Law, Power and the Politics of Location. Routledge.