Understanding Intersectionality: Navigating Racism and Sexism


The theory of “intersectionality” was first used by African-American legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, though we can trace the concept back to Sojourner Truth’s 19th century speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” where she questions the race and class ideologies lurking beneath the idea of “woman” and of femininity as something delicate and in need of help.

Crenshaw’s theory asks social science scholars, and feminists in particular to: examine how various biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systemic injustice and social inequality. That is, Crenshaw asks us not to generalize experiences of oppression (for example, among all women or all women of color), but to understand that forms of oppression do not act independently of one another and that they interrelate, creating for some, multiple forms of oppression at once, thus becoming “multiply marginalized.”

Consider how scholar Kate Flach’s talk about Angela Davis highlighted her intersecting identities as the reason she became the focal point for so much hostility that led to her being targeted by the U.S. government and becoming a political prisoner.

angela davis




In her book Sister Citizen, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC references the following stand-up performance by comedian Chris Rock, who claims that a Black woman cannot play second seat and be the first lady. White women, on the other hand, will “play their position.”


Consider how Rock invokes the same stereotypes of Black women found in the media and even in Zora Neale Hurston’s collected folk tales: that they are loud, demanding, and emasculate their men. Now consider this fact:

“Rock’s comic imagination is fueled by widely held assumptions about who black women are in relation to black men: that African American women are strong, unyielding, and uncompromising while black men are endangered and emasculated. The image of aggressive black women dominating their male partners persists despite empirical evidence that African American women are more likely to be victims than aggressors in heterosexual partnerships.

Black women suffer higher rates of domestic assault and homicide than women of other racial and ethnic groups. Their romantic attachments are also linked to their growing incarceration rates: black women’s crimes tend to be ancillary to those of their male partners. Black women are also the women most likely to face unassisted child rearing and the vulnerability to poverty that single parenthood entails. The reality is that black women’s political, social, and economic marginalization ensures that they nearly always ‘play the background,’ but Rock can get an easy laugh by evoking the familiar stereotype of the domineering black woman” (Harris-Perry, 288).


  • Why do you think some black men are threatened by black women’s strength and outspokenness? (Consider what hooks and Audre Lorde might say.)
  • How can black men better support black women?
  • How can white women be better allies for black women?



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