On the Corner: The Birth of Intersectionality

Intersectionality as we know it today was given life by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and social theorist. In the talk that brought the metaphor of the intersection into public discussion, she first noted:*1

in race discrimination cases, discrimination tends to be viewed in terms of sex- or class-privileged Blacks; in sex discrimination cases, the focus is on race- and class-privileged women.

She then explained some of the consequences of this:

This focus on the most privileged group members marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened and obscures claims that cannot be understood as resulting from discrete sources of discrimination. I suggest further that this focus on otherwise-privileged group members creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism because the operative conceptions of race and sex become grounded in experiences that actually represent only a subset of a much more complex phenomenon

But why not simply include Black voices in feminism and women’s voices in anti-racism and call it good? For Crenshaw, it was because the effects of multiple oppressions are not merely linear increases, not merely additive.


In Crenshaw’s words:

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. Thus, for feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse to embrace the experiences and concerns of Black women, the entire framework that has been used as a basis for translating “women’s experience” or “the Black experience” into concrete policy demands must be rethought and recast.

She had good reason to think this. Legal precedents at the time were mixed on whether Black women could sue for discrimination as Black women. DeGraffenreid v General Motors, 413 F Supp 142 (ED Mo 1976), was one very important precedent that (at the trial court level) prevented any recognition of discrimination against or remedies for Black women as Black women. There the court was very clear in finding against the Black women plaintiffs who were suffering discrimination because of the effects of a seniority policy that failed to recognize that while General Motors was willing to hire white women for certain jobs before passage of the CRA (1964) and was willing to hire black men for certain (other) jobs before passage of the CRA (1964), GM had not hired any Black women prior to 1964. Per the court:

this lawsuit must be examined to see if it states a cause of action for race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, but not a combination of both

The court charmingly fretted about exceeding the mandate implied in the legislative history of the CRA, overtly worrying about creating a “special class” for Black women who would be provided a “super-remedy,” as well as worrying about multiplying the number of classes and causes of action to a prohibitively complex degree. Though the court considered Pandora’s Box a hackneyed metaphor, it was not too hackneyed for the court to recruit in its bold defense against “the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination.”

Courts also worried about the ability of Black women, as lead plaintiffs in any given class action suit for relief from gender discrimination, to represent white women. (See Moore v Hughes Helicopter, 708 F2d 475 (9th Cir 1983), and what Crenshaw has to say about the case.) In cases where white women might be lead plaintiffs for a class that included Black women, the court’s concern was not forthcoming. White women could have “universal” experiences, but Black women had specific, non-generalizable, “special” experiences.

In Moore the court took a seemingly opposite approach to DeGraffenreid, but the denial of justice was the same: by forcing Moore to prove discrimination against Black women qua Black women, the court justified its refusal to allow Moore to present statistics on how all women were treated at Hughes while also refusing to allow Moore to present statistics on how all Black employees were treated. The discrimination case against Hughes for Black women would only admit statistical evidence measuring aspects of employment for Black women workers … and there simply weren’t enough of those to make a strong statistical case. By refusing to hire and promote Black women, Hughes had limited the ability of plaintiffs to gather statistics on Black women. The courts then declared discrimination a winning strategy against anti-discrimination lawsuits.

The injustice that plainly manifested in both these cases (along with a Moore-parallel in Payne v Travenol that denied Black women the ability to be lead plaintiffs in a class that included Black men) despite courts using conflicting reasoning and standards as they arrived at their unjust decisions, made it clear to Crenshaw that anti-discrimination policy needed reworking from the ground up, rather than mere “inclusion” of Black women in white women’s lawsuits as women and Black men’s lawsuits as Black persons.

First noting that DeGraffenreid’s court asserted that Black women’s claims cannot be different from Black men’s claims or white women’s claims (though they were, generously, entitled to make each of these claims in turn) while Moore’s court asserted that Black women’s claims must be different, Crenshaw went on to say:

It seems that I have to say that Black women are the same and harmed by being treated differently, or that they are different and harmed by being treated the same. But I cannot say both. This apparent contradiction is but another manifestation of the conceptual limitations of the single-issue analyses that intersectionality challenges.

And it is at this point that she lays out the metaphor of the intersection for the first time:

Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.

Judicial decisions which premise intersectional relief on a showing that Black women are specifically recognized as a class are analogous to a doctor’s decision at the scene of an accident to treat an accident victim only if the injury is recognized by medical insurance. Similarly, providing legal relief only when Black women show that their claims are based on race or on sex is analogous to calling an ambulance for the victim only after the driver responsible for the injuries is identified. But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm. In these cases the tendency seems to be that no driver is held responsible, no treatment is administered, and the involved parties simply get back in their cars and zoom away.

If it is not completely obvious, what the courts have constructed, and what Crenshaw decries, is a series of justifications that both protects those who discriminate on the basis of (legal) sex if it just might be that the bigots discriminated against a particular plaintiff on the basis of race and also protects those who discriminate on the basis of race if it just might be that the bigots discriminated against a particular plaintiff on the basis of sex. Of course, Black men were not required to prove that their discrimination was racial only, not a combination of race and sex, vice versa for white women.

As a result, we can see that Crenshaw intended a non-linearliaty for the metaphor, however “linear” we might assume these intersecting streets to be. What is non-linear is not racism or sexism, it is the effects on Black women, and black women only (of the four options initially studied). In the aftermath of a real car crash, some small emergencies might be provided to any and all, but fixing the harm? The work that must be done over time to return a person to whole? Well, the persons who perform that work will decline you as a patient if they don’t know where they can go to collect their fees. The white woman in the metaphorical accident has a specific source to hold liable: she is treated for the injuries of sexism. The Black man has a specific source to hold liable: he is treated for the injuries of racism. But the Black woman? Well, the injuries could have been the result of the sexists, could have been the result of the racists, we just don’t know. So if she doesn’t take care of herself, the injuries of the Black woman are not treated at all. And as we know, the effects of a broken leg set by a doctor are limited to loss of function for a few weeks and some (perhaps treated) pain. The effects of a broken leg that is not set? that receives no medical attention? It can hobble a human for an entire life. Non-linear indeed.

We had, of course, laws designed to make sure the injuries of certain kinds of discrimination were treated. That is, in fact, how we have these legal decisions to study in the first place. But because of how oppression functions in the lives of Black women, because of how it injures Black women (even if the injuries themselves are similar to those suffered by others), the tools of justice, the remedies provided to others were denied to Black women. For Crenshaw, Intersectionality, as a metaphor, as a social theory, and as a theory of justice, provided the best hope of leading legal institutions to the understanding necessary for Black women to gain access to justice and to anti-discrimination actions that were already well established for Black men and white women.


*1: This talk was later published, and can be found here.



  1. says

    Because discrimination must only ever be based upon one factor, in order for it to count as “legitimate” discrimination?

    It seems to me that discrimination can be based on sex AND race, at the same time. (Feel free to sub in other categories, such as orientation, gender identity, disability, etc.)

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