Interrogating Intersectionality

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford


Intersectionality theory - how gender, race, sexuality and class amongst other identifying factors mutually constitute identity and shape how one acts - emerged through legal scholarship as a way of understanding social inequalities in the 1990s. Kimberle Crenshaw, an American lawyer, first conceptualised this theory as a way to highlight how to be Black and female in the eyes of the law were not compatible, as one could sue for workplace sexism, or for workplace racism, but not both. In this article, I will explore two conflicting theories surrounding identity politics and interectional theory: whether gender, race, sexuality and class interact simultaneously in multidimensional ways to influence lived experience; or if a focus on a single minority identity is needed to understand social oppression.

The multiple jeopardy hypothesis that employs intersectional theory to account for interactions between gender, race, sexuality and class to shape lived experience posit identities as multiplicatory, unable to be isolated from one another when achieving a comprehensive understanding of both privilege oppression. This hypothesis argues that isolating any single identity overlooks the experience of individuals with multiple subordinate or socially disadvantaged identities, and that the cumulative nature of these disadvantages shapes daily economic and social interactions such as wages, job authority, credit scores, arrest rates and so forth.

With multiple jeopardy hypothesis, gender, race, sexuality and class all interact to produce a multivalued identity from which individuals cannot be divorced from. For example, in Veenstra’s 2011 paper exploring self-rated health in Canada, being non-white, female, and economically disadvantaged were all found to interact to place non-wealthy South Asian women at a high risk of poor self-rated health, drawing on the legacies of an androcentric and institutionally racist settler state. In such a society, it is disadvantageous for the self-rated health of individuals to not identify with one or more of these groups due to the cumulative nature of multiple subordinate identities.

On the other hand, Social Dominance theorists argue members of society with a single devalued identity will often bear the brunt of discrimination targeting their group, acting as the most visible individuals within their community. This Subordinate Male Target Hypothesis (SMTH) reasons multiple subordinate identities will intersect to create an ‘invisible oppressed’ and so will avoid prejudice by being ‘under the radar’. This means gender, race, sexuality and class can interact to create a minority identity within a minority, where prejudices encountered in daily life are mitigated by value of not being the prototypical individual of the subordinate group.

Male and female incarceration rates in the UK serve as empirical evidence for this hypothesis. After controlling differences in legally relevent variables, a significant difference between white male and black male incarceration rates exists, where in a dominantly white society, black men suffer prejudices of colonialist racism and stereotyping. However, the differences in rates between black and white women were negligible. Another example is non-heterosexual men being abused for the spread of AIDS in the US in the 1980s, while non-heterosexual women were not considered to blame. This indicates that prejudice in daily life is often experienced more heavily by the most visible members of subordinate groups. From a contemporary Western viewpoint, this means those who deviate from the dominant identities of being male, white, heterosexual or middle-class, in only one category. The examples given show women with another subordinate identity being advantaged in everyday interactions, therefore indicating gender to play a role in making individuals more invisible in society to their benefit, through creating a dual or multiple subordinate identity.

However, this is due to the woman being oppressed to the point at which they are deemed not even worth recognition as a serious threat to the dominant male counterparts. While these women may appear less actively oppressed, the reality is the non-prototypical members of subordinate groups experience a continuous struggle to be represented and have their voices heard throughout their own communities and wider society, and so are less likely to exert social influence. This is reflected in the historic invisibility of black women within society, throughout civil rights and feminist movements.

Gender, race, sexuality and class can therefore interact to create cultural, political and legal invisibility, where representation within subordinate groups is not captured, and those with singular disadvantaged identities are privileged over multiple identities. To not acknowledge the heightened level of oppression created from the interaction of subordinate identities is to diminish such suffering to the point of rendering it invisible, and so it remains important to conceptualise intersectionality as multiplicatory to avoid reinforcing such damaging views.

Further reading:

  1. Brown, M. (2012) Gender and sexuality I: Intersectional anxieties. Progress in Human Geography 36(4) 541–550.

  2. Crenshaw, K., 1989. Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. u. Chi. Legal f., p.139.

  3. Purdie-Vaughns, V. and Eibach, R.P., 2008. Intersectional invisibility: The distinctive advantages and disadvantages of multiple subordinate-group identities. Sex Roles, 59(5-6), pp.377-391.

  4. Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press

  5. Veenstra, G., 2011. Race, gender, class, and sexual orientation: intersecting axes of inequality and self-rated health in Canada. International journal for equity in health, 10(1), p.3.