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A Brief, Convoluted History of the Word ‘Intersectionality’

Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek.

The third act of Sunday’s Oscars featured a pre-taped segment that celebrated and encouraged diversity in Hollywood, introduced by Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, and Annabella Sciorra — three women who had accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct and assault. They had a message for the Academy about the new paradigm of speaking up and expecting change. “We work together,” said Judd, “to make sure that the next 90 years empower these limitless possibilities of equality, diversity, inclusion, intersectionality — that’s what this year has promised us.”

This might arguably be “intersectionality”’s most high-profile public appearance. It’s not every year, after all, that vocabulary from black feminist criticism shows up next to Balenciaga gowns. But the word has popped again and again in recent months, enough to cause some to call it a cliché, a buzzword, an aesthetic, and “jargon that the sneering class finds so tedious.” Even as the word “intersectionality” is becoming more common, its meaning is becoming less clear.

“Intersectionality” in its modern use dates back to a 1989 paper by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar and civil-rights activist who founded the African American Policy Forum at Columbia University. The paper is a scholarly critique of antidiscrimination theory and how, in practice, it fails black women by denying that they face unique discrimination due to their overlapping identities:

I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. These problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. 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.

Later in the paper, and perhaps in anticipation of critique, Crenshaw explains intersectionality literally. Imagine an intersection, she says. Imagine that traffic flows through it from all four directions. Imagine being a person standing in the middle of that intersection. Danger can hit you from any side.

Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” was an instant hit among academics, where it was broadened beyond the scope of black women’s experiences. It showed up in queer theory, feminist legal theory, studies on race and gender and sexuality. It was a useful word, one that provided a framework for discussing broader patterns of oppression, power, discrimination — but one that remained in academia for years.

Though “intersectionality” peeked its head above the parapets of the ivory tower occasionally, its first major appearance in general press was around the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. The March was surrounded by debates about which women it was for, and “intersectionality” became the go-to word to explain the aims and goals of the March. Nearly overnight, major news outlets published explainers on intersectionality and intersectional feminism.

So far, lexically speaking, so good. The way that English grows is by spreading outward from an originating point, like a ripple in a pond. Words move from thought to speech to writing to other people. But that transmission isn’t always smooth. There are other currents to contend with.

Before “intersectionality” had its moment in the sun, its meaning was already being moved further afield of Crenshaw’s definition. A 2014 movie review in the Washington Post defines “intersectionality” as something that “seeks to describe how identity is conditioned, not by one reductive quality, but by multiple tastes, impulses, desires and fears.” The traffic through this intersection is entirely different: tastes and desires rather than identities. “You can also just call it ‘life,’” writer Ann Hornaday sums up — not inaccurately, but not entirely accurately, either. In 2015, writer Rich Lowry glossed “intersectionality” as “membership in two or more historically oppressed groups,” which isn’t technically incorrect, but the broader context in which he gives his definition confuses things:

The political benefit of what feminists call intersectionality — membership in two or more historically oppressed groups — is not having to choose which accusation of bias to make. One day, it can be racism; the next it can be sexism. Or, different people can make different charges of an -ism on the same day. The possibilities to mix and match are endless.

Lowry makes intersectionality a cafeteria from which you object to whichever bias seems tastiest at that moment. This contradicts exactly the force of Crenshaw’s “intersectionality”: that bias and discrimination are additive, not subtractive.

The confusion continues, even after primers on intersectionality appeared in places like Teen Vogue and USA Today. Art influencer JiaJia Fei was quoted recently in Vogue as saying Telfar Clemens’ 2018 show at Fashion Week was “a total work of art: music, fashion, and art. There was a lot of intersectionality, not just in identity but also in creativity.” Can creativity be “intersectional” in the traditional sense of the word? What is the traditional sense of the word? Explanations everywhere, and yet the top Google searches for “intersectionality” all have to do with its definition.

That may be because the connotative force of the word is outstripping the academic meaning of the word. Lexicographers reiterate that it is entirely expected and natural that, as a word moves farther away from its originating point, its meaning changes. This is a part of healthy language growth. But when the word is one like “intersectionality,” this gets complicated. Latoya Peterson, formerly of Racialicious and now at ESPN’s the Undefeated, wrote in 2015 that the word “intersectionality” was losing its punch: it was becoming a label that feminists could claim as their own, which absolved them of any of the hard work required by intersectionality. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “when I encounter conversations about intersectionality online, the term is often uttered merely as cultural shorthand, the social justice equivalent of ‘You go girl!,’ ready to be GIFed, Tumbled, or tee-shirted.” Crenshaw herself objects to this hashtaggable use of “intersectionality.” “Intersectionality can get used as a blanket term to mean, ‘Well, it’s complicated,’” she says in a 2017 interview. “Sometimes, ‘It’s complicated’ is an excuse not to do anything.”

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. Crenshaw likens the confusion over what “intersectionality” means to “a very bad game of telephone,” but that is exactly what language growth looks like most of the time. There will be those who dig in and hold fast to the academic meaning “intersectionality” originally had, and then there will be those who lump it in with other terms they perceive to be a wave in a particular direction: diversity, equality, systemic oppression, privilege. Sometimes words lose potency as they gain traction.

While the fight for “intersectionality” and its meaning intensifies among the intelligentsia, however, the word continues its slow march forward, quietly breaking new ground. The week opened with “intersectionality’s” appearance at the Academy Awards, and closes with its supporting-actress turn during International Women’s Day, describing the day’s Google Doodle.

Kory Stamper is the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, now out in paperback.

A Brief, Convoluted History of the Word ‘Intersectionality’