Illustration by David Junkin
The word “intersectionality” sounds like the brainchild of a traffic engineer, but it’s more about people than asphalt. Basically, it is the idea that a person can’t be reduced to a single category. Say, for example, you check the “male” box on the census. But you’re more than that. You are male and you’re middle class and you’re of Irish descent and you’re gay. Every part of you influences the way you interact with the world and how the world treats you.
Intersectionality is having a moment right now, popping up in news outlets, in online discourse and all stops in between. It’s a simple concept with deep roots and big implications.
The term was coined by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. She used the term while writing about a lawsuit brought by five Black women against General Motors that alleged discrimination in promotion practices. The suit was dismissed on the basis that GM had promoted Black people and it had promoted female employees. Therefore, the judge ruled, GM had not discriminated against its Black female employees.
“The judge couldn’t see that they were discriminated against not because they were women or because they were Black, but because they were Black women,” says Susanne Luhmann, a professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. “This case shows race and gender interact. If you only think of one you won’t grasp the whole situation.” That call to attend to people and systems in their complexity is the heart of intersectionality. In this way, intersectionality addresses long-term societal issues.
“The idea that social justice can be addressed through a single-issue approach is a comforting mistake we’ve been making for a while,” says Dia Da Costa, a professor of educational policy studies. “Intersectionality takes a clear look at a daunting reality. It doesn’t pretend social justice is easy.”
The concept is older than the word. “The idea of intersectionality, if not the term, goes back at least a century,” Da Costa says.“It is articulated in the writing of Black and Indigenous writers, who’ve experienced multiple forms of historical wrongdoing.”
Luhmann and Da Costa say intersectionality is gaining notice because the perils of ignorance are becoming difficult to overlook. “Technology that isn’t intersectional is often discriminatory or deadly,” says Luhmann. “For example, it’s common today to use AI to screen the CVs of job applicants.” But she says research shows that if we build our assumptions, many of them unconscious, into AI, the system can actually amplify a lack of diversity.
Add this to a list of unintended consequences of AI untrained in intersectionality: “Right now, driverless-car technology cannot recognize Black faces,” Luhmann says. “To deadly consequences if we don’t attend to these questions in research design.”
Da Costa and Luhmann are glad major institutions are paying attention to intersectionality, which was launched as a signature research area at the U of A in March. As intersectionality enters mainstream discourse, we need to understand it, Da Costa says, and use it as a tool to see what has escaped our notice.