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Is Intersectionality Useful When Thinking About Discrimination?

The writer of this essay argues that intersectionality is useful when thinking about discrimination. This is because the concept of discrimination tends to blanket segregation of people along widely accepted themes like gender, race, culture, and religion among others. However, the term discrimination overrides individual-based essences of discrimination. In sociology, intersectionality describes the concept that all oppression is linked (Smith, 2016). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, intersectionality is “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender…” These social categorisations tend to create overlap and interdependent systems of disadvantage or discrimination (Hogg, 2016).). In this regard, the proponents of intersectionality acknowledge that whereas every person is associated with social categorisations, they have their own experiences of discrimination and oppression. Therefore, while addressing the concept of discrimination at social, economic, and political levels, considerations must be made regarding everything and anything with the potential to marginalise people. Therefore, alongside the argument that intersectionality has to be used when thinking about discrimination, it has to be considered in the totality of divergent ways that people and groups experience discrimination and oppression. These considerations are as envisaged in the social categorisations. They include race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and physical ability.

Adoption of an intersectional perspective deepens the acknowledgement that in how people hold power, there is diversity and nuance. Therefore, the term tends to encourage a theoretical understanding that identity is more complex. Its complex nature goes beyond the binary of oppressor versus the oppressed (Atewologun, 2018). Rather, In this case, the oppressor can be oppressed at an individual level due to small degrees of discrimination that they experience at work, home or social gatherings. Based on this understanding, discrimination is no longer about a person discriminated against and the one discriminating. Rather, by examining it through the lens of intersectionality, it entails intrapersonal and personal aspects of discrimination that can go unnoticed by the larger group due to the binary nature of how discrimination is looked at (Cho, Crenshaw and McCall, 2013). For example, racial discrimination in the United States is largely acknowledged as White Americans enjoying privileges more than non-White Americans (Bleich et al., 2019). However, among White Americans, intersectional aspects exist that offer discrimination among smaller groups and individuals. For instance, The United States’ racial formation of White Americans denies Latinos ethnic affiliation. According to Andrade, Ford and Alvarez (2021), the Latin American ideologies of racial mixing lead to ethnoracial discrimination. In this regard, whereas Latin American enjoy the perceived privilege of White Americans, they internally experience ethnoracial discrimination through discriminatory experiences caused by systemic racism. This entails racial inequalities that are masked within the existing policies and systems that seek to prevent discrimination. As a result, the adoption of intersectionality can be used to identify areas of discrimination even among White Americans. This is possible through identifying specific areas where even people who have belongingness feel discriminated against based on some elements that policies against discrimination tend to overlook. Such emerge from interactions of social markers of discrimination like race versus class.

Race versus class is another aspect of discrimination that can only be adequately addressed when examined using intersectionality. Race as a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits such as skin colour distinguishes broadly between Whites and people of colour (Coaston, 2019). Therefore, the binary examination of Blacks and Whites in form of race acclaims belongingness based on the colour of the skin. Whereas this is a predominant determination of discrimination in many Western countries, there exist elements of intersectional discrimination that can be identified when one relates race with other elements of intersectionality. For instance, when looking at ethnicities, they are broadly defined as large groups, classed based on national, racial, tribal, linguistic, or cultural origin (MacKinnon, 2013). This statement implies that whereas a race based on colour can group certain people, origin or background becomes another aspect of intersectional consideration. For instance, according to the census in 2011, 80% of England and Wales’s population were white British (Song, 2018). Besides, 20% of the population was Asian. Even though the 80% white British enjoy the racial majority, there are intersectional elements of originality and background which make small groups, families, and individuals feel discriminated against. Similarly, whereas the 20% Asian population can enjoy this racial identity, still, they are made up of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and others. Therefore, it is through intersectionality that lived experiences of those discriminated against even within the larger groups of races can be acknowledged from an individual point of view. This is because the binary approach to discrimination fails to focus on emerging aspects of discrimination that were not initially theoretically defined. At the moment, these emergent considerations affect numerous life aspects of people. Thus, they cannot be left out when creating anti-discrimination laws and policies. One of the emerging areas even within racial dominance is gender and its emergent trends.

The third aspect that can be well enumerated through the intersectional understanding of discrimination is gender. Within the previous social and legal understanding of gender, there is also a dominant binary definition. This includes the male and female gender (Heilman and Caleo, 2018). It is a biological determination of the sex of people, which depicts men in one category and women in the other. However, whereas this definition is an end in itself, there are gender-related discriminations even when a person fits in either. in this regard, there are three dimensions that intersectionality can redefine and reposition gender discrimination even within these binary affiliations. Firstly, when gender is looked at from the intersectional point of view, there exist various gendered discriminations caused by perceptions of people that society and individuals have. For example, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the originator of the term intersectionality developed her interest in gender positioning based on intersectional elements such as social-economic status (Smith, 2016). The scholar focused her attention on the position of black women in American society (Smith, 2016). From her observation, anti-racist campaigns failed women due to their focus on not only the needs but also the experiences of black men. On the flip side, the feminist campaigns focused on the experiences of white women (Smith, 2016). In this regard, from a positivist point of view, anti-racist campaigns were/are expected to address racism and related discrimination without focusing on gender. This is because race does not discriminate against gender. However, Kimberlé Crenshaw identified that whereas anti-racist campaigns were instrumental in addressing racial challenges, they tended to focus on an issue affecting black men, thus leaving behind black women. On the other hand, feminism campaigns that were expected to focus on issues affecting women focused on intra-gender discrimination by steering issues affecting white women and leaving behind black women. Therefore, either the antiracism and feminism campaigns helped to address issues affecting race and gender respectively, but void of the issues affecting black women.

Another issue relative to gender is from the socio-economic point of view. Social status and economic empowerment are gendered issues that originally discredit women against men (Bency, 2018). Due to this, there have been campaigns and policies that seek to achieve a balance between the female and male gender. One of them includes equal employment opportunities. However, when this issue is looked at based on a discrimination angle, it emerges that men occupy management positions more than women do. Besides, it is common knowledge that more men get higher remuneration than women do (Klasen, 2018). In this regard, gender equality when it comes to employment is being achieved by avoiding the binary approach to discrimination. The laws and policies seek to achieve gender balance. However, from the intersectional perspective, one can examine the reasons why gender balance when it comes to employment and remuneration opportunities has not been achieved. For instance, equal opportunities come from underlying issues such as equal access to quality education (Rammohan and Vu, 2018). Even though this is being achieved, another hindrance is whether women are accessing courses that attract better employment positions. For instance, from historical perspectives, as men have taken management and technical courses, women have taken lower courses which have made them accessible to clerical and other low tier jobs, which can explain disparities in career positions and remuneration. In another example, there is affirmative action policy which seeks to enhance the positioning of women based on preferential access to opportunities compared to men. This has been elaborated in education. However, affirmative action has presented more harm than good. For instance, it is responsible for the academic mismatch. Thus, it perpetuates low grades and high rates of dropouts for minority students. Besides, there have been cases where a racial preference is needed to gain admission into schools, which leads to admission based on race as opposed to merit. From the example of affirmative action as a policy toward gender anti-discrimination, its failure is based on its inadequacy in addressing underlying issues within the wholesomeness of the policies and approaches used. However, when intersectionality is used, it is possible to customise policies that address the underlying issues to achieve a proactive approach toward sustainability. This is as opposed to a reactionary approach that focuses on addressing perceived challenges rather than the actual ones.

Sexual orientation is another aspect of discrimination that can be understood better when evaluated based on the intersectionality concept within the gender issue. Sexual orientation is described as a person’s identity concerning gender or genders to which they are sexually attracted (Lei and Rhodes, 2021). This definition negates the traditional definition of sexual orientation, which is supposed to define a man with male sex organs being attracted to a woman with female sex organs and vice versa. In this regard, discrimination based on sexual orientation was initially about lesbians and gays. The broad definition of lesbians have been female attracted to fellow females sexually. That of gay has been men attracted to other men sexually. These definitions have caused discrimination between lesbians/gays and straight people. From the discrimination perspective, it is identifiable that straight people have discriminated the lesbians and gays. However, using the intersectional approach, it can be argued that this discrimination is much far-fetched. For instance, discrimination has been instituted based on two dimensions. Firstly, lesbians and gay have faced discrimination from the traditional society confined by the culture that only recognises sexual attraction between people of different sex organs. Secondly, religion also discriminates against these people based on religious teachings about sex and procreation, confined within the understanding of sin. Meanwhile, going forward, sensitisation has helped to integrate these people within the society, with a certain level of acceptability. However, within this acceptability, using intersectional analysis, it can be identified that these people suffer discrimination from individuals and small groups who still do not accept such sexual orientation. A more complex issue can be observed concerning bisexuals as being attracted to more than one gender. The perception here is that going against the traditional family settings regarding marriage and gender leads to discrimination against bisexuals, even though from the periphery, society seems to have accepted the trends. Another aspect that depicts intersectionality is the presence of queer as an umbrella term for people who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender. In this regard, intersectional observation of this gender issue has led to the creation of the queer theory. This is instrumental in the exploration of the oppressive power of dominant norms, especially those relating to sexuality (Sadika et al., 2020). It thus addresses the immersions caused to people not wishing to live according to the norms created by traditional and religious understanding of sexuality and gender.

Whereas intersectionality is useful while thinking about discrimination, the concept has limitations. Crenshaw is one of the critics of this theory by arguing that the theory represents a new caste system. Crenshaw faults this theory due to its argument that its fundamental understanding is that people have individual identities that intersect in ways that affect how they are understood, viewed, and treated. Due to this, the limitation of the theory is that it acknowledges systemic discrimination, but it uses characteristics that are drawn from the original understanding of discriminatory elements. Thus, it elevates the systemic discrimination aspect to caste, which can lead to people, using their feelings and worldviews to caste their won connotation of being discriminated upon. Whereas different approaches to discrimination address the issues as they are and focus on how to find overall solutions, the use of intersectionality further complicates the actual meaning of discrimination. In this regard, instead of finding an overall solution to different aspects of discrimination, the role of intersectionality is to fragment the issues up to an individual level (Sadika et al., 2020). As such, another limitation emanates from the fact that as intersectionality identifies systemic discrimination in terms of gender, race, and immigration statuses among others, it can lead to limited access to opportunities, especially for affected people (Smith, 2016). For example, discrimination based on race can also have integration with status. Therefore, given that women within a minority race can access education preferential to the male gender due to affirmative action, the use of intersectionality can deny this opportunity. This can emanate from discriminatory evaluation of such a female gender based on economic statuses of family. Thus, intersectionality fails to allow critical deconstruction of categories.

In conclusion, the writer of this essay has argued that intersectionality is useful when thinking about discrimination. The argument has based on the premise that intersectionality has to be used when thinking about discrimination, and has to be considered in the totality of divergent ways that people and groups experience discrimination and oppression. These considerations are as envisaged in the social categorisations. They include race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and physical ability. The first point in support of this argument is that the adoption of an intersectional perspective deepens the acknowledgement that in how people hold power, there is diversity and nuance. Therefore, intersectionality functions to acknowledge fragmentations within systemic approaches to discrimination. Secondly, it has been identified that race and class are usually blanketed within Whites and Blacks, rich and poor, yet, there exist other discrimination elements within them that affect small groups and individuals. The third aspect is that gender has been confined to the binary understanding of male and female. However, intersectionality can lead to redefining and restating the various elements of gender discrimination from social and economic perspectives. Intersectionality also faults already in place systems to address gender discrimination like affirmative action. On the other hand, critics of intersectionality argue that it has limitations. Crenshaw faults this theory due to its argument that its fundamental understanding is that people have individual identities that intersect in ways that affect how they are understood, viewed, and treated. Therefore, whereas intersectionality is instrumental in thinking about discrimination, it cannot be used in isolation from other theories that seek to understand the totalities in which it occurs and mechanisms for eliminating or limiting its vices.


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