We have seen that any individual’s identity is complex and multilayered, and also that some identities become normalized while others are marked (or deemed other). Although these may seem like unrelated aspects of identity, one of the potential consequences of this is that people become marginalized because of a particular combination of identities. This complex interaction between structures of power and people’s multilayered identities is referred to as intersectionality.
Lawyer and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw presented the idea of intersectionality in a landmark paper in 1989, in which she reviewed three court cases that demonstrated the complexity of discrimination that Black women often face in the workplace. In the first of these, a Black woman sued an employer who refused to hire her, arguing that she had been discriminated against for being a Black woman. The judge dismissed the case, arguing that the company did hire women and did hire Black people — overlooking the fact that the company did not hire Black women.
In her review, Crenshaw argues:
…Black women can experience discrimination in ways that are both similar to and different from those experienced by white women and Black men. Black women sometimes experience discrimination in ways similar to white women's experiences; sometimes they share very similar experiences with Black men. Yet often they experience double-discrimination-the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex. And sometimes, they experience discrimination as Black women — not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women. (1989, p. 149)
What is significant about the cases Crenshaw discusses is that the courts treated the women in question as either women or as Black with regard to discrimination. Yet identity is multilayered, and the plaintiffs in these cases were both Black and women simultaneously, and it was that overlapping (or intersection) of gender and race that rendered them legally marginal in both the workplace and the courtroom. Crenshaw’s work presents an interesting and clear case study of the ways that legal discourses (in this case, the failure to recognize intersectionality) may have significant consequences for individuals and social groups alike.
Cultural geographers working in identity are keenly aware of intersectionality as a factor that casts individuals vis-a-vis their identities into complicated relational and spatial networks with others. For example, Dwyer (1999) considers the intersections of sex, ethnicity, and religion for Muslim women in Britain; Schroeder (2014) addresses intersections of religion, sexuality, and class in the transformation of LGBT neighborhoods in Toledo, Ohio; and Eaves (2017) examines intersections of race, sexuality, and, to a lesser extent, religion in the American South.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), 139-167.
Dwyer, C. (1999). Veiled Meanings: Young British Muslim women and the negotiation of differences. Gender, Place and Culture, 6(1), 5-26.
Eaves, L. (2017). Black geographic possibilities: On a queer Black South. Southeastern Geographer, 57(1), 80-95.
Schroeder, C. G. (2014). (Un)holy Toledo: Intersectionality, Interdependence, and Neighborhood (Trans)formation in Toledo, Ohio. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104(1), 166-181.