Intersectionality refers to how factors such as race, class, ethnicity, and gender come together to create identity and impact individuals' experiences.
Race and ethnicity make up part of an individual's identity. But race and ethnicity are only part of what makes a person who he or she is. Other factors, including class, gender, and age, are intertwined with race and ethnicity. These intertwined factors create overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage that affect individuals' experiences. American social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw (b. 1959) proposed the term intersectionality, a framework for examining how factors of social stratification, such as gender, age, race, class, and sexual orientation, are not separate, but are intertwined. The effects of these multiple, overlapping social forces cannot be fully understood independently but must be understood in combination. Intersectional research was developed to overcome inadequacies of independent studies of racism, sexism, and classism.
American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (b. 1948) proposed the idea of the matrix of domination as a framework to understand intersecting forces of discrimination and oppression. A matrix is the environment in which something originates or develops. The term matrix of domination describes the social environment in which multiple sources of oppression—based on factors such as race, ethnicity, class, sex, and gender—intersect to affect individuals' lives. An individual may have privilege based on one category but face oppression because of others. For example, the discrimination felt by someone who is black, male, and middle class is different from that of someone who is black, female, and poor. The matrix of domination provides a framework to analyze how each category interacts with others to shape an individual's experience.
Intersectionality can be clearly seen in the intersection of gender and race. Women often face sexism and gender discrimination. But women of color do not experience that discrimination the same way white women do. For women of color, gender discrimination is compounded by racism and ethnic discrimination. If a woman is poor, another layer of prejudice is added.
An example of this is how women's incomes are impacted by multiple social forces. In general, women earn less than men. Historically, women had less access to high-paying jobs. Over time, women gained greater access to the workforce. However, when white women began to make inroads into more lucrative professions, the jobs open to women of color were still predominantly low-paying. In the past few decades, more women of color have entered higher-paying professions, but their wages are less than those of their white counterparts. Women of color thus face a double discrimination based on gender and race. In order to address this issue, the ways that gender and race intersect to impact women of color must first be acknowledged.