This is one of several short essays that was prepared as a set of resources during the original NSF ADVANCE grant period. The essay, written by Jessica Walker, introduces some of the key concepts and literature related to intersectionality.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality means that individuals have multiple identities and characteristics and experiences based on those characteristics that are not easily disentangled into constituent components based on the individual characteristics. These identities serve as organizing features in social relations. These identities are mutually constituted, reinforced through active engagement, and naturalized, thus seen as self-evident through the lens of a different category (Shields, 2008). For example, from an intersectionality perspective, the experience of being an African-American woman is not just a blend of African-American men and Caucasian women’s experiences, but instead a unique experience of its own. Intersectionality is ubiquitous because everyone has intersectional identities—not just minority persons—and these combinations of identities are part of each person’s experiences that shape their interactions with others.
Intersectionality theory also emphasizes that systems of oppression (i.e., the institutionalized systems that disadvantage some people compared to others based on their demographic characteristics) are interconnected, creating different amounts and expressions of discrimination, or disadvantages, for particular individuals or groups of people. The overlapping systems of oppression shape a person’s experiences and opportunities.
There are three general forms of intersectionality: political, structural, and representational (Crenshaw, 1991). Political intersectionality focuses on the different needs and goals of an individual’s identified group (Shields, 2008). Structural intersectionality refers to how a person’s legal status or social needs are marginalized (Shields, 2008). Representational intersectionality refers to the cultural construction of the identity, including the production and the contemporary critiques of the identity (Crenshaw, 1991).
What can an institution of higher education do to address intersectionality?
An institution can change how it addresses intersectionality and the systems of oppression that are embedded in society. Failing to address intersectionality is engaging in discrimination. Through initiatives and research, institutions of higher education can evaluate and alter its climate for faculty, staff, and students.
Resources to Investigate Evidence of Intersectionality in Academic Communities
Below are some resources to consider in order to obtain a better understanding of intersectionality in academic communities and how each academic community has different characteristics, thus creating unique experiences of intersectionality.
Almanac of Higher Education 2014
. This resource allows each state to be compared to the nation on several categories such as race, faculty pay, and higher education enrollment.
American Council of Education
. This site is filled with resources dedicated to diversity in leadership positions in higher education.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
. This site discusses theories of intersectionality among feminist theorists.
For more information, please consult these selected references.