Intersectionality is about how power structures (based on categories like sex, race, sexuality, disability, and socioeconomic status) work together to create inequality, discrimination, and oppression.
The term intersectionality was minted by the researcher and theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1991) to show how we often do not understand or acknowledge discrimination or marginalization that individuals are exposed to if you are seen as, or identified with, more that one ground of discrimination.
Her research and the term intersectionality come from the understanding of how black women’s experiences could not be analyzed properly based on belonging to the category women or being racialized as black.
Understanding what sexism, racism, and structural and social injustice look like in practice and affect black women (like in this example) requires that we examine the intersection between these two analytical categories, and how they affect each other.
Intersectionality and postcolonial studies
Intersectionality can be seen as a tool, a theoretical framework, and a methodology within research and activism. Postcolonial feminist, in Sweden and in other places, has used intersectionality to challenge so-called mainstream feminism, explain the existence of multiple power structures, and to include complexity in their research and activist movements.
An intersectional and postcolonial example
Studies have shown that media representations of migrants not only racialize, but also sexualize the subjects: migrants are reduced to carriers of race-specific and sexual characteristics. A study on mass media conveys how migrant girls are often represented as traditional, passive, and sexually oppressed which boys are presented as exotic and dangerous.
For example, Latin American boys are portrayed as passionate and almost sex symbols, while boys from the Middle East are portrayed from an islamophobic stereotype. Boys from the Middle East are portrayed as a homogenous group of dangerous orientals and potential rapists, and according to the stereotype, these boys are a threat to Swedish girls against whom they have allegedly developed a contempt.
In the study, intersectionality helps us understand the interaction between sexualization, racialization, and socioeconomic status
The researchers discuss how sexualization and racialization of young people in Sweden suburbs is an important aspect of the extensive colonial stigmatizing rhetoric that media uses to describe the suburbs. This is an example of how socioeconomic vulnerability, sexism, and colonial racist thought structures are connected.
If we were to look at each constructed identity on its own — for example passive girls, patriarchal girls, or suburban youths—without placing these construction in a context where racism as an ideology interacts with sexism and socioeconomic vulnerability, we would not see how power structures constantly recreate themselves.
These categories, or ideologies, have previously been understood as parallel but separate power structures when then have actually reinforced each other.
Intersectionality can have different meanings
All use of intersectionality is not the same. There are roughly two different categories within intersectional research. One focuses on identity and examines what it means for an individual to belong to several different categories at the same time. For example, how is a lesbian woman who comes from a country outside of Europe treated in the Swedish labor market?
The other category focuses on the mechanisms that create the power systems - sexism, racism and socioeconomic inequality. The explosive political power of intersectionality based on the second category comes from challenging the power systems that exist in society, both structurally and in everyday life. The research and debate on intersectionality becomes a political force if it manages to reveal and create a debate on multiple discrimination.
Intersectionality can be used as a tool to see the interaction of more power structures than race, gender, and socioeconomic status
Today, intersectionality is used as a tool to understand several power structures. For example, in the queer movement, the LGBTQ perspective is often examined and analyzed with the help of intersectionality. This has meant that the researchers have been able to show which people within LGBTQ live in more exclusion and vulnerability, which has been very helpful in targeted efforts.
Unfortunately, the knowledge of how it is possible to use intersectionality as a tool is not widespread enough, which means that many larger projects start from an incorrect image of who belongs to the group LGBTQ. When a project does not have an inclusive foundation, the project risks only reaching some more privileged people within the group LGBTQ.
Intersectionality is also used in more movements than the LGBTQ example. Intersectionality is a tool for becoming more inclusive and understanding other perspectives in more ways, which means that we can create solutions, back each other up and listen to each other in a better way.
Using intersectionality as a tool
Using intersectionality as a tool means understanding how cyber hate affects us all in different ways based on who we are and what we represent, and then moving on to work actively and inclusively against cyber hate. This understanding is needed to make visible and actively make us aware of what is happening on the internet.
This allows us to think about what we can do as individuals or organizations to take responsibility for what is happening on our own platforms, in our feeds, or with our own conversation tone.
What can you do?
- Everyone can report hate speech!
- Gather digital evidence.
- Report offensive comments to the administrator. Even if the comment is not targeted at you, the person who is affected should not have to take all responsibility for standing up for human rights. We are all a part of the conversation culture on the internet.
- Send a message to people who are affected, ask how they are feeling.
- Speak up, even if it is a closed group of friends. You never know who is represented in the group.
- Never demand answers about anyone’s private life or identity. Google instead.
- If you are a part of an organization, make sure you have a clear code of conduct and moderation rules prepared for your various platforms. Cyber hate is triggering. Everyone who works against hate and harassment on the internet agrees that having poorly moderated cyber rooms leads to increased cyber hate.
- Read about minority perspectives and think about things like interpretive prerogative, gaslighting, micro aggressions or exotification. You can search for all of these terms here on the Cyber Hate Assistant.