Intersectionality Defined
Katelyn
Buckley
September 14, 2021

People typically connect with many different groups and share multiple identities which collectively influence their life experiences. The concept of intersectionality is rooted in the acknowledgement of how personal identities, both as individuals and within groups, are fluid. Social codifications grounded in class, race, gender and ethnicity, as well as sexual orientation, disability, and caste status, etc., should not be seen as isolated characteristics. Instead, it is the totality of what we see as different socio-economic categories, and how they intersect, that results in the formation of both personal and social identities. Society itself is made up of intersecting and often mutually reinforcing structures of power grounded in class, race, gender, citizenship status, etc. One’s location or positionality within these overlapping structures of power is a powerful indicator for predicting whether or not a person lives in a clean, green neighborhood, or a community that is grossly over-polluted and under-resourced. 

The term intersectionality was first coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who created this lens to analyze how “power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” She stressed that traditional feminist theory disregards the distinctive experiences Black women face compared to White women. The combined experience of racism and sexism, and how they play into each other to amplify the kinds of oppression Black women face, must be prioritized in conversations and policy that address said oppression. This kind of analysis is “intersectional.” At its root the term stresses that an intersectional experience is greater than the sum of identity-specific experiences; it is more complex, nuanced, and reflective of real power structures and social relations. If we view gender as a standalone concept without considering how the life chances and experiences of a working class African-American woman can be vastly different from that of an upper-middle class White woman, we run the danger of masking structures of power and domination that are grounded in race and class. Gender alone is far too narrow of a lens. The same holds true for other single categories of identity, including race and class.

Rather than experiencing injustices associated with these identities separately, intersectionality implies that people sharing multiple identities can experience multiple forms of oppression and domination simultaneously that actually reinforce and deepen one another. Sociologists often refer to those people who experience multiple forms of domination and oppression as the subaltern.

Because most people embody multiple identities, traditionally marginalized groups often face multiple levels of disempowerment. A Hispanic, queer woman, for instance, may endure potentially three different kinds of oppression based on her race, sexual orientation, and gender. The same would be true for an immigrant Mexican farmworker in the United States, experiencing  pesticide poisonings and other hardships associated with their own working class, ethnic minority, and non-citizen status. Rather than experiencing injustices associated with these identities separately, intersectionality implies that people sharing multiple identities can experience multiple forms of oppression and domination simultaneously that actually reinforce and deepen one another. Sociologists often refer to those people who experience multiple forms of domination and oppression as the subaltern.

So, why is intersectionality important when discussing climate justice? As discussed by Daniel Faber in Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice, the subaltern are the least powerful members of any society, and are therefore on the front lines of climate change and other ecological crises. Climate injustice is built upon and perpetuated by exploitive power structures that intentionally target and disproportionately impact populations who lack the social, political, and economic capital to fight back. The subaltern simply lack these resources to resist, cope and recover from climate-related stresses. 

What are the implications of this perspective for the climate justice movement? Intersectionality is more than just a deepening understanding of identity; it encompasses how unjust systems of power negatively affect our life experiences. Not only are our lived identities intersectional, but so are the larger social structures which affect our lives and livelihoods. It is precisely for this reason that an intersectional understanding and approach to the complex issues facing our communities is necessary to fully address the nuanced, complex ways climate injustices manifest.

Historically oppressed groups were (and still are, though the tide is slowly changing) frequently excluded from environmental conversations and policy making. The environmental movement has its roots in White-led conservation efforts, with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ voices being not only neglected from these spaces, but at times even deliberately excluded. The original considerations of mainstream environmentalism — conservation, recycling, resource reduction, wildlife preservation — can come across as catering more to White, affluent communities than speaking to the lived experiences of a diverse nation. National parks in the U.S. were created to conserve the Western idea of pristine nature. In reality, Indigenous peoples were expelled from these territories in order to create these “wilderness havens.” For nearly a century, actions of mainstream environmentalists have not adopted an adequately inclusive, intersectional language, often alienating more marginalized communities. An intersectional approach would not only acknowledge, but also prioritize, these historically oppressed voices.

An intersectional climate justice politics seeks to elevate the voices of the economically exploited, culturally oppressed, and socially dominated in the movement. It recognizes that the violence committed towards nature and a habitable climate is by extension a violence expressed against these communities of the subaltern. Intersectionality is foundational for achieving real systems change because it makes visible not only the interconnected layers of identity, positionality, and power, but also reveals the basis of genuine solidarity for people from very different walks of life.  If we want to build a truly international, multi-racial, multi-class climate justice movement, we need an intersectional perspective. Being able to see and acknowledge these interconnections reveals opportunities to build common cause across what are profound social divides so we can all see our role in the broader movement for climate justice.

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