So what is Intersectionality and where did this theory come from?
Intersectionality theory arose from the work of Black American civil rights activists and scholars who challenged the belief of White radical feminists that the experience of women’s oppression was universal & based solely on gender. The Multiracial Feminist movement, which was ignored by the radical feminists as well as the male-dominated Black civil rights movement, countered that neither race nor class can be separated from their identity as women.
Intersectionality, therefore posits that social injustice based on various forms of identity do not act independently of each other. These forms of oppression interconnect creating multidimensional forms of social inequality & systemic injustice i.e. injustice affecting multiple aspects of life. (1)
Oppression = social injustice = the lack of equality.
A lack of equality results in the unfair distribution of benefits to all members of a society as well as that society’s resources. This lack of social parity is based on gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, various forms of disability and medical conditions, as well as other forms of identity.
What is “privilege” and horizontal inequality?
Privilege, as denoted in a dictionary, refers to rights, immunities, or benefits such as wealth and luxury enjoyed by a person who has more advantages than most people, i.e. by someone who is not the norm. This meaning is very different to how the term is used in intersectionality theory.
The use of the term “privilege” in relation to social injustice was coined in the 1980s. Privilege is the result of various factors and contexts such as race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship, religion, physical ability, health, education, all interacting together to construct an identity that is perceived to be a society’s norm. Privilege is culturally dependent but always refers to the dominant norm in that society, where race, gender and social class are considered to be the most important factors in determining a person’s overall level of privilege. (2) It should be noted that horizontal inequality affects both privileged and oppressed peoples in a society.
Horizontal inequalities are inequities that are experienced within groups with a shared identity, which also has its own norms. That shared identity could be on a large scale such as a national identity or much smaller groups. However, within each group, people have multidimensional identities, so intersectionality with gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, various forms of disability and medical conditions also exist. Horizontal inequalities explain why there are people who are considered to be privileged but who have more in common with those experiencing social injustice than with the “norm.” (3) Privilege also explains why educated & employed Black men in America are in more danger of being shot dead by police than unemployed white men. That is the fundamental nature of privilege and how it is internalised as the norm.
It is highly likely that most people have the dictionary definition in their mind when they read or hear the word”privilege” being used and many argue that they have no experience of it and reject the concept immediately. If that is what they perceive then their argument is most certainly true: in any society, very few people will ever experience such advantages.
If social injustice is to be rejected by more people who are the “norm” (have social privilege) I believe discussions about intersectionality and privilege need to acknowledge and include conversations about horizontal inequality in order to take the discussion from the theoretical realm and bring it to the world that we live in and understand.
The trouble is that it is one thing to help people to see how much privilege they unconsciously have (even when experiencing horizontal inequality) and completely another to have them voluntarily let go of that privilege.
I still believe after all these years that the concepts of privilege and intersectionality are not difficult to grasp. If anything they confirm my observations of the world around me and account for the differences in experiences between people who have much in common which goes well beyond their personal psychology and familial experiences.
“Intersectionality” and “privilege” are not dirty words, but social injustice truly is a filthy thing.
(NOTE: this writing has been cross-posted to another social media site).
(1) “Intersectionality – a theoretical inspiration in the analysis of minority cultures and identities in textbooks,” Knudsen, Susanne V. Caught in the Web or Lost in the Textbook, 8th IARTEM conference on learning and educational media held in Caen in October 2005. Bruillard Éric; Horsley, Mike; Aamotsbakken, Bente; et al. © 2006. Utrecht, The Netherlands: (IARTEM), pp. 61–76.
(2) Casella, Eleanor C. The Archaeology of Plural and Changing Identities: Beyond Identification. © 2005. Springer. p 217.
(3) “Horizontal inequalities,” Stewart, Frances. World social science report, 2016: Challenging inequalities; pathways to a just world. International Social Science Council. © 2016. University of Sussex (UK). Institute of Development Studies p 51.