Crenshaw Reflection Paper

Intersectionality: A Solution to Living in Limbo

One’s identity is a complicated concept when we consider how they are made up of intertwined ideologies, passions, and presenting characteristics of choice; and yet, our freedom to identify is intrinsically caught up in society's power to force identification on people. If one looks at the modern world and can grasp that it is made up of billions of people with different identities, they too would find it hard to categorize human kind because of this understanding that everyone is different. Historically though, one’s identity has been defined for them in two predominant ways – race and gender. Oftentimes, when being critical of these identifiers, we get lost in each of them separately and fail to understand how they could be in tension with one another. In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics, the consequences of treating race and gender as seperate from one another is raised through looking at antidiscrimination practices and feminst theory. By centering Black women in this discussion, Crenshaw reveals that their identities are multidimensional, but represented in single dimensions giving way to the erasure of black women and placing limits on feminist and antiracist movements. Presently, the effects of Crenshaw’s introduction of intersectionality has had massive implications on the feminist project and continues to do so as it progresses.

With Black women at the heart of Crenshaw’s discourse on demarginalization, it becomes clear how our basic understanding of discrimination has trained us to think about subordination as a “disadvantage occurring along a single axis” (140) Arguing that the single axis view negates black women due to the fact that it leaves them in a limbo of race and sex, Crenshaw introduces the term intersectionality as a way of including identities – Black women especially – that are “multiply-burdened” and eclipsing the idea that there are “discrete sources of discrimination” (140). With her incredibly raw and blunt introduction, the understanding of how intersectionality is manifested in the world is daunting to the ignorant. There is a confrontation that the reader has to make when starting the piece – one that is inward and introspective. For many, this action is uncomfortable and scary as it requires introspection which oftentimes leads to people recognizing their privilege. Furthermore, it requires facing traumatic experiences, circumstance of systematic oppression, and placing your body and mind at harm. However, coming to terms with the idea that people are made up of many different identities allows one to then contemplate their own and how they interact with one another.

Crenshaw adds to the complexity of viewing identities as singular by addressing the court cases of Degraffenreid v General Motors, Moore v Hughes Helicopter, and Payne v Travenol. In the case of Degraffenreid, Crenshaw highlights that the plaintiff sued for discrimination against Black women and was rejected because they viewed the goal of the suit as allegedly attempting to “create a new classification of “Black women” (142). Blatantly, Crenshaw exposes how Black women were consistently being erased as discrimination could only exist on the singular and separate axis of Black and Woman. For the Moore, Hughes Helecopter was promoting their workers based on race and sex discrimination and Moore neglected to say that she “was discriminated against as a female, but only as a Black female” (144). To Crenshaw, this reveals the “narrow scope of anti-discrimination doctrine and its failure to embrace intersectionality” and furthermore centralizes the “white female experiences in the conceptualization of gender discrimination” (144). Here, once again, identifying as a Black woman is seen as an illegitimate identity and they are forced to shrink themselves into one category, Black or Female – as there is no space for the both to exist. Finally, the case of Payne v Travenol uncovered the separation between Black men and Black women and accentuated how Black women are forced to choose between “specifically articulating the intersectional aspects of their subordination” and standing with Black men, or “ignoring intersectionality” in order to be allies with Black men (148). The identity conflicts that Black women were facing in the search for anti-discrimination protection from the law left them in a constant state of tension as they had to choose between their identities in order to conform to the single axis view that society holds.

When it comes to feminist theory, we must acknowledge the importance of citing the feminists whose work we use. It is critical to raise feminist thinkers up when borrowing their ideas because, historically, the patriarchy has walked all over their research, articulating their ideas, and calling them their own if referenced at all. More importantly, White female feminists have adopted the rhetoric and ideologies of Black feminist thinkers, leading to the eradication of their presence. Crenshaw uses the story of Sojourner Truth and her declaration of “Ain’t I a Woman” which challenged sexist imagery and the disenfranchisement of women to show how White feminism disregarded Black feminist pedagogy (153). According to Crenshaw, Truth used her own life to “reveal the contradiction between ideological myths of womanhood and reality of Black women’s experience” (153). With her trailblazing speech, Truth was able to bring to light the separation between Black women and White women and declare herself as nothing shy of a woman – but entirely one. Under the White feminist view, “Black women were something less than real women as their experiences had no bearing on true womanhood” rendering them incapable of identifying with the feminist movement as there was no support for them (154). Crenshaw acknowledges that “even today, the difficulty that White women have traditionally experienced in sacrificing racial privilege to strengthen feminism leaves Women of color vulnerable and wondering: “Ain’t I a Women?” (154)

Because of Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality, not only is one given context for the erasure of Black women from politics and feminist ideologies, but they are able to understand what this looks like. Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality has allowed for the revitalization of Black women in the feminist movement. Therefore her name must not go unsung when intersectionality is being discussed and critiqued. By acknowledging that there is no room for Black women in a world that views identity as singular and separate, Crenshaw has created a term and project that allows for Black women to stay present – intersectionality. She says that one “must include an analysis of sexism and patriarchy” as well as an “analysis of race if it hopes to express the aspirations of non-white women” (166). To tie it all together, to declare Black women present is to adopt the ideology of intersectionality and understand how race, gender, class, sex, and all the systems presently lived in function on a body. “Identifiable causes” are no longer a relevant practice for feminist projects as they leave no room for the unacknowledged histories of non-white women (166). In reading Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality, one is capable of understanding that its lessons are ever present and incredibly important to the progression of feminist discourse and projects as it helps to disable marginalization based on identities and demands consideration of the parts us that make the whole.


  1. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139-167.

Discussion Questions

  1. When it comes to Intersectionality, conversation can often get incredibly focused on adding up marginalized identities. This can become a kind of “Oppression Olympics” where you have groups / identities comparing who is more oppressed and or in need of help. We saw this during first wave feminist movements like the women’s suffrage movement where the struggle for black enfranchisement was directly up against Women’s suffrage. Is their room in the feminist project for debate on what identities are more marginalized / oppressed than others? Where does intersectionality have relevance?
    1. Answer: page 145-146
      1. Discrimination against the white female is the standard sex discrimination claim. This places white females against black females because it could discriminate against all females in policy and practice but harsher consequences for black females cause tensions. This is incredibly toxic for the feminist movement because the more collective and empathetic we can be, the stronger we will be. In my eyes, intersectionality solves and eliminates the problem of an oppression Olympics as it enables everyone to understand that trauma, history, and everything in between that make up identities is all because of the way systems act on our bodies. Some People take the brunt of the pain and others experience very little. Bottom up intersectionality allows for people to understand that there is more to gain by fighting collectively than fighting individually.
  2. In referencing Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech and mixing in the idea of intersectionality, an interesting question is raised. Truth’s argument, in summary, is the idea that women are the negative, and men are the positive and the neutral. Most commonly associated with this is the idea that “one is not born a woman but becomes a woman through how one dresses, performs their gender, and the identities make them up. When we think of idealism and what is the ideal woman, does practicing intersectional approaches to life eliminate or hinder idealistic societal standards?
    1. 152-153: Truth used her life to reveal the contradiction between the ideological myths of womanhood and the reality of black women's experiences. She contradicts the idea that women are weaker than men and challenges the patriarchy and white feminists in this speech. While it may be a leap, this speech takes away the idea that a woman is someone who is subservient, gentle, and white. Because of Truth, we are able to say that women can be of anything and everything and the same goes for every other gender identity, however, with intersectionality, there is now zero discounting as anyone’s identity can be made up of every kind of layer and still be the gender they desire to perform.