“It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”  

Kimberlé Crenshaw, on what intersectionality means in 2020. 

The term intersectionality can be found anywhere from social media posts to business’s mission statements to book club names, but its origin actually comes from an article published in The University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw wrote about how in the courtroom, courts often failed to address the discrimination that Black women faced because they did not look at how racism and sexism intersected to harm Black women in unique ways, which left many Black women without justice for discrimination they faced. In the courtroom and in life, people often assumed that all Black people faced racism the same way, and all women faced sexism the same way. Crenshaw argued that this was not true, explaining that Black men and women might experience racism differently, just like women of different races might experience sexism differently.  

Crenshaw’s coining this term came at a time when feminists were heavily polarized, with Black feminists often feeling they were left out of mainstream feminist goals. Just like in law, the feminist movement in the mid- to late-1900s assumed all women faced the same discrimination, and as a result, all women must be focused on fighting for the same rights. The result? White women’s needs were at the forefront of the feminist movement, while Black women’s needs were largely ignored. Prime examples include the fights for abortion access and the right to work outside the home in the ’60s and ’70s. Where white women were trying to gain employment, Black women had always historically worked outside the home. Likewise, white women were fighting for the right to not have kids, while Black women were fighting against coercive sterilization programs that were historically and even today forced on Black women, disabled people, and immigrants. The term intersectionality helped people, particularly Black women, explain how their marginalization was unique based on the intersections of race and gender, as well as other factors that led to them being discriminated against in unique ways. If you’re curious to learn more about the history of feminism and the rise of intersectionality, check out this article from Vox.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, the term intersectionality was heavily adopted by feminists seeking to analyze and bring to light the unique needs of women who had other marginalized identities, like being a person of color, unhoused, fat, or disabled. Since then, this word has grown in meaning to include all the ways that identities can intersect in order to create unique forms of discrimination. This means it is now also used to describe things like how transgender women and femmes face different forms of sexism than cisgender women, how low income disabled people face different forms of classism than non-disabled low-income individuals, and many other sorts of discrimination that happen due to intersecting marginalized identities.  

How does this relate to libraries and our communities as a whole? We can (and should!) apply our understanding of intersectionality to our workplace and daily tasks, from the way we create our policies to the books and other items we add to our collection. Paying attention to marginalized identities might look like creating policies that lower barriers to access. Recognizing, for example, that lower income patrons are significantly less likely to have a driver license and transgender patrons, especially those that are also poor, might not have IDs that list their correct name and gender, can help us create policies that allow for other types of documentation to create a library card. Similarly, recognizing that immigrants as well as people who aren’t fluent in English are both less likely to use library services, we can do outreach to immigration organizations and services, and provide materials in languages other than English both in the library and when we are out in the community. Paying attention to intersectionality might also mean adding titles to the collection that allow readers to hear from all unique perspectives about their own identities and experiences. For example, nonfiction books on feminism from authors of all races, or books on mental illness from authors of all genders or socioeconomic statuses, or purchasing own voices fiction that addresses not just what it’s like to be one marginalized identity, but multiple.   

This blog has discussed before how reading fiction fosters empathy, and since most of us can’t sympathize with all the possible intersections in marginalized identities, we can read stories at the library by and about these groups to better understand their needs and start to advocate for them. Curious to learn about the unique experiences of queer people of color? Check out The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara. What about how experiences with autism can differ based on gender? Check out The Kiss Quotient and it’s sequels by Helen Hoang. Or you just might check out one of the many different intersectional perspectives from this list.