Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the leading scholars of critical race theory, developed the idea of intersectionality. Intersectionality is the overlap of systems of discrimination, such as race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc. Essentially, this idea states that the disadvantages conveyed through the possession of minority identities come together to create a unique experience of privilege and power for that individual.
A simple example of this is black women. We have studied the various forms of subjugation that black people have faced in a society full of white privilege. Therefore, this group of people faces discrimination for their minority racial identity. However, there are also ways that women are marginalized in society, in regards to issues such as unequal pay and sexualization of the female body. Black women have to struggle with both of these systems of inequality. Hence, the experience of being a black woman is distinct from that of being a white woman or a black man, as multiple minority identities are intersecting with one another. Black women are not privileged in either category. This intersectionality is made even more complex by the inclusion of other identities, and they ultimately all come together to determine power in society, specific to each individual.
On our own campus, students must balance intersectional identities all the time. There was actually a substantial conflict earlier in the year between Vanderbilt Feminists and STRANDS, which is a student organization that focuses on uplifting black women. In attempting to plan an event together, Vandy Fems diminished the voices and opinions of black women, trying to focus simply on their experiences as women for the purpose of the event instead of trying to understand their lives as women of color.
This idea of intersectionality is especially relevant in relation to our class discussion regarding the importance of class in the scene we watched from The Great Gatsby. We considered the distinctions between the black and white experience in the apartment scene specifically, and it was very apparent that they lived different lives. Yet, even within the apartment, the men were being physically aggressive to the females, showing the intersectionality of race and gender. The women were of the privileged race, but not the privileged gender. There were also class disparities, as the men came from wealthier, higher class society and the women were from lower socioeconomic status and social position. So, looking at the experience of someone like Myrtle, she has white privilege but is not on the same level as the men because she is also a lower-class woman.
Intersectionality is a concept that most do not think about, but that plays a larger role in our lives than we normally consider. We spend a lot of time balancing our identities, focusing on the most relevant one based on the situation we are in. Yet, understanding how they all interact is a key facet to truly understanding those around us and respecting people for the diversity of backgrounds and ideas they bring. You cannot understand the intersectionality of identities that are different than your own, because those are lived experiences that you do not have to draw from. Understanding yourself and others takes the patience to unravel the complex web that different identities and structures of privilege create to make each individual a distinct entity with different abilities and powers than you may see in your own life.