Emma DeGraffenreid and the Intersectionality Metaphor


Written by Sara Rivera

The term intersectionality has become popular in recent years. We hear and use it frequently, but few people know what is behind it. Therefore, learning what intersectionality really means and how it originated is essential to understand how discrimination works in our society.

Who was Emma DeGraffenreid?

The term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia Law School and at UCLA School of Law, after her chance encounter with Emma DeGraffenreid. Emma, along with other black women, sued General Motors in 1976 for discrimination, claiming the company did not hire them because of their race and gender. The judge dismissed the lawsuit because General Motors had black and women employees. However, the issue that Emma was raising was that black workers at the company, who usually performed industrial jobs, were men. Equally, women employees at General Motors, who generally did secretarial work, were white. The judge refused to allow Emma to combine her race and gender claims because he believed that would give her preferential treatment. However, neither black men nor white women experienced simultaneous oppression from both frontlines.

What is intersectionality?

At that time, the problem did not have a name, and it was difficult for individuals to incorporate new facts into their way of thinking. Kimberlé came up with the analogy of an intersection that might allow judges to see Emma’s dilemma. The roads to the intersection were the way that the workforce was structured by race and gender. Given Emma was black and female, she was positioned where those roads overlapped and experienced more than one level of social injustice. Intersectionality is a metaphor for understanding how several forms of inequality or disadvantage compound themselves and create obstacles that are not understood within conventional ways of thinking about discrimination. It focuses on how structural, systemic, political, social and geographical factors interact with identity factors to shape experiences. Other examples of intersections include homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, heterosexism, classism, and ableism.

What is not intersectionality?

Some mistakenly think intersectionality is about how many identities people have. However, it is not just that; intersectionality reveals how structures can make particular identities a vehicle for vulnerability. To know how many identities matter, we need to understand the context and the institutional structures that contribute to the exclusion of some and not others.

Why is it relevant?

Intersectionality failures have traditionally shaped politics. Feminist arguments have historically taken racial hierarchy as their baseline. In the case of early suffragists in the US, it was their racial affinities with white men. They thought that giving the right to vote to black men over white women was insulting. Similarly, antiracist advocacy that does not incorporate feminism has reinforced patriarchy and sexism. When feminism and antiracism are non-intersectional, they often end up harming each other. We still see this in contemporary politics, which undermines the struggles of women and people of colour.



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