What is Intersectionality?

the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” -Oxford Dictionaries

An image of a stick figure connected by red lines to words that represent various aspects of identity. The factors of identity surrounding the figure are education, family status, race, age, occupation, sexuality, ability, aboriginality, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, heritage/ history, geographic location, language, and religion.
Everyone carries an overlapping web of various identities with them at all times

Intersectionality is the acknowledgement that within groups of people with a common identity, whether it be gender, sexuality, religion, race, or one of the many other defining aspects of identity, there exist intragroup differences. In other words, each individual experiences social structure slightly differently because the intersection of their identities reflects an intersection of overlapping oppressions. Therefore, sweeping generalizations about the struggle or power of a particular social group fail to recognize that individuals in the group also belong to other social groups and may experience other forms of marginalization.Unfortunately, institutions and social movements based on a commonly shared identity tend to disregard the presence of other marginalized identities within the group.

Beyond institutions and social movements, many scholars have disregarded the importance of intersectionality in their respective fields, including deviance and subcultural studies. In the late 1970s, feminist subculture scholar Angela McRobbie brought an intersectional lens to her field of study when she addressed the lack of female perspectives in the exploration of subcultures. In “Girls and Subcultures,” McRobbie claims that the absence of girls in youth subculture studies reflects a lack of effort from researchers and scholars to find female perspectives rather than a lack of women in subcultures (McRobbie 1991: 1-16). Furthermore, McRobbie worked to bring a class perspective into subculture studies when she wrote about “The Culture of Working-Class Girls” (35).

Contemporary scholar T. J. Berard has expanded this intersectional approach even further, claiming that subculture scholars “need to address issues of class, race and ethnicity, sex and gender, social ecology, and issues of adolescence and human development as already intersecting” (Berard 2014: 330). When scholars fail to embrace an intersectional approach to subculture studies, they run the risk of devaluing identities and misunderstanding the various oppressions that may contribute to the culture and practices of a subculture. Studying intersectionality within subcultures not only allows social scientists to better understand subcultures, but also allows them to better understand intersectionality within mainstream society through comparison.

Intersectionality in History

Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, has acknowledged that while the word may be relatively new, the concept is anything but modern. Through a historical lens, it’s clear that the leaders of many social movements, such as the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960’s, marginalized their fellow group members by glossing over the influence of intersecting identities on social inequality. In her commonly referenced piece, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Crenshaw discusses the invisibility of the identities and oppression of black women within both the feminist movement, which devalued their black identity, and the civil rights movement, which devalued their female identity (Crenshaw 1993: 1242). Moreover, homophobia and transphobia have played a part in marginalizing queer individuals in several historical social movements (Smith 1983: 83-84, 190-201).

A black and white photograph of Audre Lorde standing in front of a blackboard that has "Women are powerful and dangerous" handwritten across it in chalk.
Audre Lorde recognized not only the power of women, but also of different races, abilities, and other marginalized identites.

Black feminists, queers, and working-class individuals combatted the lack of intersectional perspective within society by creating their own spaces to organize (Giddings 1984). Audre Lorde, for example, created an alternative feminist perspective that she called “womanist,” in which she encouraged followers to consider race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, and more in their social movements and critical analysis of societal issues (Lorde 1984). Furthermore, activists like Barbara Smith started organizations, such as the Combahee River Collective, which is “committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” (Combahee River Collective). Of course, there are many more historical examples of intersectional ignorance, oppression, and resistance, but it is useful to consider contemporary examples as well.

Although many social scientists recognize intersectionality as an important step in the history of social movements, theorists have developed different, and sometimes conflicting, interpretations of the role of intersectionality in society. However, the conceptual flexibility of intersectionality allows us to examine a wide variety of social dynamics and groups, such as subcultures, through a new lens (Davis 2008). Although subcultures often abandon social norms, racist, classist, and patriarchal systems still invade subculture spaces. Therefore, the overlapping power structures that accompany intersecting identities affect how participants of a subculture interact with each other, impact how the public views particular participants, and create the need for groups of people to form new subcultures based around their identity. Moreover, intersectional experiences within subcultures have led subculture participants to promote an intersectional analysis of systems of oppression within their own subculture through various forms of resistance.

Afro-Punk: Race, Gender, and Sexuality

Intersectional resistance certainly reveals itself in the Afro-Punk subculture. Afro-Punk is simply a subsection of the punk subculture in which the participants, individuals of color, embrace anti-hegemonic rhetoric through rock music, dark and confrontational style, and media that challenges society’s traditional values. The nature of punk’s subcultural resistance provides black Afro-Punk feminists with an avenue through which to explore how their multiple identities have shaped their experiences. By using their music and zines to “undermine the myths of a post-everything world of linearity” and promote the “transcendence and transformation of homogeneous narratives,” afro-Punk feminists have highlighted the still-existing and often overlooked racism, sexism, and homophobia that is prevalent in dominant culture (Stinson 2012: 292). Moreover, they have challenged the overplayed white, heterosexual, male-centered worldview that exists in society. It is through the music and written work that Afro-Punk feminists produce that the existence of intersecting identities can finally come to the lime-light and be understood within the context of the various oppressions these individuals face.

Afro-Punk bands like NighTraiN, for example, have used their music to integrate race, queerness, and womanist politics into the punk sphere. To address racism, NighTraiN produced a song called “Reparations” in reference to the debt that white America has to the unpaid labor of the black society it oppressed and exploited (Mahound 2012: 320). Moreover, NighTraiN has criticized sexism, as seen in their song, “Lady Cop”, in which they chastised the use of the word “bitch” to describe women (317). In addition to music, Afro-Punk feminists like Osa Atoe have used their zines as a way to communicate black feminist politics. Not only is Atoe’s Shotgun Seamstress a “zine by and for black punks” meant to “support black people who exist within predominantly white subcultures,” but it is also written to challenge all oppressions and to celebrate the uniqueness of black punks, queers, feminists, and artists (Stinson 2012: 264-265). It is clear that Afro-Punk musicians and writers like NighTraiN and Osa Atoe have worked hard to contribute an intersectional analysis to the Afro-Punk subculture by focusing on various identities and oppressions that exist within their lives.  

A photo of a male hip hop artist surrounded by scantily clad women who are covered in gold glitter as if they're trophies
A still from the movie “Hip Hop Unabridged” demonstrating the objectification of women in hip hop culture.

Hip Hop: Race and Gender

Hip Hop offers another interesting example of how complex and contradictory identities create authenticity within a subculture closely tied to music and media. Hip hop is historically a form of black cultural expression, as demonstrated by the often race-based distinction of who is “allowed” to use certain language. For example, the word “nigga is hip hop’s most powerful word, as valuable as a status symbol and resource for those who are ‘allowed’ to use it and a means of both dividing ‘authentic’ rappers from fake and creating race-based distinctions between different groups of rappers” (Harkness 2008: 41). However, this criteria for authenticity does not necessarily place black women above white men, as many “gangsta-rap” lyrics are blatantly sexist and derogatory to black women (Stapleton 1998). This misogynoir not only demonstrates the potential of identities to clash with each other, but helps explain the dangers of only considering one aspect of identity when discussing privilege and oppression.

Fan Culture: Gender and Sexuality

This image shows three male actors of Game of Thrones posing for a celebrity picture next to one another with their arms behind each other's backs. The text at the top of the page, above their heads, reads, "Did you hear that?", and at the bottom of the page reads, "It's the sound of a million fangirls fainting".
A meme criticizing fangirl interest in the television show Game of Thrones.

Complex and intersecting identities not only lead to the creation of nuanced subcultures such as afro-punk and hip-hop, but also contribute to how certain individuals interact with the subculture they identify with. Certain identities carry different social capital, despite the fact that participants in a subculture may have similar interests, styles, or aspects of identity. For example, both participants in fan culture and members of dominant culture perceive women negatively. Media often portrays fangirls as desperate and crazy, while fanboys are generally given more leniency and often have redeeming qualities: “Fanboys are allowed more agency and can be heroes, whereas fangirls are either invisible or weak yet odd girls” (Busse 2013).

Gender, and in particular female sexuality, also plays a role in authenticity within the subculture. Male fans often accuse female fans of being fans for the “wrong” reasons, such as being attracted to an actor. Moreover, men in fan culture often claim that female fans are participating in the culture the “wrong” way when they write erotic fan-fiction that often caters more toward female perspectives (Busse 2013). This gendered policing of participation in fan culture reflects an aspect of dominant social culture: fear and negative perception of female sexuality. Fans express their fear of “unconventional sexualities” not only through disdain for female sexuality, but also through judgement of queer fan-fiction. Although “fandoms have become safe spaces not just for geeky behavior but also for expressing one’s identities and sexualities” (Busse 2013), many straight male fans devalue queer fan-fiction, which is a common avenue for queer fans to not only participate in the subculture, but also explore their own identity. 

Gamers: Race and Gender

Gaming subculture constitutes yet another space in which individuals within and outside of the subculture attack and marginalize the identities of women, in particular women of color. Millions of people play video games, 1.2 billion to be exact; with so many players, it is inevitable that revelations and discussions about how these players interact take place. Since the early 2000s, the most substantial and controversial conversations held within these discussions have concerned feminism. Several franchises and organizations such as Unity and TEDx have hosted seminars, workshops, and presentations to discuss the roles and positions of women in the video game industry. However, despite work towards equality for women in the industry, participants in these discussions consistently and systemically leave women of color out of the conversations; as blogger Hazel Allen points out, it isn’t that women of color are not represented in video games, it’s just that those women are often blue, purple, or green.

Besides fantastical colors, women of color are horribly represented in video games and are harassed online in ways indistinguishable from GamerGate. Jef Rouner shines light on the fact that there are only 14 playable black female characters in video games. Despite these facts, there has been little to no public effort made to discuss or change this lack of representation, even though members of the videogame industry recognize that videogames can and have been used as a platform to fight racial injustices such as police brutality. Scarcity of discussion surrounding the lack of representation and commonplace harassment of women of color contributes to the shallow statistics surrounding women of color in the industry; only 17% of gamers identify as women of color, and less than 5 % of game developers are women of color (Ong 2016).

An image of six bronies dressed as characters from the show. Four of the fans are male. Each of the fans is dressed in a different costume involving bright colors, pony ears, and a unicorn horn.
A picture of Bronies at a convention in Ohio.

Bronies: Age and Gender

On the other side of the gender spectrum, there are situations in which participants of subcultural spheres challenge the identities of older men. Media and citizens alike often ridicule bronies, adult male fans of the children’s show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” for enjoying a show directed towards female children. The television show, developed in soft, pastel colors, features several feminine ponies who develop strong friendships and learn lessons through their adventures (Robertson 2014). Bronies not only demonstrate how identities impact the way in which subculturists relate to their scene, but also show how multiple identities interact to further change the social meaning of their subcultural participation. Adult male fans of the show often face strong stigma because they violate not only gender rules, but age rules. While outsiders might consider adult female fans of the show odd for enjoying a children’s program, they often see adult male fans as “creepy” and similar to pedophiles (Robertson 2014).

What Can We Learn from Intersectionality?

Although intersectionality originated as a way for black women to adapt and relate to feminism, the lens of intersectionality can be used to understand a wide variety of social interactions and complex social hierarchies. While this lens helps alert us to just how complicated these hierarchies and interactions are, the lack of a clear methodology on how to use intersectionality to bring about social justice makes intersectionality studies a developing and complicated field. However, the intersectionality that we have observed in many subcultures not only confirms the importance of considering intersectionality in social science studies, but also helps demonstrate that subcultures are more than simply a style of music or dress; subcultures contain their own social meanings that both contradict and confirm dominant social structures. Moreover, by comparing and contrasting examples of intersectionality within subcultures with mainstream society, we can better understand how intersectionality plays such an integral role in such a variety of aspects of social life. 

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Below is a list of videos, interviews, and movies related to intersectionality theory and intersectionality in subcultures.

There is No Hierarchy of Oppressions (2014)- Audre Lorde

This is a spoken-word video of an essay written by Audre Lorde about intersectionality.

The Urgency of Intersectionality (2016)- Kimberle Crenshaw

This talk by Kimberle Crenshaw introduces some key concepts of intersectionality through the lens of race and gender while highlighting its role in social issues.

The New Black (2013) – Yoruba Richen

A study on the complex response of black communities to the debate on gay marriage. This documentary explores how black, queer people experience the intersection of these identities and the homophobia that is part of black culture. It also explores the notion that being gay is “the new black” through both of these cultures and identities.

An Interview with Limp Wrist (2010)

An interview with member of the band Limp-wrist: a queercore band that combined the values and style of straight-edge and punk with their sexuality.

Afropunk (2013) – James Spooner

This documentary explores the complexity of the black identity and how race within the punk scene led to the formation of afropunk.

I Love Hip Hop In Morocco (2007) – Jennifer Needle, Joshua Asen

This explores how hip hop groups in Morocco navigate the challenges of participating in hip hop culture within the context of the Arab world, including the intersections of religion and gender within the scene.

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This is the front cover of Patricia Collin's book, Intersectionality: Key Concepts. The cover shows red logs that are stacked on top of one another. In the top right corner, there is text that reads, "Intersectionality", and then mentions the two authors, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge.Collins, Patricia Hill and Bilge, Sirma. 2016.
Intersectionality: Key Concepts. Cambridge: Polity Press. This book is an introduction to the influence of intersecting identities in human rights, social conflict, and cultural scenes such as hip hop and sports. 


This is the front cover of Kimberle Crenshaw's Intersectionality: Essential Writings. The front cover is a plain yellow background, with text on the front that reads the title of the book and the author's name. The word, "intersectionality" is written vertically, with the words, "essential writings, kimberle crenshaw" intersecting horizontally with various letters in the word, "intersectionality". Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2015. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. New York: New Press. This book is comprised of several essays and articles that define and examine the concept of intersectionality.


Scholarly Articles

Berard, T. J. 2014. “The Study of Deviant Subcultures as a Longstanding and Evolving Site of Intersecting Membership Categorizations.Human Studies 37:317–34. In this article, Berard expands the scope of intersectional perspectives of deviance, crime, and subcultures.

Busse, Kristina. 2013. “Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Gendering of the Good Fan.” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 10(1): 73-91. An overview of the complex social rules, structures, and stigmas that determine how geeks and fans are perceived.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. “Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy” The Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science 568: 41-53. This article describes some of the background theories of identities developed by Du Bois that paved the way for contemporary discussion on intersecting identities.

Combahee River Collective. 1977. “A Black Feminist Statement”. Combahee River Collective. This statement informs readers of the Combahee River Collective’s goals and values.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality , Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6):1241–99. In this article, Crenshaw examines the violence women of color face within the context of their intersecting identities.

Davis, Kathy. 2008. “Intersectionality as Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful.” Feminist Theory 9: 67-85. An article that explores the merits of intersectionality as a tool for social science research and understanding feminist issues.

Giddings, Paula. 1984. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Quill William Morrow. In this book, Paula Giddings examines the history of black women’s activism, professionalism, and art. Many of the activists talked about in this book have organized in ways that address intersectionality.

Harkness, Geoff. 2008. “Hip Hop Culture and America’s Most Taboo Word”. Contexts. 7(3): 38-42. This article examines the use of the n-word in the hip-hop subculture, and how the word is used to demonstrate authenticity based on race.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press. This book is a collection of essays written by Audre Lorde, many of which address the issue of intersectionality and the need to embrace rather than merely tolerate difference.

Mahmoud, Jasmine. 2012. “Black Love? Black Love!: All Aboard the Presence of Punk in Seattle’s NighTraiN.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 22(2-3):315–23. Mahound explores in this article, the work of Afro-Punk band NighTraiN, and the efforts of the band to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

McCall, Leslie. 2005. “The Complexity of Intersectionality” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30(3):1771-1800. This article offers the perspective of a leading intersectionality theorist about methods of studying intersectionality and using it to better society.

McRobbie, Angela. 2014. Feminism and Youth Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. 2012. “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 22(2-3):173–96. Here, the efforts of Riot Grrrl bands to challenge -isms within society and within Afro-Punk subculture is examined.

Robertson, Venetia Laura Delano. 2014. “Of Ponies and Men: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the Brony Fandom.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 17(1): 21-37. This article addresses the stigma adult, male fans of My Little Pony face because of gender and age policing.

Smith, Barbara. 1983. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. This is a collection of short stories, essays, and poetry written by women of color. Various essays and poetry entries in this book acknowledge the invisibility of and aggression towards black queer women.

Stapleton, Katina R. 1998. “From the Margins to Mainstream: The Political Power of Hip-HopMedia, Culture & Society 20: 219-234. An article examining the historical and social complexities of hip hop music and culture.

Stinson, Elizabeth. 2012. “Writing Zines, Playing Music, and Being a Black Punk Feminist: An Interview with Osa Atoe.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 22(2-3):261–74. In this interview, Osa Atoe talks about the work she has done in her zine, Shotgun Seamstress, in which she tackles issues of race, gender, queerness, and more.

Other Resources

Ong, S. (2016, October 13). The Video Games Industry’s Problem with Racial Diversity [Newsgroup post]. Retrieved from Newsweek website: http://www.newsweek.com/2016/10/21/video-games-race-black-protagonists-509328.html The article discusses how people react to the representation of people of color in video games, especially in Mafia’s new release Mafia 3 in which the lead character is black.

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