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Intersectionality: Understanding Discrimination and Identity in Society

By Aneeqa Tariq

“The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.” - Eric Berne

Discrimination is an act of making baseless and unjustified distinctions among a set of people. These distinctions regulate our treatment of others, our way of living, and our modes of thinking. We form a prejudice against those who we see as separate from us. We establish categories and later typologies by ranking people or various social groups based on our prejudiced point of view. At that moment, we become sparrows and robins and pigeons; we are no longer birds that flock together. We lose our sense of a community and we begin understanding ourselves and in turn others, with tags and labels.


When a typology is established, people placed at the bottom of the pyramid are at a disadvantage. The classifying bodies are often the people in power, and they exact their authority to maintain their guise of superiority. Consequently, the rights and values of the underprivileged are negated. It is hard to narrow down the exact reason that leads to such a prejudicial view of the world, but it can be best encapsulated in the idea of structure. Human beings are conditioned to view the world, objects of the world, and ideas as existing in a structure. A structure facilitates generating an understanding of our universe. Language, like other social constructions, is also a structure that enables us to classify our view of the world. The signs we see, for instance, a stop sign, regulates our structure of law and traffic.


Likewise, people of a society are judged and classified because of certain generalised physical traits. One’s colour, age, height, gender, and ethnicity are all generalising factors that become traits for creating an inherent bias or fear. Theorists who study the psyche of the human mind have produced numerous explanations for this social-psychological discrimination. The theory of Social Identity presumes that a human relies on a group. Their group becomes the centre of their identity and belonging to that group awards them with a sense of security and power. If they see their group as superior and mightier, it boosts their self-esteem.

On the other hand, it also means that they see others (non-members) or members of other groups as inferior. This discrimination entails refusing access to resources or services to those who they see as others to enhance and maintain their superior position. Fear takes root in their minds that corrodes any future possibilities of collaboration and harmony among groups.

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”- Bertrand Russell


  • A number of various biases have emerged with time. In fact, labels have been coined to differentiate between them. A few of them are:

  • Racism (discrimination against race)

  • Xenophobia (bias against ethnicities)

  • Sexism (against a gender)

  • Transphobia (bias against transgender people)

  • Ableism (bias against someone with a disability)

  • Classism (discrimination based on class)

  • Lookism (discrimination based on appearance)

  • Anti-Semitism/Islamophobia (etc.) (bias against one’s religion)


How does our understanding of science and human beings allow us to investigate this bias? Simple. We try to unearth the hidden structures and patterns in society and analyse the social behaviours adopted by people throughout the globe. Intersectionality was introduced as a mode of analysis and a framework for investigating a social problem or social class affected by discrimination. In this focalised study, we consider the overlapping identities, experiences of the people, and their living conditions. By analysing these situations in a comparative or case study, we develop an understanding of the disadvantages of discrimination.

Why study Intersectionality?

The theoretical paradigm of Intersectionality discerns that there are certain identity markers ruling our social structures. These tags (for instance, female, black, Hispanic) converge with each other to create oppression since they are all influenced and informed by each other. Say, a white receives ten dollars for his work, compared to that a white woman would receive six dollars, while a black man would receive only five. Now, a black woman, who is tackling two identity markers, will make even less. These biases are now well-rooted in our social structures, and intersectionality enables us to comprehend and combat them.

How did this study originate?

The theory emerged in the 1960s when black women voiced their opinion against middle-class, white dominance in feminist movements. These black women found it increasingly impossible to identify with the problems raised by white feminists. For instance, black women were shut out of any leadership roles during the Civil Rights movements. So, in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a social theorist, coined the term intersectionality.

How does Intersectionality help us in life?

Intersectionality became a useful tool for establishing social equity. Organisations and community workers join hands to direct our attention towards more engaging conversations about the overlap of identities and the experiences of those people. Equity among social groups may be discovered by locating injustices in society. This injustice may be toward members of one group or towards a set of different social groups. Intersectionality naturalises an easy-going conversation on prevalent social inequities. It provides an insight into the mental and physical health disparities that emerge in women of different ethnicities that do not belong to the privileged group. Intersectionality also enlightens the youth of the importance of identity in society, and how its protection is a right of every social being.

“Understanding the interconnected nature of oppression will help us realize the interconnected nature of liberation.” - Aditi Mayer

Why is Intersectionality often disregarded?

Intersectionality is misconceived by conservatives as a strategy for political uprise or subversion of social hierarchy. It is seen as a caste system where minorities are given preference. They claim that such a mindset promotes the ideas of solipsism and disunity among the people. Advocates of this misconception regard intersectionality as a scale that informs you of how oppressed you are and places you as a helpless victim. However, these people do not deny the principles of overlapping which the theory of intersectionality presents, in fact, they are merely threatened by the upending of hierarchies it foreshadows. And this is exactly the point which intersectionality, and through it, Crenshaw and other theorists are trying to make. Intersectionality allows us to break from social hierarchies altogether.


Fascinated by the social and academic implications of this field of theoretical and practical study, Fatima Al-Fihri Open University offers a comprehensive course in Intersectionality. Since the subject stretches across vast topics, the university’s module focuses on a very important matter of our daily lives that work with Intersectionality: Migration. The module focuses on how different identity markers play a different role in social spheres. Essentially in the process of migrating from one place to another. One needs to focus on recognising the differences between different communities, use dignified language, analyse the surrounding atmosphere and behaviours, understand opposing perspectives, and relate emotionally and logically to others. Intersectionality, in this way, not only informs us of our present living conditions but allows us to prepare for what lies beyond our experience in a world of change and diversity.


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