Intersectionality, which was first named by the civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, is the theory that people are uniquely disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers.”
Defined this way, intersectionality is, at least trivially, true. Most people don’t possess the most socially advantageous combination of attributes, and thus contend with multiple limiting factors in their environment. Moreover, if you’re in an environment that oppresses, say, black people, women, and the poor, if you’re in all three categories, you’re more likely to face more oppression.
However, it doesn’t follow that, given a person’s identity markers and no other information, you can reliably establish the degree to which they’re oppressed.
Suppose you have the choice between being born as a lower-class black or a lower-class white female, and you’re making the choice based exclusively on economic outcomes. Given that information alone, choosing to be white is reasonable: the US Census Bureau says that, on average, in 2017, white women earned $10,000 more than black women.
But what if we complicate the choice somewhat? Let’s stipulate that, if you choose to be white, you’re born in Qulin, Missouri, a town of 456 that’s 96% white. Undoubtedly, it would be good to be in the racial majority there, but you’d have to contend with rampant opioid use and you’d also have to assume that you’d earn the average per capita income, $17315. Meanwhile, if you choose to be black, in this updated version, you’re born in New York, where, to be sure, there are impediments to your progress, but there are also nonprofits devoted to giving your identity group free computer science education. This might cause you to reconsider.
Geography is just one compounding factor we could add to the equation, among attractiveness, parentage, and many others. But even one such addition illustrates that a few identity categories alone are insufficient indicators of a total level of fortune.
Additionally, differences in fortune between groups don’t necessarily indicate oppression as we commonly recognize it. For example, anthropologist John Ogbu, in his book-length study of black students in Stockton California, Black American Students in An Affluent Suburb, concluded that a major factor in lower educational achievement in the black cohort was that “parents did not monitor adequately television watching [and] they did not monitor their children’s friendships.” In other words, intersectional identity wasn’t the differentiating factor in school achievement, as would be predicted by a simple application of intersectional doctrine. It was parenting style.
It could be argued that this factor does fall under a richer definition of “oppression” than the common one, in which we include maladaptive differences in, for example, local cultural norms and parenting styles. Such a granular, sophisticated cataloguing of limiting factors in an individual’s life would most likely do a better job of predicting their outcomes than a simple reading of their identity group.
It would also undercut a broad, unsophisticated application of the concept of intersectionality.