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Law Student Insights on Critical Race and Feminist Legal Theory Series (Part 1)

By Joella Methola, UDSL 3L 


In the Fall of 2022, law students were introduced to Critical Race Theory and Feminist Legal Theory taught by Dr. Satang Nabaneh. During the course of the semester, they learned about the concepts and critically reflected on how to utilize these critical lenses to effect social justice through legal institutions. This series captures some students' reflections on key legal and social issues. 

Intersectionality Today

Intersectionality is a lens that critical race and feminist legal theory use to examine how different forms of inequality interact and exacerbate each other. Merriam-Webster defines intersectionality as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” In simpler terms, intersectionality is the idea that discrimination or privilege can be personalized to an individual based on several aspects of their being, such as race, sex, gender, ethnicity, disability, religion, socioeconomic status, sexuality, first language, and more. People are complex; you cannot define them or their experiences by only acknowledging one part of themselves. Each part of a person’s identity comes together to affect how they are treated.

The Columbia Journalism Review dives deep into the origins of the word intersectionality and discusses how the term comes from the word “interlocking”. The term “interlocking” was first used by the Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian activist organization, in 1974. It was used to address the concept that there were “simultaneously interlocking oppressions'' that existed at the time. As a black and lesbian organization, the group understood how different parts of one’s identity plays into privilege and discrimination. The organization's goal was to recognize that major systems of oppression were, in fact, “interlocking” so that they could dismantle the system. 

The term intersectionality was officially coined by legal scholar and professor Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. The Ohio native created this term to express her observation that traditional feminist ideas often excluded women that were black. At the same time, she identified that antiracist policies excluded women. She felt that no one had addressed black women and their intersectional experience with both racism and sexism. She describes these approaches as a single-axis framework because they fail to view black women as they are and force them to trap themselves into only one part of their identity. 

Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has spread rapidly across the nation. The term was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2015, and in 2017, the theory gained more attention when it was spoken about at the Women’s March. A strong example of how relevant the theory is today is the way women of color experience the wage gap. Women of color have had their work undervalued and have experienced wage inequality since the founding of this country and, in the case of slavery, not valued at all. Fields that are predominantly occupied by women are stigmatized. Women of color are paid less than white women, the lowest paid woman in America is a Latina woman. When the wage gap is talked about amongst feminists, the conversation is usually focused on the wage gap that white women face while ignoring the additional gap women of color face. 

Using the lens of intersectionality, it is clear that there are two truths: white women are facing challenges when it comes to the wage gap, and women of color are facing even more challenges when it comes to the wage gap. Since both of these truths can co-exist because people experience privilege and discrimination differently based on their own characteristics, white women should acknowledge these truths and work to include women of color in the narrative. In order to be a champion for all women, all women’s narratives and challenges should be discussed. 

While it is positive that more people hear about intersectionality, some people now see it as a trigger word. Just as critical race theory is becoming a controversial and political topic, so is intersectionality. When it comes to intersectionality, it usually is not the meaning of the theory itself that people find issues with. The theory that people experience discrimination and privilege differently based on certain aspects of themselves is almost indisputable. The most common issue with the theory is its application. Some people believe that the theory will be used to try and create new hierarchies where people who are seen to be more privileged will be placed at the bottom. However, this is far from the truth. 

Applying this theory aims to dismantle social and racial hierarchies, not create new ones. The goal is to take away these unjust power dynamics in our laws, norms, and politics to create a fair and equal playing field for everyone. This is not a shifting of power, it is the management in more equitable ways. The challenge is that those with more privilege mistakenly see other people’s gain as a loss to themselves rather than a benefit to others. Relatedly, another issue that some people have with intersectionality is that they do not like the idea of “checking your privilege.” Analyzing one’s privilege is not a comfortable conversation for privileged people to have. However, despite their discomfort, these uncomfortable conversations must take place in order to produce change. Uncomfortable conversations serve to broaden our perspectives so that we can learn and grow. Real change can only be done through conversations about difficult topics. 

In sum, intersectionality goes beyond traditional frameworks in order to evaluate systems of oppression. Privilege and discrimination should not be analyzed using a one-dimensional framework. In addition, to promote comprehensive change, people need to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. Intersectionality is not meant to redraw existing hierarchies but to eliminate hierarchies, so everyone is treated equally. In order to achieve this level of change, a lot of work must be done; however, real change is possible through listening, having hard conversations, lifting up the voices of the oppressed, and challenging our current system.  


Joella Methola is a first generation college graduate and law school student. She graduated from St. Mary’s University with a bachelor's degree in Political Science in 2020. She is Latinx and is from the border city of El Paso, Texas. Joella has a background in advocacy and human rights work. She worked on advocating against detaining children at the border and spoke to State Representatives about creating a more humane democracy. She founded the first San Antonio, Texas chapter of Voto Latino and helped with statewide movements such as Voto Latino’s “National Voter Registration Day.” In addition, she has also worked with students all over the U.S. to push moments such as “Take The Census, Get That Bread.” She was also featured on the Good Morning America’s Caller-Times Series “Barriers to the Ballot Box” in 2020.

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