These two terms have been thrown out a lot recently, especially during and in light of America’s last election cycle. Because they’re relatively new to our social dictionary, it seems like a lot of people have conflated them with each other and as a result, dismissed or derailed very necessary and important conversation. I want to say I can understand a little bit of why the two get confused: first of all, every human in this world wants to believe they are unique and different from everybody else. And of course, in some senses we all are. That’s part of the beautiful tension we live in, that we are at once distinctly ourselves and exactly like everyone else. So when someone starts talking about how they’re particularly disadvantaged because they are a gay Hispanic man, or a disabled black woman, if we’re not paying attention it’s easy to think they’re just naming personal traits about themselves and turning them into political data points. It’s easy to think they’re playing “Identity Politics”. And if they can do that, why can’t a blonde woman say that she is a minority because only 1-2% of the population is blonde? Or a man with red hair and blue eyes say that he is also oppressed because, having the most unique hair/eye color combination in the world, he never sees himself represented in the media?
The issue is that while identity politics allows us to indulge in our “personal uniqueness” and draw party lines accordingly, intersectionality is not based in individuality, but rather on systems of power that create compounding disadvantages for those of us who don’t match the hegemony. So for example: racism is a thing right? A process by which people of color are systemically disadvantaged to the benefit of white people. And sexism is a thing: a process by which women are systemically disadvantaged to the benefit of men. With both of those systems of oppression in place, women of color face compounding disadvantages that men of color and white women do not experience. Taking it further: heterosexism and ableism are also things—systems of power by which homosexual and disabled people are systemically disadvantaged, respectively. So a disabled, homosexual, woman of color is under even more of the weight of these oppressive systems than someone might be who fit the hegemony in any of these areas. Of course, these things can overlap in various ways and there are other systems of privilege that I did not mention. The point is not to see who can win at being the most disadvantaged, the point is simply to recognize the intricacies of how we experience privilege or, more often, the lack thereof.
I think people don’t like to talk about intersectionality, or prefer to dismiss it as “identity politics” because a) it requires complex thought about the multilayered systems of oppression we’ve created and b) people think it’s easy to get in the weeds about the individual things that divide us rather than "focusing on the things that unite us" *half eyeroll*. I mean of course I’m all for unity but I cannot support unity on the basis of erasure. An understanding of intersectionality is integral to true unity. For example, with Feminism, intersectionality is vital because without understanding how various systems of oppression have affected women differently, we cannot adequately support each other, or even properly reference history. If we go around championing how “women got the right to vote 100 years ago!”, we completely ignore the black, Hispanic, Asian, and transgendered women that were unseen until more recent years; we cut ourselves off from each other. But if we can widen our lens to see everyone’s journey through systemic oppression, we can strengthen our resolve to dismantle it in all forms.