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The “New” Intersectionality?

Intersectionality has been popular in sociolinguistics for several decades (Eckert 1989; and others). The notion of intersectionality has been widely interpreted in sociolinguistics as meaning that we should shift our focus away from looking at broad identity categories singly (eg “women”), or simply adding socio-demographic categories together additively. Many writers suggest that doing intersectional research requires us to attend to the lived experiences of people who face multiple oppression, to understand how axes of social differentiation interact and produce social inequalities, and how these are constructed or resisted (Levon 2015, Levon and Beline Mendes 2016, Wong 2016).

The enthusiasm with which the call to intersectional research has been articulated by sociolinguists is laudable, and I share my colleagues’ keenness to see this research tradition continue. I want to suggest that doing intersectional research requires us to be mindful of intersectionality scholarship’s long history, and integrate it into our teaching and research practice.

Intersectionality has a vibrant history, and few frameworks in linguists' collective analytic toolbox that can claim so long a lineage. While Crenshaw’s influential work is usually credited with coining the word intersectionality, she explicitly grounds her own work in the activism and scholarship of thinkers like Cooper (1892) who spoke out over a century ago about the gendered impact of racial injustices under the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation in the Southern United States; and Wells (1894), who powerfully critiqued the discourses of the lynching men of color as supposedly protecting women from sexual violence (Crenshaw 1989, 2014). Some scholars, such as Anzaldúa and many First Nations writers, also attribute intersectional activism and scholarship to First Nations traditions (Anzaldúa 1987, Yee 2011). Related concepts have also arisen in other times and places, such as in anti-slavery discourses

Describing intersectionality work as “recent” (Levon 2015; and others) -- however well intentioned the description might be – erases that long history of scholarship that extends over generations, erasing precisely those insights, contributions, and perspectives, and lived experiences, that the intersectionality tradition has most sought to centre (May 2014). That erasure in turn perspectivally centers relatively-privileged academics’ perspectives over the long history of scholarship and resistance that has its roots in indigenous and abolitionist tradition. As Collins and hooks point out, not citing or attributing foundational work by women of color sets up a hierarchy in which relatively-privileged White academics are seen as “scholars” who write “theory”, while women of color are seen as writing “biography” (Collins 2000, hooks 2000; and others).

If the aim of intersectional research is to integrate lived experience into theory -- and Levon (2015) argues that this is essential to getting intersectional work “right” for both empirical and political reasons -- then the erasure of foundational intersectionality work from the scholarly canon is a serious empirical and political problem for sociolinguistics research that seeks to be intersectional. Attribution is an important component of the “nothing about us without us” principle of feminist research, and we can and should be reading, citing, engaging with, and teaching foundational intersectionality work. Like Crenshaw, I see the challenge of intersectionality today as being one of not only addressing the social injustices that have given rise to the many articulations of intersectionality, but also to resist the disembodiment of women of color from intersectionality itself (Crenshaw 2014). I look forward to seeing sociolinguists rise to that challenge.

Email: a dot candelas at qmul dot ac dot uk Web:


Anzaldúa, Gloria E. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco, California: Aunt Lute Books, first edition.

Cooper, Anna Julia. 1892. A Voice from the South. Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Printing Company.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York and London: Routledge, second edition.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum. 139-167.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2014. Justice Rising: moving intersectionally in the age of post-everything. LSE Public lecture. 26 Mar 2014. Available from:

Eckert, Penelope. 1989. The Whole Woman: Sex and gender differences in variation. Language Variation and Change 1: 245-267.

hooks, bell. 2000. Feminist Theory: From margin to center. London: Pluto Press, second edition.

Levon, Erez, 2015. Integrating Intersectionality in Language, Gender, and Sexuality Research. Langauge and Linguistics Compass. 9(7): 295-308.

Levon, Erez and Beline Mendes, Ronald. 2016. Introduction: Locating sexuality in language. In Erez Levon and Ronald Beline Mendes (eds.), Language, Sexuality, and Power: Studies in Intersectional Sociolinguistics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 1-18.

May, Vivian M. 2014. “Speaking into the Void?” Intersectionality critiques and epistemic backlash. Hypatia. 29(1): 94-112.

Wells, Ida B. 1894. Southern Horrors: Lynch law in all its phases. Project Gutenberg. Last accessed: 30 May 2016. Available from:

Wong, Andrew D. 2016. How Does Oppression Work? Insights from Hong Kong lesbians' labeling practices. In Erez Levon and Ronald Beline Mendes (eds.), Language, Sexuality, and Power: Studies in Intersectional Sociolinguistics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 19-38.

Yee, Jessica (ed.). 2011. Feminism For Real: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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