Chapter 2: Recognize Intersectional Oppression


In this chapter, you will build upon your understanding of privilege to explore how different characteristics of personal and social identity interact to generate unique barriers to full and inclusive participation in society.

  • What is oppression?  What is prejudice?  How does it manifest at the individual and systemic levels?
  • What is intersectionality?
  • How can an intersectional approach be used to analyze and dismantle systems of oppression?

We will carefully and critically revisit some of the learning activities from Chapter 1, tracing the underlying roots of discrimination and oppression. Then, we will introduce the concept of intersectionality and explore how it can be practiced in EDI work. Additionally, we will, provide some helpful tips for you to reflect on your role to push social change.


Learning Outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Define oppression, prejudice, and intersectionality;
  2. Explain how systems of oppression function differently depending upon the intersection of one’s identity characteristics; and
  3. Compare the effects of systems of oppression when multiple and compounding systems of oppression are involved.



In Chapter 1, we asked you to reflect on your own experience and write down five privileges that described some of the automatic advantages you hold. You probably noticed that these five privileges were largely dependent on your identity, and they very likely differed from your roommates’, your friends’ or even your closest relatives’ five privileges. This is because each of us hold distinct individual identity markers, and authentic lived experiences. We all have privileges in certain aspects of our lives, such as right-handedness (as discussed in the previous chapter).  However, our various identity markers can also place us at a disadvantage. For instance, a disability can place us at an unearned disadvantage in comparison to able-bodied people. Thus, the extent of our advantages or disadvantages varies depending on our various identity markers such as: gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, physical ability, size, weight, citizenship, religious affiliation, or educational level.

In contrast, oppression, or unearned disadvantage, disproportionately impacts various social and identity groups, such as equity-deserving groups (i.e., racialized persons, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, women-identified individuals, and 2SLGBTQIA+ members). There are different forms of oppression, such as sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, and other forms of “isms,” phobias, and discriminations, which operate at individual and systemic levels.


Oppression, n., originates from Latin oppressiōn, which defines acts or processes that repeatedly target the same people for harm just because they are members of a particular group (Merriam-Webster). Oppression involves holding someone back or pushing someone down. Its first known use in the English language was in the 14th century and is modernly used to describe “prejudice and discrimination of one social group against another that are backed by legal authority and historical, social, institutional and structural power” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017).

Prejudice, n., from Latin praejudicium, which describes previous judgement and/or damage (Merriam-Webster). The term prejudice can be broadly defined as an unfair feeling of dislike for either someone, something, or a group of people. In the context of EDI, prejudice is projected judgement and assumption rooted in stereotype, which refers to over-generalized pattern to a fixed group of people. Prejudice is often based on limited knowledge or experience, and is about members of social groups to which we do not belong (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017).

Prejudice often presents as disfavor of people outside your social group. When we act on our prejudice, we are demonstrating discrimination.


Privilege & Oppression (Individual and Systemic Levels)

Oppression at the individual level occurs when thoughts, attitudes and behaviours affect relationships with other social and identity groups due to existing prejudices or biases. Examples of this include the use of derogatory terms that can equate disability with brokenness, or femininity with weakness or wrongness (i.e., “cries like a girl”). Oppression at the individual level may be more readily apparent to people because we may see it or experience it person-to-person (for example, hearing a racist joke or cultural slur). However, this form of oppression can also occur in more subtle ways, such as microaggressions. Microaggressions are the “brief everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to people of colour [Indigenous peoples, 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, persons with disabilities, immigrants, women], whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their identity group membership” (Wing Sue, et al., 2007). These individual attitudes are based on broader cultural narratives, beliefs, and thoughts, which normalize certain patterns of seeing, thinking, and acting towards others.

Oppression can also operate at a broader, societal level. When oppression exists in laws, policies, common practices, or everyday thinking, then we enter to a systemic level of oppression. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism can therefore happen not only between individuals, but also become a part of the way a society operates. The early Women’s Movement in Canada illuminated several distinct features of systemic oppression.


The Early Women’s Movement in Canada

The example of the early Women’s Movement in Canada demonstrates several distinct features of systemic oppression:

First wave of feminism, 1867-1960 (Strong-Boag, 2016)

This period focused on legal and political equality in support of temperance, women’s suffrage, pacifism, labour, and health rights. Black abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd was one of the first Black women to receive a law degree, to publish a newspaper, and was one of the first female journalists in Canada that openly championed women’s suffrage. Ultimately, the institutional power to grant women suffrage was held in the hands of men because at the time, men controlled all major institutions – government, media, education, police, health care, etc. Women had to organize campaigns and fought for their right to vote and to challenge sexism, a system of oppression that placed women in a disadvantage. The progress was slow but fruitful (Government of Canada, 2021):

  • 1916: Women in Manitoba became the first in Canada to win the right to vote.
  • 1918: Women aged 21 and over became eligible to vote in federal elections but Indigenous women and men and members of other ethnic groups were still excluded.
  • 1927: Alberta’s Famous Five advocated for women in Canada to be officially declared as “persons” and took the matter all the way to Canada’s highest appeals court at the time – the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
  • 1929: Women were declared as “persons”.

The second wave of feminism took place from 1960 to 1985, where women advocated for peace and disarmament, equality in education and employment, birth control and ending violence against women. At this time, grassroots groups, such as Voice of Women and Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, started to merge, creating communities and shelters for victims of domestic violence. In 1967, the Royal Commission on the Status of Woman was established, and its first report was tabled in Parliament in 1970. This report outlined 167 recommendations including amendments to the Canadian Labour Code and the Indian Act (Government of Canada, 2021). By the time of the third wave of feminism, activists started to realize that mainstream women (white, middle-class) could not speak for all women, and the concept of “Intersectionality” started to merge (UN Women, 2020).


Intersectionality, n., describes “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups” (Merriam-Webster).

The theoretical understanding of intersectionality was coined by civil rights advocate, law professor, and leading scholar in critical race theory Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in her paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. Initially used as a legal term, Crenshaw applied an intersectionality lens to argue that a court’s narrative of discrimination was based on a single-issue analysis, which did not consider the double identity markers that marginalized Black women in hiring policies. These women were being discriminated against as being both Black and a woman, and were therefore affected by racism, sexism, and a specific combination of both discriminations that neither Black men nor white women experienced.


Video: #APeoplesJourney: African American Women and the Struggle for Equality

How does intersectionality play out in real life? Check out this 3min video by the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC, Aug 29, 2017): #APeoplesJourney: African American Women and the Struggle for Equality

Using an intersectional lens means to recognize historical context and systemic oppressions surrounding inequalities, and understand how these inequalities interact with each other, such as classism, racism, homophobia, and ableism. Think about what barriers a first-generation university student would experience during their first year when compared to an Indigenous student with a disability, an international student from a different country, a legacy student whose parents are an employee of the institution, or to a mature student with care-giving responsibilities. An intersectional lens recognizes that each of these students face a set of barriers unique to themselves, regardless of how many overlapping identities they might share.


Summary and How to Practice an Intersectionality Lens

Tip #2

Recognize how systems of oppression create barriers to full participation.

Currently, the term intersectionality takes on many meanings beyond its initial context. In a 2020 interview with Time Magazine, Crenshaw emphasized that intersectionality is not a mechanism to victimize or to distort, and it does not involve flipping existing power dynamics and cultural structures. Intersectionality is a lens to see how different forms of inequity interact together to shape people’s experiences: lived experience is not as simple as the sum of gender, class, sexuality, or immigration status (Hill & Bilge, 2016). For example, post-secondary institutions in Canada were designed for white males as part of our colonial patriarchal history. An intersectional education lens recognizes various identity markers to better understand how to support the wide range of experiences of diverse students and their school outcomes. This can be as simple as gender-neutral and accessible washrooms, wide dietary options, cultural, financial, and accessibility supports in recognition of how individual identities, such as race, gender, orientation, and class-related circumstances, contribute to students’ achievement and a sense of belonging.

Even though intersectionality can be practiced at a higher organizational level to examine the cause of overlooked disparities and to dismantle systemic oppression, we can put intersectionality into practice in our everyday life by:

  • Acknowledging individual unique lived experiences and multiple struggles.
  • Always offering the benefit of the doubt in undesired situations.
  • Understanding that an individual could experience different forms of systemic discrimination simultaneously.
  • Recognizing your point of view is only based on your lived experience and should not be over-generalized.
  • Respecting the voices of those most affected by oppression and following their lead when it comes to advocacy issues.
  • Being open-minded and inclusive about different perspectives on social justice issues.
  • Broadening your network circle to welcome true diversity.



Chapter 2 References

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: Vol. 1989, Article 8.  Available at:

Government of Canada (2021). Women in Canadian History: A Timeline. Retrieve from the women and gender equity Canada website:

Hill, C. P., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Polity Press.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Intersectionality. In dictionary. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Oppression. In dictionary. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Prejudice. In dictionary. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from

NMAAHC. (Aug 29, 2017). #APeoplesJourney: African American Women and the Struggle for Equality | YouTube. Retrieved November 2021, from

Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, R. J. (2017). Is everyone really equal? An introduction to key concepts in social justice education (Second edition). Teachers College Press.

Strong-Boag, V. (2016). Early Women’s Movements in Canada: 1867-1960. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 2021, from

UN Women. (2020). Intersectional feminism: what it means and why it matters right now. Retrieved Nov 20, 2021, from

Wing Sue, D., Capodilupo, C., Torino, G., Bucceri, J., Holder, A., Nadal, K., & Esquilin, M (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, Vol 62. No. 4, 271-286.


Image Credits

Chapter 2 Banner: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic

Chapter 1 Divider: Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph/graphic


Building Community: Introduction to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Copyright © 2022 by University of Guelph is licensed under a Ontario Commons License, except where otherwise noted.

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