Despite our shared vision, social equity work can oftentimes feel exclusionary to those who are not familiar with the lingo. Intersectionality, in particular, is a term that many people and organizations assert an importance for, but that others are unclear on.
Understanding the terminology used in equity work is a useful tool for people expanding their knowledge on the issues they care about.
It is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discrimination and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.
In other words, intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers.
Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g. “woman” and “black”) do not exist independently of each other, and that each informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression.
Understanding intersectionality is essential to combatting the interwoven prejudices people face in their daily lives.
The theory emerged two decades earlier, however, when black feminists began to speak out about the white, middle-class nature of the mainstream feminist movement. Many black women found it difficult to identify with the issues of the mainstream (white) feminist movement, issues such as the pressure to be a homemaker.
Black women, who often had to work in order to keep their family afloat and therefore did not have the luxury of being homemakers, did not feel as though these issues pertained to their experiences.
At the same time, many black women experienced sexism while participating in the Civil Rights movement and were often shut out of leadership positions.
This intersectional experience of facing racism in the feminist movement and sexism in civil rights encouraged black women to call for a feminist practice that centralized their lived experiences.
Nowadays, intersectionality is considered crucial to social equity work. Activists and community organizations are calling for and participating in more dynamic conversations about the differences in experience among people with different overlapping identities.
Without an intersectional lens, events and movements that aim to address injustice towards one group may end up perpetuating systems of inequities towards other groups.
What can I do?
Intersectionality may seem theoretical, but it is meant to be utilized. No matter how or when you have become involved with equity work, it is always possible to more fully integrate intersectionality into your view of these issues.
Oftentimes, it is easier to believe and to explain to others that “all women feel” a certain way or that “LGBTQ+ people believe” some common understanding, but this does not reflect reality.
We must recognize that all unique experiences of identity, and particularly ones that involve multiple overlapping oppression, are valid.
Do not shy away from recognizing that people experience the world differently based on their overlapping identity markers. Because of the way we have been socialized to continue feeding systems of oppression, we often feel it is rude to formally recognize others’ difference.
We see this in how people are uncomfortable naming another person’s perceived race or asking for someone’s preferred pronouns.
However, we must recognize these identities as a way to step beyond our assumptions that our experience is common. One way of doing so is when you attend rallies, take a look at the signs that others hold — how do they assert their identity and how does this inform the issues they care most about?
Avoid oversimplified language:
Once we recognize this difference, we can move away from language that seeks to define people by a singular identity. You may have heard after the Women’s March that many trans folks and allies felt uncomfortable with the vagina-centric themes of the march.
Assuming that all women have vaginas or are defined by their bodies is an oversimplification that erases the experiences of those who exist beyond the gender binary.
By avoiding language that assumes our own experiences are baseline, we can open ourselves up to listening to others’ points of view.
Analyze the space you occupy:
Becoming comfortable recognizing difference also involves recognizing when that difference is not represented in the spaces you occupy. Diversity of all kinds matter in your workplace, your activism, your community spaces, and more.
If you are meeting with a local LGBTQ+ organization, is there representation of LGBTQ+ people of color?
You may feel that your workplace is racially and ethnically diverse, but is it accessible to people with disabilities? Take note of the welcoming or distancing practices of the spaces you frequent.
Seek other points of view:
Explore the narratives of those with different interlocking identities than you.
This includes surrounding yourself with others with differing interwoven identities, but keep in mind that oftentimes, even when you have a diverse group of people in an activist space, it falls on people to educate others about the oppression they face. When these people share their experiences, take the opportunity to listen.
In your own time, seek out existing intersectional narratives, from your podcasts to your television. If you are unsure about a concept or want to learn more about a specific intersection of identity, Google it!
This will help you be better prepared to enter into conversations with others and progress together.
Do not expect people who face different systems of oppression than you to rally for causes you care about if you do not rally for theirs.
As you hear about issues others face, learn about the work that is currently being done around these topics.
Listen and defer to those who live with these intersectional identities each day. As you do, you will likely deepen your understanding of your own identity and the subjects you care about most.
When authors write about personal characteristics, they should be sensitive to intersectionality — that is, to the way in which individuals are shaped by and identify with a vast array of cultural, structural, sociobiological, economic, and social contexts.
The Pride Movement has historically been associated with rainbow flags, lively parades and titular merriment. But this year, with a looming pandemic and worldwide protests, the celebration has a distinct tone of intersectional support.
It’s the worldwide support for intersectional movements defending marginalized people that makes this year’s Pride Month as historic as the first.
The entire LGBTQ community needs to "reflect and think about how we can be educated, good listeners, how we can be good allies, be observant, to be sure that the black community does not have to face the racial injustice, oppression and police brutality that we're seeing today."
When sexual minorities share their true selves with others, they are often met with opposition from people who feel uncomfortable with others who do not fit into their world view. These types of experiences are exclusive to people who identify as anything but the norm.
History has proven these claims time and again, and, especially within the LGBT community itself, contention develops when people within the LGBT community are forced to reckon with how other layers of diversity may affect one’s own experiences within a community.
This is due to a lack of understanding regarding the burden of intersectionality in identity.
For many people, intersectionality is a hard concept to grasp. Combine this perception with privilege and you have a recipe for misinterpretation and disaster.
Some believe that by claiming a minority status, their experience within a minority identity is representative of all people’s experiences as that minority.
With knowledge comes responsibility. And yes, the world may be harder on minorities, but they have the ability to change it by meeting these obstacles head-on.
By working that much harder to be the person one will be proud of. When we say “screw it” to the preconceived notions and societal norms that are placed upon minorities, they gain so much power. And confidence.
Because, trust me, that power and confidence is so much more attractive than conforming to what certain groups deem acceptable.
In theory, intersectionality builds coalitions by getting different minority groups to recognize that their griefs all have common, intersecting causes. In practice, it breeds division and resentment among the coalition it is trying to build.
"It is important and vital is to keep that education for critical consciousness around intersectionalities, so that people are able to not focus on one thing and blame one group, but be able to look holistically at the way intersectionality informs all of us: whiteness, gender, sexual preferences, etc. Only then can we have a realistic handle on the political and cultural world we live within."
~ Bell Hooks
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash