When considering demographic or cultural factors, it can be easy to lump individuals into general categories: we may call a person/group of people “Asian-American;” “gay;” “autistic;” “women.” We often do this to simplify our understanding or provide a shortcut for how we think about people. However, this compartmentalized way of thinking can diminish the individuality and diversity of the individuals that fit into and with each label. What happens when we fit multiple labels; what if these labels feel contradictory; and what is it like when the combining of these labels provide more understanding and more complexity in the way we understand ourselves and those around us?
What is Intersectionality?
A Black feminist in legal and critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, developed what is now called the theory of intersectionality. Intersectionality is when diverse social categorizations are interconnected in nature (e.g. ability/disability status, sexual identity, gender identity, SES/class, race, religion, etc) and create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. These spaces of marginalization aren’t separate in creating impact, they are often connected and compound one another.
Intersectionality has expanded from critical race theory, work that Crenshaw helped develop. It is important to note that intersectionality is rooted in Black feminism and the oppression of Black women’s lived experiences. Critical race theory (CRT) is the perspective that laws and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race is a social construct used by white people to further economic and political interests at the expense of people of color. Crenshaw argued in her paper Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex (1989) that by treating Black women as purely Black or purely women, ignores certain challenges that Black women face as a group.
What are Intersecting Identities?
A person’s identity is made up of many diverse factors including age/generation, disability status (developmental), disability status (acquired), religious and spiritual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, indigenous heritage, national origin, gender (identity & expression) (Hays, 2008). The intersection of these identities is what makes people unique and influences each person’s lived experience. It is important to note that one’s identity can be fluid and is in constant flux, based on one’s both internal and external experiences.
The difference between intersectionality and intersecting identities
The two concepts, intersectionality and intersecting identities, are similar in some ways but are not identical forms of thought. The difference between them has to do with the amount of power, privilege, societal hierarchy, and systemic oppression is at play (Bolding, 2020). Intersectionality highlights how the intersection of an individual’s various identities are systemically and culturally weaponized to oppress people and is therefore connected to generational trauma. In contrast, intersecting identities are understood by those with more “desired” identities who hold the privilege to not have to experience systemic oppression, (e.g., those of a higher social caste instead of those of a lower social caste).
The Difference: An Example
“A white cisgender lesbian from an upper middle-class background who is currently living an upper middle-class lifestyle has dealt with a completely different set of systemic oppressors and hate than a Black cisgender lesbian from a lower socioeconomic status who is currently living a middle-class existence.
While they both share some similar aspects of their identities societally, systemically, and historically their oppression and the hate they face are supremely different.
Their experiences navigating the world personally and professionally; the way they are viewed by employers and the public at-large; the ways their ancestors are viewed and talked about in historical accounts; the way the legal system supports or doesn’t support the needs and rights of their intersecting communities; their access to education and advancement; all of these things and many more play out in very different ways for a white cis lesbian and a Black cis lesbian.”
-Pharoah Bolding, 2020
How to Navigate Intersections of Demographics and Identity:
In both personal and professional spaces individuals must consistently evaluate how intersectionality is being considered or is being ignored. These spaces include:
- Disciplinary policies
- Hiring and recruiting practices
- Approaches to retention and succession planning in business or politics
- Who is placed into positions of power
- Individual lifelong growth and learning:
- Relationships between intersectionality and interpersonal communication
Work on becoming actively anti-racist, feminist, emotionally intelligent, empathic, and culturally competent
Read, view, and reflect on perspectives that differ from yours
Dive into understanding your own identity and the ways in which your demographics intersect with each other within our society
Connect with a therapist who will honor your diversity and the complexity of your identity
- Bolding, P. (2020) Intersecting vs Intersectional Identities. https://www.pharoahbolding.com
- Crenshaw, K. (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, 1989(1). https://tinyurl.com/y6g9znys
- Lorde, A. (2018). The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House. Penguin UK. https://tinyurl.com/y26435nt
- Crenshaw, K. (2016). The urgency of intersectionality. TED Talk. https://youtu.be/akOe5-UsQ2o