Understanding identities can seem confusing when you hear people say, “but we are all human, right?” However, identities are more complex and nuanced; by saying “we are all human,” the unjust, and often violent, plights marginalized persons have experienced are completely ignored. By upholding a shared understanding that we all have our unique experiences, we also gain the ability to relate to and learn from others.
Think of your own overall identity (who you are as a person) as a bowl of soup. Your identity is made up of different “ingredients”: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, education, family structure, hobbies, beliefs, career, experiences, etc. There are times where you will share the same “ingredients” as others, and there are times when you will have completely different “ingredients.” No one will ever have the same exact “soup” as you.
This is because all the components of your authentic self (your “ingredients”), interact together within an oppressive system that influences/cultivates your lived experience. A White, cisgender woman will have a very different lived experience than a Black trans woman; while both may share similar experiences/understandings of oppressive systems as women, there are many experiences that each woman will not share based upon the additional oppression a Black, trans woman will experience. Regardless, both lived experiences are valid and true.
We are all functions of the system in which we live; a system that has taught us how to think about ourselves and others, how to interact with others, and how to understand what is expected of us. These thought processes and expectations are based upon the specific set of social identities into which we were born that predispose us to unequal roles and allow us access (or deny access) to resources.
The information here provides a basic overview of important considerations related to Intersectionality. It is crucial that you continue expanding upon this knowledge and look further into the concepts with which you are unfamiliar and/or are curious about.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality refers to the interplay of one’s identities, the status of those identities, and the situational context of how, when, and where those identities show up and influence personal experience(s) within multiple dimensions of societal oppression. Click here to watch a video about intersectionality.
Image Citation: Duckworth, S. (2020, Aug 19). Intersectionality [Infographic]. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/2jy46K4. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Who coined the term intersectionality?
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined this term in 1989 in reference to her experience of being Black and a woman; describing the ways in which social identities influence one another and overlap. Her identities of being Black AND being a woman do not operate independently; instead, the interactions between the two identities frequently reinforce one another and shape her experience within an inequitable system.
To be clear, social identities are not the focus of intersectionality; yes, they shape your experience and influence what intersectionality means to you. However, Crenshaw was describing the overarching hierarchy of power and privilege that have set up an inequitable system. In a 2020 interview with Time Magazine, Crenshaw explained what intersectionality means to her today.
How does intersectionality impact me?
Now that we have come to the collective agreement that people comprise more identities than what meets the eye, we must begin to make an active choice to see one another holistically and not what we assume or perceive another person to be.
Keeping this in mind, we can begin to think critically and strategically about how systems intersect and create compounding effects on an individual. This will allow us to expose the inequities in history, policies, structures, and the lived realities that marginalized persons have endured and continue to endure. By doing so, we can begin to institute change in a meaningful and long-lasting way that is social justice–oriented and people-centered. Click here to watch a video about the urgency of intersectionality.
How has intersectionality been appropriated over the years?
It is important to understand that the concept of intersectionality has been appropriated since Crenshaw first debuted it. When the term was coined, race was the focal point; intersectionality was used to depict Crenshaw’s experience as a Black woman in her field.
When we say it has been appropriated, we mean that when this term first came out, folks (mainly White folks) felt excluded because there was nothing to name their experiences of oppression with other marginalized identities outside of race. Consequently, when we use the term now, race is rarely mentioned and instead people argue that there are other marginalized identities to consider; thus deviating from the historical purpose and ignoring race altogether.
While considering other identities is important to name one's experience, by excluding a racial component, you ignore a critical piece of understanding; you cannot understand your holistic experience without acknowledging how your race shapes and influences the barriers you will face when your other identities intersect.