Understanding Intersectionality: An In-Depth Exploration

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Understanding Intersectionality: An In-Depth Exploration

Why does intersectionality matter? Intersectionality, as defined by Oxford English Dictionary, is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the concept in 1989 to discuss how oppression cannot truly be addressed if the varying forms of discrimination are only ever looked at separately and not where they may overlap.

It is categorically impossible to create an inclusive environment without understanding intersectionality. Looking beyond singular categories of identity allows us to grasp the complexities of discrimination and ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are truly comprehensive.

Where Can Intersectionality Show Up?

Intersecting Categories

Intersecting identities can include, but are not limited to, race, gender identity, sexuality, socio-economic status, disability, and religion. Each of these categories influence a person’s experience of privilege or discrimination depending on the context. For instance, a Hispanic woman might face both ethnic and gender discrimination, which intersect to create a unique experience different from a white woman or a Hispanic man. In a corporate environment, she might encounter microaggressions related to both her ethnicity and gender, such as assuming she doesn’t have a strong grasp of the English language or that she is too emotional. These compounded biases can limit her career advancement and create a hostile work environment. In healthcare, a transgender man of color might experience both transphobia and racism, leading to inadequate medical care and mistrust in the healthcare system. A low-income single mother might encounter systemic barriers that are both economic and gender-based, such as limited access to affordable childcare and flexible job opportunities, perpetuating cycles of poverty and social exclusion. Understanding this context is essential for developing policies and interventions that actually address the needs of individuals with intersecting identities.

Positionality and Power Dynamics

Positionality refers to the social and political context of our identity in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, etc. It highlights how privilege and oppression intersect and how power dynamics shift in different contexts, influencing our experiences and social standing. For instance, a wealthy individual might have economic power but still face discrimination based on gender or sexuality in certain settings. Understanding positionality allows us to understand how our complex identities influence our perspective and access to resources, opportunities, and power, which is crucial for creating equitable systems.

Intersectionality Within a Community vs. An Individual’s Intersecting Identities

Community Intersectionality

Intersectionality within a community examines how collective identities interact and overlap, creating shared experiences of privilege and discrimination. Communities often share common issues based on the intersecting identities of their members, leading to collective activism and support networks. For example, LGBTQ+ communities of color may face unique challenges that differ from those experienced by white LGBTQ+ individuals or heterosexual and cisgender people of color. These communities can build solidarity around shared experiences of racial and sexual identity discrimination.

Individual Intersectionality

On an individual level, intersectionality looks at how personal identities intersect to shape unique experiences. Each person’s combination of identities creates specific advantages and disadvantages in different contexts. For instance, consider a Black man and a white woman. The Black man may have gender privilege in certain circumstances, giving him more authority and higher wages, but he faces racial discrimination that the white woman does not. Conversely, the white woman benefits from racial privilege, allowing greater acceptance in certain social and professional contexts while still encountering gender-based biases. This demonstrates how marginalization isn’t as simple as putting everyone on a single axis of discriminated to privileged but that intersecting identities make inequities much more complex to identify and address.

Intersectional Data Analysis: Informing Policy and Tracking DEI Initiatives

Intersectional data analysis examines how intersectional identities affect various outcomes. This type of analysis is essential for developing effective policies and tracking the success of DEI initiatives. Here’s how it can be applied:

  1. Targeted Interventions: By understanding how intersecting identities affect experiences, policymakers can create more targeted interventions. One example is sexual assault prevention programs on college campuses and their focus on bystander intervention, whose primary consideration was white women that resided on campus. It didn’t reflect the experiences of commuter and non-traditional students, who may not be in situations where a bystander could intervene, nor did it consider biases that may impact the ability of a bystander to recognize other victim groups, such as gay men or Black women.
  2. Resource Allocation: Intersectional analysis helps in the equitable distribution of resources by identifying groups that might be overlooked when identities are only considered in isolation. For instance, an organization might use intersectional data to discover that disabled LGBTQ+ youth are not receiving low-income scholarship programs at the same rate as their peers. By recognizing this gap, the organization can create targeted outreach and support programs to ensure these individuals have equal access to educational opportunities
  3. Comprehensive Metrics: Organizations can track progress across multiple dimensions of identity to ensure that all groups are benefiting from DEI initiatives. This involves collecting and analyzing granular data on race, gender, disability, and other intersecting identities. From there, an organization can use cross tabulation, or crosstab, which examines how the different variables interact when they intersect. For instance, a mentorship program may be assessed to see how well it supports women of color compared to white women. These crosstabs helps identify gaps to be targeted and ensures that initiatives are effective for everyone.

Balancing Representation: Avoiding Conflict When Observances Overlap

Balancing the acknowledgment and representation of all groups, especially when there is overlap, requires thoughtful planning and inclusive strategies. Here are some approaches to ensure harmony:

Thoughtful Planning

  1. Respectful Celebrations: When heritage and awareness acknowledgements overlap, such as, for example, Mental Health Awareness Month and AAPI Heritage Month in May, organizations should prepare in advance and schedule accordingly so that all are highlighted equally, and one doesn’t encroach on another. Track celebrations and recognitions well in advance so that scheduling is thoughtful with no last-minute scrambles.
  2. Integrated Programming: Develop programs that highlight the intersection of identities, such as a focus on the mental health of AAPI communities in May or the experiences of Black LGBTQ+ individuals in June.​ This would be a good opportunity for Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to participate or even plan an event.

Inclusive Communication

  1. Equitable Promotion: Ensure that communication materials and promotions give equal visibility to all celebrations. Use multiple channels to reach diverse audiences, and emphasize the importance of each observance.​ Share any tracking calendars with the wider organization so that everyone is on the same page and any corrections or additions can be submitted in advance.
  2. Educational Campaigns: Run campaigns that educate about the significance of each celebration and the intersections between them. This can include guest speakers, panels, and educational content that explores overlapping issues and histories.​ Also, recognize those within the organization that belong to those backgrounds or identities and highlight their contributions to the team.

Feedback and Adaptation

  1. Community Input: Engage with community members and provide an open forum to gather suggestions on how to best honor overlapping celebrations. This ensures that planning is inclusive and responsive to the needs and preferences of those being celebrated.​ This is another area in which ERGs can be extremely useful.
  2. Flexibility: Be prepared to adapt plans based on feedback and emerging needs. Flexibility allows for more meaningful and respectful celebrations.​ Also pay special attention to observances that are not scheduled on a Gregorian calendar, and make sure you have the correct dates for them each year.

Case Study: Intersectionality in Action at a Large Organization

A case study from a financial services organization in the Netherlands provides a clear example of how intersectionality can positively impact organizational policy. After recognizing that traditional DEI initiatives overlook the complexities of intersecting identities, they adopted an intersectional approach to recognize and address specific issues, such as when they discovered that women of color were disproportionately experiencing barriers to promotion compared to their white counterparts.

To remedy this, the organization implemented targeted mentorship programs, revised their recruitment processes to reduce bias, and created platforms for employees to share their experiences and feedback. As a result, they saw significant improvements in the career progression of women of color as well as overall increased employee satisfaction and retention rates.

Intersectionality is an often overlooked but essential key to creating equitable and inclusive environments. By recognizing and responding to the diverse experiences shaped by intersecting identities, we can better support individuals and truly demonstrate commitment to DEI initiatives and policies.

How do the different aspects of your identity (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status) intersect and shape your experiences in your personal and professional life? Have you observed or experienced intersectionality in your workplace? How do you think your organization can better support employees with intersecting identities?

Let us share experiences.  Leave a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.

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