The term “intersectionality” was originally coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. I was surprised to learn that the term had not formally existed before then. Intersectionality, or the idea that our identities overlap and intersect in unique ways, seems fundamental to the human experience. The conceptual framework for intersectionality originally emerged from Crenshaw’s perspective on the black female experience. In her paper, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” she articulates this:
I am intrigued by how individuals tend to emphasize certain aspects of their identities. It seems like a lot of the time when discussing issues of diversity and inclusion, we tend to focus on the aspects of our identity that are disadvantaged or oppressed. For example, when discussing race, white women tend to gear the conversation toward issues of gender instead (Stolzman, 2004). I recall a conversation I had with a classmate once that highlights this point. He was a white male but insisted that he was not privileged and had more disadvantage than other people (e.g., people of color or women) because he grew up poor. While all of these things are certainly legitimate parts of his identity, he seemed to conceptualize them as completely separate and unrelated. Instead, intersectionality asks us to consider how the different parts of our identity come together to shape our experiences and opportunities. This student’s perspective was problematic because he did not seem to recognize how his white-ness and male-ness may give him certain advantages, despite his low-income background. This type of perspective seems especially problematic because it is perhaps not always productive to try and quantify who has more or less disadvantage given their identities. Instead, taking an intersectional approach, we can respect how our multiple identities give us qualitatively different experiences.
I am guilty of (unknowingly) engaging in the behavior described by Stolzman (2004). Moving forward, I’d like to be more conscious of my own intersectional identity, acknowledging that my experience as a woman is also influenced by more privileged aspects of my identity. Taking a more holistic approach in conversations of diversity and inclusion will help me more accurately understand others’ experiences.
In my research, I will strive to be more cognizant of intersectionality in the populations that I study. For example, a lot of my work examines how socioeconomic disadvantage impacts brain development and psychopathology. However, it is somewhat incomplete to consider the effects of socioeconomic status without also considering how issues of class intersect with race.
On a more macro level, Crenshaw describes the structural inequalities related to intersectionality. For example, women of color experience both racial and gender oppression, which makes them more likely to also be burdened by socioeconomic disadvantages. I hope that some of these structural barriers can be remedied through community resources and legislative change, though it will not be easy to dismantle such a long history of oppression.