In April 2017, Merriam-Webster added the word Intersectionality to the dictionary. This is the definition — the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.
It also notes that Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced this theory 30 years ago before it went viral. Something to note, Crenshaw is a black woman. She coined this term initially to discuss the challenges that black women have in society. Since being introduced, it is being used to describe the components of what makes up people in society. The ‘things’ that can put you in the privilege category or a part of the oppressed group.
If you type Intersectionality into Google, several images appear to help describe such a word. Here’s a couple:
Through Crenshaw’s writing and research, she explains that women and people of color have to navigate their intersections of identity differently than the majority, white men. Looking at the above images that ‘help’ explain the term, I don’t see how intersectionality is different from one person to the next. It shows overlapping and various factors that make up an individual, but something is missing. What is missing is the distinction between privilege and oppression and how it overlaps.
If the above images were displayed to a room during a discussion, individuals could decipher their intersections. But, it’s harder to envision the intersections of other people, specifically if a white man is viewing. Kimberlé didn’t coin this term just for the marginalized community. We understand our areas of oppression and how it lands in the system. I believe that the term is designed to help those recognize their privilege even when they feel like they do not have it.
Here is an example. I recently attended a diversity conference and in a workshop titled: Managing Difficult Conversations on Racism, Privilege and Bias, led by a diversity leader from Wells Fargo. The facilitator specifically asked for white men to bring their voices into the room. He acknowledged that white men need to understand their privilege and how it can help and hurt those of underrepresented groups.
During our discussion, he called on a gentleman, let’s call him John. John is a cisgender gay man who is above average height, sturdy build with a full beard. He asked John to debrief our table activity. John proceeded to ignore the facilitator’s request and discussed his view on power and privilege. He started this five-minute talk by stating that he believes that he did not get to where he was today because he is a white man. The room shifts. He then said that he had to work very hard to get to where he was professionally and still believes he is not where he should be. Mentioned he grew up in an impoverished community. He did not have family support. He also voiced that he has dealt with forms of oppression his entire life. The facilitator has now had his hand out for about 20 seconds, inclining that he would like the microphone back.
This is what I am talking about. John IS privileged and has gotten to where he is today because he IS a white male. Yes, he did have to work hard. Yes, he had to overcome some obstacles. Yes, he could be further ahead than he would like. We all wish that. But he is failing to recognize the most significant power he has, being a white man. If the facilitator displayed one of the two images from above to help explain privilege and oppression, John would have felt like he had zero privilege. He would believe he is marginalized because this is the narrative that he has created for himself. But this is not the narrative of society.
I was a fan of Kirsten Gillibrand before she dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. I don’t know if she would have earned my vote, but she did win my attention with her slogan, Brave Wins. It was brilliant, in my opinion, but it wasn’t enough to keep her relevant in the race. I think she will be remembered for the robust response to a question on white privilege during a stop in Youngstown, Ohio.
Gillibrand was responding to a white woman holding a small child. She felt that she had never been a recipient of white privilege being from a low-income area, similar to John. Gillibrand began her response by saying:
“What that conversation is about is when a community has been left behind for generations because of the color of their skin, when you’ve been denied job after job after job because you’re black or because you’re brown or when you go to the emergency room to have your baby, the fact that we have the highest infant mortality rate in this country, and if you are a black woman, you are four times more likely to die in childbirth,”…
“If your son is 15 years old and smokes pot, he smokes pot just as much as the black boy in his neighborhood and the Latino boy in his neighborhood, but that black and brown boy is four times more likely to be arrested.”…
After John finished his monologue, I wanted to give him this exact response. That even if he doesn’t ‘feel’ like he has experience white privilege he has. And it is in effect every day. His white skin doesn’t get him second looks when he enters a store, nor does it cause owners to follow him around to ensure he won’t steal. His white skin doesn’t prompt a police officer to automatically shoot when he is reaching for his cell phone. His white skin doesn’t hinder him from being given a chance or the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t want to intersectionality to look like a game of the oppression olympics. This is not a way to count how many times you appear in a privileged vs oppressed category. It is a way to understand the specific challenges that one might have. It’s to know how you are privileged in more than one way. And sometimes that might require a quick count as a reality check.
Intersectionality is used to realize that a black woman is not treated as if she is just a woman. She is treated as if she is a black person first then a woman second. It’s to highlight that even though men are the dominant gender, Latino men do not get treated as a man first. There is so much to unpack when it comes to intersectionality. It can never be digested in one sitting.
The term has been floating around for a while, and while it’s not a new buzzword, it appears more frequently in pieces of training, articles and professional talks. It needs to be discussed in a form that is not catering to one’s outlook on themselves. It needs to be viewed as a way to help explain why things like healthcare look different for black and brown communities than white communities. Why jailtime is longer for black men than white men. And why black women die more frequently during childbirth than white women.