Intersectionality 101

Intersectionality. Have you heard this word before? Even if you have, you might not know what it means. Let’s take a look at it. The first part’s easy enough: intersection. A place where things come together. Intersectionality refers to the reality that we all have multiple identities that intersect to make us who we are. It also gives us a way to talk about oppressions and privileges that overlap and reinforce each other. This term dates back to the 1980s and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. She noticed that we didn’t have an effective way to talk about how the experiences of black women are different from the experiences of black men and of white women. How? Black women endure both gender discrimination and racial discrimination. Over the last 30 years, scholars, educators and activists have expanded the use of the word intersectionality to talk about identities beyond race and gender. Let’s look at a few examples. Jerry has a disability, and his family lives below the poverty line. He is the oldest of ten, which requires him to do a lot of caregiving and—sometimes—keeps him out of school. No one in the school counseling office has talked to Jerry or his parents about his plans for after graduation. He has applied for several jobs, but never gets called back. Fatima is Muslim and recently came to the United States from Somalia. She finds that many people at her school make assumptions about her values and abilities before they speak to her. Many of her classmates think she shouldn’t be at their school at all. Gretta comes from an affluent family. Both her parents and grandparents went to college and her father owns a successful business. She doesn’t think about her identity very often, but she does think of herself as someone who will go to college and get a good job once she graduates. Think about Gretta’s situation, as opposed to Fatima’s or Jerry’s. Fatima and Jerry are members of marginalized groups; they don’t get to choose whether or not to think about their identities. Gretta, on the other hand, can ignore intersectionality if she wants to—another form of privilege. Life isn’t the same for everyone—even for people who share identity characteristics. By adopting an intersectional lens, we have a better opportunity to understand why— and to change the institutions that help and harm us based on who we are. Want to learn more? Read our story “Teaching at the Intersections” in the summer 2016 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine.

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