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What Is Intersectionality?

What’s the single word you would use to describe yourself from now on for every situation? All of us have more than one identity and it’s impossible to ever be just one at a time. Intersectionality recognizes this reality. I consider intersectionality a fuller accounting of the lived experienced for any individual. It’s similar to how we consider critical race theory a fuller accounting of history. On a positive note, intersectionality can help explain how complex and interesting we each are (more on that below).  There are also the negative implications though, which we must include at the center of our work for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined ‘intersectionality’ back in 1980 in pointing out that Black women face discriminations that go beyond simply combining the discriminations that Black men face and that all women and non-binary people face. In other words, it’s not simply A+B=C, but rather A+B=D (I let ‘D’ stand for ‘Daunting amounts of discrimination’ in this case). As an aside for my fellow science geeks, we see this same sort of phenomenon in biology and chemistry, when two compounds or enzymes combined have a much greater (and sometimes altogether different) effect than the ‘sum of the two parts’ distinct effects.’

#SayHerName has been a response to one of the issues that Black women experience. Generally, when asked about Black people who have been killed by police, people are more likely to recall the names of Black boys and men than those of Black girls, women, and non-binary people. It’s important to note that in this example, there’s additional identities intersecting and involved. Looking at the groups of people dealing the most with police brutality, and those whose names get the most attention and visibility in the media, there’s other systems at work including classism and ableism.

Self-Reflection and Better Understanding

Trying to account for all identities a person can possess, how some identities may change over time, and how multiple identities combine to make a unique set of experiences, advantages, and disadvantages is challenging. Here are two self-reflection activities that have been helpful for me. I invite everyone to try these:

  1. This was first introduced to me by Ijeoma Oluo in her groundbreaking work, So You Want to Talk About Race (I can’t recommend this book enough). Begin writing out all the ways in which you have privilege. I like to point to Oluo’s way of defining ‘privilege’ in the social justice context: it’s an advantage or set of advantages that you have and others do not. A privilege also requires that you also did not 100% earn it and that others face a disadvantage by not having it. Check out chapter four of that same book if you want more clarification. I appreciate this activity for many reasons. It has helped me brainstorm the sheer number of identities I possess in general, which I may have never considered before. Each time I’ve made my list, I’ve discovered new ones! To that point, Oluo (and I) recommends doing this reflection somewhat regularly as an aspiring ally.
  2. Developed by Heather Kennedy and Daniel Martinez of Colorado School of Public Health, this takes the activity above and flips the narrative. It’s a way of checking our cultural wealth. Here you will go through the worksheet and check off what applies to you. This activity celebrates the strengths and resources acquired by groups that are continuously marginalized in our country, including BIPOC, immigrant, youth, disabled, LGBTQ+, and additional communities. I’ve included a reprint of this checklist with their permission and you may go here to review it.

A Final Thought: Compassion, not Comprehension

A quote was shared with me recently in the Man Enough podcast that has stuck with me ever since. In an interview with their guest, noted nonbinary performer, author, and activist Alok Vaid-Menon said: “The focus has been on comprehension, not compassion. So, people will say ‘I don’t understand-’ Why do you have to understand me in order to say that I shouldn’t be experiencing violence?” Justin Baldoni, a cohost of the podcast, went on to say “we think we have to understand something in order to accept it, or to love it, and that’s not the truth.”

My training in public health has taught me that a big factor for what can change a person’s actions is to build better understanding.  If we understand why or how doing an action will help us, we’re more likely to do it. But this human condition comes with a price when we insist on knowing everything first before acting. There are many things in our world that are difficult to grasp, some even forever unknowable.  We can and should continue to learn about and celebrate our many different identities, perspectives, and ways of being on this planet. Ongoing learning is a responsibility we can take as part of our actions in championing, advocacy, and allyship. Fully understanding an experience, however, should not be the prerequisite to showing empathy and demanding justice and equity.