Crash Course: Intersectionality and Gender

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How might a white woman’s lived experience differ from that of a Black woman? Of an Asian woman?How might a woman who is gay or transgender experience oppression differently than a woman who is heterosexual or cisgender? How might a woman of color with a disability navigate the world differently than a man of color without one? There is an infinite number of unique and multi-dimensional identities one can have, and they all impact the way we live. One concept seeks to explain these intricacies and identify barriers to living in a truly equitable world: intersectionality.

What is intersectionality?

Coined by scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1990s, the term “intersectionality” does not exclusively apply to women — everyone experiences it to some degree. However, Crenshaw wrote about the term first to address challenges Black women face as part of two disenfranchised demographics (race and gender) simultaneously. Black women can’t detach their womanhood from their Blackness or their Blackness from their womanhood. Understanding both holistically is crucial to creating pathways for women of color to succeed. Crenshaw delivered the keynote speech on intersectionality at DiversityInc’s 2019 Women of Color and Their Allies event.

Intersectionality and oppression

The discussion about intersectionality would not exist without its harmful counterpart: oppression. We are all combinations of backgrounds and experiences, but society does not celebrate all identities equally. Because we live in a society that places white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender men at the top, those who do not live up to those traits experience varying forms and degrees of oppression. The further away you are from the “ideal,” the more intersections of oppression you exist in the middle of.

During Crenshaw’s 2019 keynote, she described the “but for” phenomenon: Many have the ability to say they, too could have the same power as the “ideal” white men, “but for” a single trait. For example, a white woman could say she could have the same privileges white men enjoy “but for” her gender, and a Black man could say he’d have the same influence “but for” his race. But what if multiple dimensions of your identity don’t align with the ideal?

“Some people, those who are not just one ‘but for’ away from white men, they can’t use this particular approach,” Crenshaw said. “Black women were not in the same position as Black men and white women to make the ‘but for’ command.”

Understanding intersectionality to boost all women

In her 2019 keynote, Crenshaw discussed how an understanding of intersectionality is key to advancing women of color in corporate pipelines. If Black, Indigenous, Latina, Asian and other women of color, queer women, disabled women and other underrepresented women are struggling to advance in their careers, it’s because the tools your organization has in place to help underrepresented groups advance are only focusing on one aspect of identity. A broad mentorship program for women, for example, may not serve the needs of all women if it doesn’t take the time to focus on more dimensions of identity. An employee resource group that focuses on disability needs to also address how people of different genders, races and backgrounds experience disability differently.

Listen to people’s stories. Don’t assume every identity or experience is a monolith. Give individualized support. The point of intersectionality is not to get hung up on the “categories” people fit into — in fact, it is the opposite. It may seem complex, but the key is to celebrate people’s identities holistically. If oppression is multi-faceted, empowerment needs to be, too.

Intersectionality and code-switching

Code switching is the ability to switch between vernaculars or various levels of formality of a language. It’s a habit everyone takes part in, especially at work. You wouldn’t talk to your boss the same way you talk to your partner or sibling.) However, when it comes to women of color, code switching becomes perceived as something political. In a 2019 conversation, TD Bank’s senior vice president of retail product and customer acquisition technology Lakshmi Stockham and DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson spoke about the specific implications of code-switching for women of color. The two discussed the pros and cons of code-switching and the importance of organizations supporting women of color to be their authentic selves. Watch the interview here.

During 2019’s Women of Color and Their Allies event, Johnson continued the conversation with TD Bank’s Kelly Cornish and TIAA’s Corie Pauling about how women of color can use code-switching to their advantage rather than letting it constrain them. Read the recap here.

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