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Understanding intersectionality and its relationship to equity

This piece first appeared on the website for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Intersectionality is a fact of life—one that’s been part of our understanding of the human experience for more than a hundred years. Though law professor and activist, Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the term in 1989 (in her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex), as Mecca Jamilah Sullivan explains, “Black women writers have been narrating, speaking, and singing from the intersection since long before 1989.”

Today the basic principles of intersectionality are widely accepted—even by critics of the term—and the concept has expanded to acknowledge a wider array of identity factors, including citizenship status, indigeneity, age, spirituality or religious affiliation, and socioeconomic status or class. Advocates use the theory to promote greater understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our classrooms and workplaces. Yet intersectionality remains a difficult, misunderstood, and sometimes controversial concept.

Grounded in a fundamental truth—that the different facets of our identities, from race to gender, disability to sexuality, all intersect to shape our experience of the world—this framework helps us understand why a White American male will have an entirely different experience than another person who is White and female—and why both of those individuals will have vastly different perspectives than a Queer or Trans Person of Color (QTPOC), an immigrant, or a person with physical or sensory disabilities. As Adwoa Bagalini of the World Economic Forum in Geneva says, “the colour of your skin, your gender, disability and sexual orientation all interact to affect your lived experience and contribute to unequal outcomes in ways that cannot be attributed to one dimension alone.”

Crenshaw built her scholarship on the work of previous Black feminist and Lesbian scholars—most notably the Combahee River Collective. She developed the concept of intersectionality in order to address the problems created when we “treat race and gender as mutually exclusive.” Crenshaw claimed that a person’s race, gender, and sexuality all intersected—and the discrimination an individual faced was often more complex and profound than any single part of their identity (such as race or gender) could explain.

Scholars today use intersectionality to understand the differences between the experiences of diverse groups in higher education and the workforce. For example, although the percentage of White females earning their college degree continues to outpace White males (51% to 44%), a recent report from The Education Trust found that only 26.6% of Hispanic women graduate college.

Intersectionality suggests that it is not enough to use single identity markers of race or gender or socioeconomic station and citizenship status to understand situations such as these. Instead, we must pay attention to all the important factors that intersect within an individual’s identity, because each helps shape their experience of the world and the discrimination they face.