What Is Intersectionality & Why Does It Matter?

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If you’ve spent any time on a college campus lately, or read an article about diversity and discrimination, you’ve probably run across the term “intersectionality.” But, what is intersectionality?

What Is Intersectionality?

“Intersectionality” refers to a theory in sociology that outlines how an individual may face multiple types of overlapping discrimination depending on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, physical ability, class or any other characteristic that might place them in a minority class.

The term was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay entitled “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” In this essay, Crenshaw highlighted one example of intersectionality in the unique challenges faced by, women of color as being a part of two historically oppressed groups: women, and people of color. Despite efforts being made to reduce oppression with either group individually, as a whole women of color were not being adequately supported by the feminist and anti-racist movements of the time as each movement only addressed a fraction of the challenges they faced. While Crenshaw first introduced this term into the lexicon of critical theory, the concept it described was articulated by other feminist women of color thinkers and writers including Gloria Anzaldua, Barbara and Beverley Smith, Cherrie Moraga and others.

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Overlapping Discrimination - An Approach To Intersectionality

When people who fit into multiple minority categories (e.g., a disabled gay Latinx male or a 60-year-old Native American transgender person) experience discrimination, some of the protective mechanisms put in place by our society often fail to meet the needs associated with the multifaceted nature of their identities. A study uncovered that higher incidents of depression among trans black women who had experienced discrimination is one example of this effect.

As another example, a campus may offer support hotlines or counseling services to students who have experienced sexual harassment. However, if those services are only available in English, then students who are not fluent in English, such as some international students, or students enrolled in ESL programs may feel less comfortable trying to utilize them.

The students referenced above, who have already been victimized, experience further difficulty because English is not their first language. For this reason, it is important that campuses take an inclusive intersectional approach to their work with students.

Similarly, as institutions begin or continue to focus on addressing certain inequities, such as increasing scholarships for students from certain identity groups to increase diversity in their student body, they may fail to account for other systemic challenges that also contribute to inequity– such as a lack of resources to support these students once they arrive. In short, institutions need to take into consideration the many aspects of their identities that students bring with them to campus to support their success.

What is Intersectionality vs. Individuality?

One of the strengths of intersectionality as a framework to consider the overlap of identity and oppression is that it requires we view others as more than just a single category. Rather than being defined solely by gender or race, intersectionality reinforces the perspective that we are complex human beings who are defined and influenced by a number of identifying factors.

By recognizing the overlapping and significant influences these elements can have on an individual, institutions of higher education can better serve their students through the respect and recognition for all of the parts that make a student whole.

Ultimately, the goal of intersectionality is recognized as the multi-faceted nature of the human experience. To better embrace diversity, campuses should make sure that each student has a voice and a place to be heard within their community. By prioritizing the creation of a welcoming environment, through a lens of inclusive excellence, institutions of higher education can deliver an enriching, well-rounded educational experience for all of your students.

Actions that your campus can take to promote campus diversity

  1. Provide faculty with training on how to create an inclusive campus
  2. Conduct a needs assessment of your community and tailoring affinity groups and programmatic offerings accordingly
  3. Solicit continuous feedback from students and faculty on how to encourage diverse voices on campus
  4. Evaluate existing curricula regularly for unintended biases
  5. Create spaces to discuss intersectionality and student’s experiences related to their complex identities

Teaching Intersectionality

When exploring the concept of intersectionality, it is important to remember that for students that fit into multiple minority communities, the consequences of unconscious bias can quickly compound – and can even come from well-meaning peers and campus programs. Proactive education, thoughtful expectation setting, data collection, and institutional commitment are critical steps towards creating more inclusive and equitable campus communities.

To help create a culture of inclusivity on your campus, check out our student diversity training courses. With a focus on intersectionality and navigating identity, help your students develop the skills necessary to respectfully communicate with peers, engage in thoughtful dialogue around complex topics, and deepen their understanding of the ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion are relevant to everyone.

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