CommunityLet’s Talk: Intersectionality

Michelle Zohlman
writes on April 6, 2021

I find intersectionality the term most valuable when discussing equity, diversity, and inclusion. Don’t get me wrong, all language around social justice is important. But, when we truly learn intersectionality, it allows us to understand ourselves and others better as well as become better allies.  

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s break down what intersectionality means. Formally, it is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” That’s a whole lot of words to break down.

To best understand intersectionality, watch the below featuring Kimberlé Crenshaw, who popularized the term in 1991.

Does it make better sense to you? Hopefully, Crenshaw’s lens allows you to view intersectionality less clinically. As she says in the video, “it isn’t so much a theory but a prism for understanding certain kinds of problems.” Intersectionality isn’t straightforward. There are layers to it where our overlapping identities impact our experiences, privileges, and bias. Once we dig into that, we can better understand intersectionality and our role in it. That’s when we can do the actual work of impacting change. Because as Crenshaw explained, “you can’t change outcomes without understanding how they’ve come about…” 

Now let’s take this a step further so you can understand your identity and others as it relates to intersectionality. This is where our dominant and subordinate identities come into play. Our dominant identities have access to power and hold privilege. Before you jump at me, that doesn’t mean you don’t work hard for what you have. It simply means there aren’t additional challenges and obstacles built to prevent you from succeeding. Subordinate groups are oppressed identities that typically have to work to assimilate and fit into the dominant groups and have less access to power. 

This is where intersectionality is crucial because we have overlapping identities that are likely in the dominant category and the subordinate category. Let’s take me as an example. I am a white woman. As a woman, I fall into the subordinate categories; however, being White, I am part of the dominant group. So what does this mean? It means depending on the space I am in, the jobs I am applying for, the folx in my community, I sometimes can hold privileges and other times don’t necessarily “fit” or have to work harder to navigate systems that weren’t built with me in mind. 

Ok, OK! I know that’s heavy and a lot. Let’s break this down to simplify it a bit. 

Let’s pretend I’m in a meeting. There are three men and two women (one of them being me). The other woman is Black. As two of the only women in the room, it would be beneficial to have at least one man in that space who understands the intersectionality to interrupt the power dynamics that exist. These power dynamics can look like dominating the conversation or referring to the men in the room first (sometimes unconsciously). As a White woman, I understand that although my gender is marginalized, my race is a privilege that I can utilize to create more equitable space for the Black woman in the room. That might mean speaking up if I see her being interrupted or getting ahold of the “mic” and passing it over to her to share first. 

I challenge you on your own to consider the privilege and dynamics if the men in the room were all white? What if one or two of them were BIPOC? Reflect on the intersectionalities of identities and the impacts there. This is a scenario that often happens in tech. 

Here’s the thing, intersectionality is complex, but that doesn’t mean we don’t push ourselves to comprehend it fully. Often, I find folx are offended by this discussion because we take it so personally. As I mentioned, some see this as an attack and discrediting their work or who they are as a person. All of this can be true: You can be a hard worker; You can be actively trying to do good, AND our privileges can be part of that too. Many times I see people trying to argue this by making comments like…

“I am not actively trying to make someone feel unwelcomed in a space.”

“I can’t control what my grandparents/great-grandparents did.”

“I didn’t have anything and worked for everything I have.”

(to name a few)

I get it; it’s hard to resist making comments like those, especially when you’re feeling defensive and misunderstood. It comes down to coming to terms with the reality of how our identities impact our experiences which make them unequal. If you’re currently feeling or saying something like I mentioned, try to challenge that. Lean into that guilt or misunderstanding, reflect on how others may have it even harder than you did solely because of their identity, and keep learning about intersectionality to show up better for others. 

We can further discuss many intersectionality aspects, but I encourage you to use this as a starting point. 

Resources to continue your learning journey:

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Learning to code can be fun!

Get started today with a free trial and discover why thousands of students are choosing Treehouse to learn about web development, design, and business.

Learn more