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What Exactly is Intersectionality?

One of the most common questions I receive in diversity and inclusion (D&I) discussions is, what exactly does “intersectionality” mean?

Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American law professor and a leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw — it is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and how they relate to systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.

Often in D&I work, when we discuss concepts around bias, prejudice, and/or oppression, it is almost often always looked at through a single lens of discrimination (i.e. sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) with zero regard for other forms of discrimination.

For example, I identify as both Black and queer/gay. I find that often when I am in Black spaces, I must address homophobia and other forms of 2SLGBTQ+ discrimination and when I am in queer/gay spaces, I must address racism and other forms of racial prejudice and discrimination.

Here is a concrete example: I was once asked to contribute to a report about Anti-Black Racism in a large organization where I used to work, specifically about my experiences as both a Black man and a gay/queer man, i.e. incorporating the homophobia that I also experienced. In fact, the straight, cisgender Black man who hired me informed me that this report was to be about my intersectionality and he asked me specifically to connect them with trans Black people and queer Black women for multiple intersectional Black perspectives.

In my report, I used the phrase “dominant culture” and he asked me to use the phrase “white people” instead because the audience would more readily understand that language. I politely informed him that I purposely used the phrase “dominant culture” because for me as a Black queer man, sometimes I am speaking to a room full of white people and it is about race, or I’m speaking to a room full of heterosexual people and it is about sexual orientation. The dominant culture is not always the same. What I found quite humorous (and frustrating) was the fact that, by solely focusing on one aspect of my identity, my Blackness, he was in essence erasing my intersectionality, considering that was the assignment.

There’s a famous case study about how intersectionality manifests in the workplace. A manufacturing company in the US, during the Jim Crow era, had a warehouse in which only men were hired, due to the heavy lifting involved. No clients were allowed in this area so the company hired white, Black and other men of colour to work the floor. In the front offices, women were hired as secretaries, but because this a space where clients would frequent, no Black or other people of colour were hired for these jobs. These policies meant that no Black women or women of colour could be hired at this company at all. Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality stemmed from multiple examples of such harm, often unintentional, being done to people with overlapping identities.

At Breakfast Culture, we strive to incorporate intersectionality in all of our initiatives. Schedule a talk with me today to learn more. Schedule a 30-minute meeting with me on Calendly:

Let’s break some eggs! ~ Jefferson Darrell, Founder and CEO, Breakfast Culture™ Inc.

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