Understanding intersectionality is a major step toward becoming an authentic ally in your community. By being able to answer the question, "Why is intersectionality important?" you'll be able to deepen the impact of your activism—whether you're combating food insecurity or working to help low-income students succeed.
You might already have encountered the term "intersectionality," but gaining a deeper understanding of what it truly means will only make the work you do that much more impactful. The trouble with defining intersectionality is that you need real-life examples to understand how it works, how it affects you, and how you can contribute to a more equitable society by being aware of it.
That's where this guide comes in.
What Is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a way of acknowledging people's different lived experiences. It comes up often in discussions of feminism and activism because these are topics in which identity is heavily involved. We all have multiple layers—gender, race, economic standing, citizenship—and our lives are shaped by these layers.
Race and gender are great starting points for understanding intersectionality. If you're a woman, you might experience a degree of sexism, possibly in your public life (at work, for example) and private life. If you're a woman of color, your experience of sexism is different from that of a white woman because you're not just a woman, you're also a minority. If you're a woman of color and an immigrant, your experience of sexism is that much more different because you potentially face sexism, racism, and xenophobia.
You can see how these areas intersect: gender, race, and citizenship. That is where the term intersectionality comes from.
Why Does Intersectionality Matter?
Often, people ask: why is intersectionality important? Some people may struggle with the concept because they feel their experiences are minimized when compared with others. Other people may feel that their lived experience was just as hard as anyone else's, despite privileges they may have had, such as race, class, or gender.
The goal of intersectionality is never to tell anyone that they have not had personal struggles or have had to overcome difficult things in their lives. It is simply to acknowledge that there is an imbalance in our society that automatically places burdens on some people while helping others.
Intersectionality is not meant to push people apart. It's important for all allies to acknowledge their privilege. Once you're able to name the ways you experience privilege and the ways in which others face obstacles based on perceived bias, you're ready to really create change.
What Are Some Intersectionality Examples?
Let's get specific. Medicine is a field in which racial bias is exceptionally visible. According to the CDC, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. This could be due to access to medical care, but even in states with the lowest pregnancy-related mortality rate, Black women are still three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. Why?
The data suggests that race plays a huge role in the medical treatment that pregnant women receive. As a white woman, you might not be afraid to give birth in a hospital. As a Black or Native woman, you might have a lot of fear about the same thing. Understanding how race and gender intersect can inform your viewpoint on this.
The intersectionality of race and gender are also visible when you consider the wage gap in America. According to research gathered by the National Partnership for Women and Families, for every dollar a white man makes, white women make about 79 cents, Black women make about 63 cents, and Latina women make only 55 cents.
If you're a white woman, you should absolutely speak out against the gender-based pay gap, but you should do so, always, in solidarity with women of color who face even more biases based on their race.
The nuances of gender are an important part of understanding intersectionality. Cisgender people, or those who were born biologically as how they identify, aren't always aware of the struggles faced by transgender people, whose genders do not necessarily match their physical bodies. As an example, the violence that cisgender women face is far less than the violence that transgender women face.
According to research compiled by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, "Transgender people are 3.7 times more likely to experience police violence compared to cisgender survivors and victims." When you add the intersection of race and transphobia, this same data shows an increase. As the research states, "Transgender people of color were 6 times more likely to experience physical violence from the police compared to white cisgender survivors and victims."
Does Understanding Intersectionality Change Anything?
Understanding intersectionality will have a great impact on you and your communities. Being able to perceive the layered identities of your friends, coworkers, and other community members will make you a more effective communicator, a stronger ally, and a more compassionate human being.
A deep understanding of how intersectionality has affected your life and the lives of others can also enrich your volunteer or community work. Passion drives progress, and seeing the role intersectionality plays in creating social injustice could drive you to direct your activism in different, more personally meaningful directions.
Intersectionality is all around us. Look for it in all that you do, and you'll soon see yourself doing more, helping others more efficiently, and being a stronger, more empathetic and effective ally.
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Why It's Good
By learning about intersectionality, you'll gain a more nuanced perspective of your community and your work as an ally.