Why Everyone Should Know the Term “Intersectionality”
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
I first learned about intersectionality while simultaneously learning about feminism. Feminism and intersectionality should go hand-in-hand, but are separate concepts entirely. In short, intersectionality is a framework for understanding how a person’s identities, combined, will create a unique, lived experience of privilege and oppression. After understanding what this definition meant, I had what I can only describe to be a, “well duh,” and, “ah-ha,” moment at the same time. Being fully perceptive of what intersectionality means has also helped me navigate through difficult conversations with those on the right of the political spectrum.
I remember thinking well of course that makes sense-- every person’s life is experienced differently based on what identity traits they have. However, I began processing this concept more. What traits affect our daily lives the most? These identities are sometimes referred to as, “The Big 8” and are the following: Age, Ability, Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Socioeconomic Status, Religion. If everyone can understand how their Big 8 Identities play into political affiliation as well, it may change a person’s perspective on what privilege and oppression means for themselves and others.
Again, intersectionality is just a framework for comprehending how your personal identities play into the privilege or oppression you are experiencing. Think about it this way: each identity is it’s own circle, but the circles can certainly overlap. Some folks argue that because they grew up in a poor community, they can’t be racist. Socioeconomic Status (SES for short) and Race are two separate circles of identity; one lived experience cannot negate how you interact with another circle. I can understand that both people of color and White folks can share the hardships of growing up poor. However, growing up poor and White is a vastly different experience than growing up poor and being Black/Indigenous. We must do better at recognizing how systems of oppression differ and relate to one another. Intersectionality helps us with that.
I believe a lot of people use intersectional arguments to criticize our society without even knowing the term “intersectional.” It seems like an obvious enough concept, however I challenge you to be cognitive of the framework in your life. Consider your own identities. It might even be helpful to write them down so they’re laid out in front of you.
For example: I’m heterosexual and Catholic, so being in a relationship and getting married should be no problem. However, what if I were gay? Suddenly growing up in a Catholic family is more difficult. I would have to think about eventually coming out to the world knowing well not everyone is going to accept me. I probably couldn’t get married at my hometown church. I also might face harsh ridicule from peers at school and I would be five times as more likely to attempt suicide than a heterosexual teen (1). With this in mind, I am conscious of the privilege I hold to simply love who I love without question or fear.
It’s important for us to understand how we can use our areas of privilege to help others and our experiences of oppression to drive conversations and ultimately movements forward. Unless you are a healthy White, cisgendered, heterosexual, Christian male that comes from a family of generational wealth, you are experiencing at least one circle of oppression.
Learning about intersectionality has not only made me more of an empathetic person, but a more critical voter. Whenever there are major policy changes or talk of new legislation I find myself asking, “Who is this impacting and what are the possible consequences?” It has also become apparent to me which legislators understand the complexity of how oppressive systems relate to one another. The embodiment of this kind of thinking comes from none other than The Squad, who use their positions of privilege and lived experiences to push legislation that benefits all oppressed circles of identity. Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts has said herself: "The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power” (2).
Let’s put forth this thinking when we head to the polls.