Intersectionality: what it is and why it matters for your business.

Intersectionality; a group of people sit closely together in a well-lit office space.

What makes you, you? Is it your cultural heritage? Your age? Your gender? Your skin color?

How about the language you speak? Or your sexual orientation? Or is it your political or religious beliefs?

Oh, I know—maybe it’s your occupation, or your marital status, or whether you have children?

Nope. The truth is, of course, that you’re not one thing. What makes you, you is almost certainly a combination of the above—or none of the above! All of us are complex human beings, and none of us can be defined by one facet of our identity, background, or appearance.

And yet we often tend to reduce other people to single characteristics, usually without realizing it. I do it. You do it. We’re all prone to doing it when meeting someone new or interacting with a stranger.

It’s easier to sort an unfamiliar person by a seemingly obvious trait of theirs—”Black,” “white,” “Asian,” “woman,” “gay,” “Muslim,” “old,” “young,” “doctor,” “police officer,” “disabled,” “foreign”—than to imagine a whole, multilayered individual with a one-of-a-kind personal history and perspective on life.

But while that way of thinking is easy, it isn’t especially kind, honest, or inclusive. To break the habit, we need to embrace intersectionality.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is all about the ways in which the elements of a person’s identity and experience, well, intersect.

In the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the lawyer and civil rights advocate who first developed the theory of intersectionality, the term is “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.”

Basically, intersectionality is the idea that you’re not one thing, but many things—and that those things shape one another. Characteristics such as your race, age, and gender don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re all bundled together, and every trait influences how you and others perceive every other trait.

Thinking carefully about these relationships allows us to understand our preconceptions and inherent biases.

What does intersectionality look like?

Intersectionality shows us that not all members who appear to belong to the same group have the same experiences. This knowledge can help us determine how to make the world a safer, more just, and more inclusive place.

For example, Black women are often subject to different forms of discrimination than Black men and non-Black women. Therefore, we need to make space to include and address the unique realities of life for Black women.

As Crenshaw writes:

“[M]any of the experiences Black women face are not subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimination as these boundaries are currently understood… [T]he intersection of racism and sexism factors into Black women’s lives in ways that cannot be captured wholly by looking at the women race or gender dimensions of those experiences separately.”

Another example: a transgender woman of color is more likely to face violence than a white, cisgender queer man, although both are often lumped under the same umbrella of the LGBTQ+ community. Using intersectionality as a framework, people within these communities can understand the diversity of experience and better address the unique struggles of their most marginalized members.

Today, as these members of historically oppressed communities continue to speak out against the modes of oppression that have affected their lives, we all have a duty to sit down, listen to their voices, and develop a greater understanding in order to move forward with advocacy and change.

Why does intersectionality matter?

Embracing intersectionality is a form of kindness.

If we don’t periodically remind ourselves that other people are just as unique and complicated as we are, we risk harming those people—and ourselves. Reducing someone to a single trait diminishes that person’s humanity and robs us of the opportunity to experience the world in its real, nuanced, messy beauty.

This is especially important when you run a business. If you don’t consider others’ full humanity, you’ll seriously limit your opportunities and customer base. You might also alienate employees and even face claims of discrimination and unfair treatment.

In many cases, however, the impact is just as harmful as a discrimination lawsuit, but quieter and less obvious. Studies have shown that members of marginalized groups are often subject to feelings of isolation and underappreciation at the workplace. Instances of workplace exclusion, disrespect, and the silencing of voices can lead to employees feeling discouraged to speak up.

No one should be made to feel as if their voices and their ideas will be dismissed out of hand due to inherent bias in the workplace. A greater effort toward diversity and inclusion is the first step in creating a space in which everyone on board feels validated.

Bringing intersectionality into your business: How can you get started?

As you might imagine, intersectionality is a large, complex topic—something far beyond the scope of this article. But we don’t want to leave you to figure it all out on your own. Here are a few ideas for getting started:

1. Make sure everyone is involved.

As with so many matters of organizational culture, intersectionality involves everyone. Executive leadership, management, and frontline team members all need to share a commitment to creating and maintaining an inclusive environment—one built on a foundation of psychological safety.

2. Ask targeted questions.

As a leader, make sure that you and your team are asking the right questions when developing new projects and campaigns. Does the makeup of our team actively represent a diverse set of identities and experiences? Are the personal needs of our employees being taken into account? Are marginalized voices being listened to?

3. Review your organizational culture and initiatives.

Allow your team to share their stories and recognize why, in the past, they may not have felt comfortable doing so. Ask yourself if your workplace enforces a culture of exclusion and work on practical solutions built on input from those who have been directly affected by it. If your company is working on a campaign to commemorate Pride Month, for example, what are you doing to ensure that your team is accurately representing the diversity inherent in the LGTBQ+ community?

4. Educate yourself.

Due to the nature of the term, it’s fair to say that intersectionality research and education covers a lot of ground. Thankfully, plenty of resources are available. The easiest way to start incorporating intersectionality into your daily life is not to embark on an extensive research binge, but to teach yourself to unlearn certain unconscious and biases you may have picked up from broader social trends.

5. Engage in self-reflection.

If you find the concept of intersectionality difficult to comprehend or uncomfortable to think about, ask yourself why that may be and where those feelings are coming from.

6. Have honest conversations.

Aside from self-reflection, the most fundamental first step we can take to embrace intersectionality in our daily lives is to start having conversations with others whose lived experiences we may not be fully familiar with.  That being said, it is not the job of a member of any marginalized group to educate someone else on intersectionality.

So, don’t enter these conversations with any ulterior motives for your own benefit. Instead:

  • Create a genuine dialogue built around mutual respect
  • Avoid getting defensive when past instances of ignorance are referenced
  • Understand the personal impact of your words and actions
  • Learn to hold yourself accountable if and when you have crossed a line
  • Seek forgiveness and move on with a greater sense of knowledge
  • Commit to doing better

Creating a broader culture of intersectionality requires commitment from all of us, at every level. This includes speaking up and advocating for those who don’t feel as though they have an avenue to do it for themselves.

Remember: intersectionality takes work. It can be difficult, emotionally taxing work, but it’s necessary work. Intersectionality allows all of us to live in a fuller, richer, and frankly more interesting world—a world where everyone can live as their truest selves.

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