Search blog

Intersectionality: buzzword or social sector game-changer? 

Different data sources that are interconnected.

Over the last few years, the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has gone mainstream. As a DEI researcher, I both welcome and worry about this change. On the one hand, the DEI movement must go mainstream if we are ever to make real progress. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like the words have gone mainstream without their meaning. In this article, I’ll delve into one of the most popular and controversial DEI buzzwords, what the word actually means, how it’s misunderstood, and how the social sector can benefit from a deeper understanding of “intersectionality.”   

What is intersectionality? 

Coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the term refers to the fact that combinations—or intersections—of social identities such as race, class, and gender result in different experiences and treatment. This is important because when we talk about identity-related issues, we often focus on one identity at a time (e.g., “racial equity” or “gender bias”). But of course, we all have multiple social identities. Intersectionality offers a more holistic view of the human experience by acknowledging that combinations of identities matter. For example, an older, straight, white woman born into wealth and a young, gay, white man born into poverty will likely be treated differently—even though they’re the same race.       

‘The librarian’s dilemma’

My favorite illustration of intersectionality is “the librarian’s dilemma,” by Valerie Purdie Greenaway of Columbia University. Imagine a librarian who has separate bookshelves dedicated to art history, women’s history, Latin American studies, and LGBTQ icons. The librarian receives a single hard copy of a book on bisexual Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Where should the librarian put the book? No matter what shelf they choose, Frida’s story will be missed by a whole swath of readers who would be interested in the book but are perusing a different shelf. 

This dilemma gets at the heart of what intersectionality aims makes us aware of: When we only consider one identity at a time, some people’s stories will not get told in certain circles.    

How intersectionality gets us out of the oppression Olympics’

Intersectionality is often misinterpreted as reinforcing a hierarchy of oppression (sometimes called “the oppression Olympics”); in reality, it does the opposite. Research on “intersectionality invisibility” shows that combinations of identities can increase or decrease visibility, and there are pros and cons to both. 

This is because we have default images, or “prototypes” that we associate with specific concepts. For many people in the United States, the prototype for a “woman” is a white woman and the protype for “Black person” is a Black man. As a result, Black women are made invisible through mental exclusion of both categories. But they aren’t the only ones. For example, in the U.S., the common prototype for “Asian” is an Asian woman, for “gay person” a gay white man, for “white” someone of higher social economic status—all typically also able-bodied. Therefore, Asian men, lesbians and/or queer people of color, and white people in poverty all likely experience intersectional invisibility. 

Having your lived experience made invisible has far reaching consequences, including being misrepresented, discounted, and dismissed. Moreover, non-prototypical individuals are less likely to be seen as leaders and more likely to be unheard and/or misunderstood.  

At the same time, visibility isn’t always positive. The intersectional invisibility model suggests that individuals who fit the prototype for a marginalized identity may face more active forms of oppression, such as being associated with stereotypes and targeted for hate crimes. Examples include the targeting of Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings and the high rates of police brutality toward Black men. 

Therefore, no one “wins” the oppression Olympics. Rather, different combinations of identities result in different types of discrimination and oppression in different contexts. 

Why the social sector needs intersectionality

The social sector is tasked with creating social change and addressing inequities. Yet, intersectionality suggests that “one-size-fits-all” solutions will likely continue to systematically overlook certain experiences and perspectives. To keep intersectionality front and center, it’s helpful to consider questions such as: 

  • Have we heard from all the different groups of people who could be impacted by this?  
  • When we think about the different perspectives, have we made sure to look beyond prototypes? 
  • Have we listened to those who may otherwise become invisible, whose voices may not be heard as loudly and clearly? 
  • Have we considered the burden of the spotlight we’ve placed on those who fit the prototype of their identities by assuming they represent their entire communities?  

In short, intersectionality is more than a buzzword. It’s a concept backed by research—and a helpful lens for considering which people may be inadvertently targeted or ignored within the communities we aim to serve.  


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • J. R. Posner says:

    June 9, 2024 1:49 pm

    This discussion/framework of intersectionality misses the exclusionary aspects of Intersectionality. Some high profle political voices define as a negative posture that if one admits to one of the facets of one's identity and priorities, then it disqualifies being an ally or even a part of a collective or multiple identity collaboration from which compromises might be fostered. and therefore expanding the scope of a consensus. The remedy and solution is the need for candor and disclosure so that others may calibrate their participation. The immense risk is heightened when financial contributions and support are masked or undisclosed. Thus the need for provisions such as"recusal" when there is a conflict of interest -- and not just a "difference of opinion" of expression of "freedom of speech."

  • Ann DeChenne says:

    June 7, 2024 10:42 am

    This was great and applicable in many areas. Thank you.

  • Greg B. says:

    June 7, 2024 10:34 am insightful article.
    Hopeful that your research will better articulate the communities in which we all live and demystify negative DEI connotations.
    I particularly appreciate the sample questions when discussing and addressing inequities.

  • Stephen MacConnell says:

    June 6, 2024 3:19 pm

    Thank you for your article. It seems to me that if we treat persons well, it does not matter as to their race or gender.
    Doesn't DEI encourage differentiation, and therefor diminish persons' ability to treat
    all with equal respect and dignity ?
    Stephen MacConnell
    [email protected]

  • Donna Shelley says:

    June 6, 2024 3:16 pm

    Thank you for the definition and derivation of the word "intersectionality." Now that I know what it means, I find it just a puffed-up to say that people are complex. And lest anyone believe I am denouncing DEI, I am not.

  • Oscar Edwards says:

    June 6, 2024 1:14 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Clerkin. Everyone, especially in the social sector, should understand and embrace the concept of intersectionality. Individuals' unique life experiences and stories are crucial in demonstrating intersectionality in action. People who have had diverse cross-cultural experiences have a deep understanding of how combined identities can shape our perspectives. Genuine storytelling can help address the challenges of embracing intersectionality and lead to new possibilities for personal and community empowerment and growth. The social sector plays a critical role in redefining how we approach progressive change!

  • Sonia Velazquez-Miškulin says:

    June 6, 2024 10:11 am

    Miss Cathleen, I very much enjoyed reading your blog. Not only did it take me back through time but it also gives me hope for the future. For twenty four years, I have been working with all my energy, strength and income to bring children of various backgrounds together to learn about learn about the world through dance, music and language. I can tell you from experience, that bringing children together and teaching them about the beauty of other cultures, is like watching flowers blossoming in to one.