Nearly every individual who exists in a functioning society, maintains multiple social identities. Some of these groups of identity are subject to unrelenting discrimination, while others may experience subtler bias at the systemic level. The complexity of intersectionality was birthed in the study of how people ascribe to various social groups and how the interconnectedness of those groups’ distinguishable characteristics affect bias within a society. By way of illustration, consider what it means to be an educated, poor, Hispanic female. Society’s treatment of the four groups come with various biases, a discussion of which could fill countless pages. For the purpose of making sense of intersectionality, one very narrow example will be used.
In this example, we’ll discuss an educated high school senior, viewed as better off than most. Having a greater propensity for success, this senior is neglected in a critical transitional phase while making major financial decisions about higher education. The way society disenfranchises this person may be unintentional, but still, the effects are apparent. Being that this person is educated and intelligent, let’s assume they reach out for help concerning their ambitions for higher-education because they cannot afford the endeavor on their own. Let’s say this student lives in a high-poverty inner-city where resources are limited or unavailable. Society continues to disenfranchise this person, and they choose a university based on the best scholarship package without considering factors like average job placement and average salary for graduates at their school of choice because there were no resources to advise them on those considerations. We will also assume that this young poor student is Hispanic. While racial discrimination is not nearly as conspicuous as in the past, the added factor of being poor and Hispanic may engender assumptions about this person’s background that are irrelevant and unfair. Finally, let’s assume this educated, poor, and Hispanic individual also happens to be a woman applying for an unpaid internship she may not be able to afford to leave a paying job for and the interviewer is a man with a “boys club” mentality.
It is difficult to say with certainty how belonging to any of those social groups would affect the individual experiences throughout this woman’s life; however, it can be said with certainty that her experiences include the added challenges that make her path to success more complex. What makes the topic of intersectionality so important is that understanding how bias affects people at the systemic level requires an in-depth conversation on social identity beyond lazy disputes. For instance, some may argue that having a black president proves that there are no racial barriers in politics for men. They may not have considered Barack Obama’s intersectionality and the social identities that overlapped in a manner that made the presidency possible for someone in his precise intersection. The question one should ask when assessing the barrier for black men in politics is whether America would ever elect a black version of Donald Trump. Experience and assumption would lead me to believe that would not happen (and for reasons other than intersectional bias, I hope it never does).
Discussing intersectionality seems to bring out a great level of discomfort in some. In my experience, the discomfort stems from two things: a rejection of guilt or shame.
Guilt – No one wants to feel the guilt that comes with knowing they may have benefited from a system that disenfranchises women (I have), or people of color, or the poor (I have). Believing this would incite a sense of responsibility to be a part of the solution to course-correct, and that’s uncomfortable for some. A fear that many internalize, is that ending intersectional bias means reversing it in a way that negatively affect those benefitting from it.
Shame – The self-deprecating nature of some who have been victimized by their own intersectionality is to cling to their pride because they don’t want to believe that anything else impeded or prolonged their rise to success. They don’t want to be the victim nor do they want to make excuses. The truth is that accepting and understanding how your intersectionality affects you, makes you more capable of conquering the hurdles that disenfranchise you.
Working hard to diminish intersectional bias makes society more productive, which leads to more opportunity for everyone. The war on intersectional bias is everyone’s fight. Not simply because everyone is negatively impacted by it, but because making opportunity as equally accessible as possible should be the goal of every humane society. Success and failure in the eyes of a faulty social construct is related to many uncontrollable factors that include a person’s tenacity, hard work, and personal responsibility. While some push through bias, we must always return to those we have surpassed, extending a helping hand and an encouraging heart.