If you’ve spent any time on a college campus lately, or read an article about diversity and discrimination, you’ve probably run across the term “intersectionality.”
But what exactly does this word mean?
What is Intersectionality
Considering that you won’t find it in many dictionaries, defining the term can prove a bit nebulous, but “intersectionality” routinely refers to a sociology theory that outlines how an individual may face multiple types of overlapping discrimination depending on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, physical ability, class or any other characteristic that might place them in a minority class.
The term was originally coined by KimberlÃŒÃ„Ã¥Â© Crenshaw in her 1989 essay entitled “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” In this essay, Crenshaw argued that immigrant women of color faced unique challenges due to their intersecting minority statuses. Further, she argued that these women were not being adequately served by the feminist and anti-racist movements of the time as each movement only addressed a fraction of the challenges they faced.
This argument is echoed in a 2014 study that uncovered higher incidents of depression among trans black women who had experienced discrimination.
The concern reflected in intersectionality is that when people who fit into multiple minority categories (e.g., a disabled gay Latino or a 60-year-old Native American trans-gender) experience discrimination, the current protective mechanisms will fail to meet their more nuanced needs.
For example, your campus may offer support hotlines or counseling services to students who have experienced sexual harassment. However, if those services are only available in English, then non-native and English as a second language (ESL) students are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to use these services.
These students, who have already been victimized, experience further difficulty solely due to their intersecting status as a minority.
Similarly, as your campus focuses on treating certain inequities, such as low admission rates for particular ethnic groups, you ignore other inequities – such as low admission rates for senior citizens or disabled students – and further marginalize these disadvantaged groups.
One of the key advantages of intersectionality is the encouragement to view others as more than just a single category. Rather than being defined solely by their gender or race, your students are actually complex human beings that are defined and influenced by a number of identifying factors.
By recognizing the competing and substantive influences that these elements can have on the individual, you can treat your students more humanely rather than reducing them to a general demographic.
Ultimately, the goal of intersectionality is to better embrace diversity, making sure that each student has a voice and a place to be heard on your campus. In creating a more welcoming environment, you can deliver an enriching, well-rounded educational experience for all of your students, no matter their background.
There are, of course, many actions that your campus can take to promote campus diversity, such as:
- Providing faculty with training on how to create an inclusive classroom
- Offering cultural/topical organizations and clubs for disadvantaged students
- Soliciting constant feedback from students and faculty on how to encourage diverse voices on campus
- Evaluating existing curricula regularly for unintended biases
- Creating spaces for marginalized communities where they can identify and address their unique needs
For students that fit into multiple minority communities, the consequences of unconscious bias can quickly compound – even from well-meaning peers and campus programs. And when these vulnerable students are targeted for bullying and discrimination, the potential damage can be much more traumatizing and have long-term ramifications.
To help create a safe, inclusive culture on your campus, check out our student diversity training courses. We can help your students develop the skills necessary to respectfully communicate with peers, regardless of their identity.