Understanding Intersectionality

© By Dr. Lynn Gehl

Introducing Intersectionality

When creating a more liberating world inclusive of all people, an intersectionality lens, or an intersectionality methodology, is required.

Intersectionality theory was first articulated by Black women who were dissatisfied with the efforts and knowledge emerging from White feminism as it fails to speak to their experience. In my limited understanding I have read that people credit the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, the latter who first coined the term in 1989.

. . . summing up structural oppressions does not capture the complete understanding . . .rather a new oppressive monster is created that is bigger than the sum of three parts.

At its essence intersectionality speaks to the reality that more than one structural oppression – sexism and racism for example – can exist within the bodies and daily lives of people, and as such impinges on their lives in ways that create more and different barriers when navigating societal structures. In offering an example, the intersectional discrimination of being Indigenous and a woman cannot be pulled apart as separate categories of understanding because the two structural oppressions intersect in close relationship. An Indigenous woman is never just Indigenous nor is she never just a woman; she is both at the same time. Intersectionality tells us that the lived oppression is more complicated.

Today intersectionality has been broadened and values that any of the many structural oppressions − classism, sexism, racism, genderism, and ableism – can and do intersect with one another in ways that places the person in a worse off situation when navigating societal structures.

It is important to understand that the daily lived effect of intersectional oppression on members of society is best thought of as fluid, meaning the effect will shift from person to person depending on where the person is located within the interconnecting matrix of the various structural oppressions. Again, understanding intersectional oppression is more complicated.

The “Interaction Effect” and the “Intersectional Edge”

In understanding intersectionality we must consider what I call the “interaction effect” which speaks to the fact that people living under multiple layers of structural oppression live an oppressed reality that is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. The interaction effect informs us that summing up structural oppressions does not capture the complete understanding because the oppressions interact with one another in an exponential way. For example, the lived reality is far worse than the oppression of classism, plus the oppression of sexism, plus the oppression of racism equalling three; rather a new oppressive monster is created that is bigger than the sum of three parts. The lived reality of intersectional oppression is much the same as when certain drugs are combined to interact in a way where the effect is potentially lethal.

Intersectionality theory was first articulated by Black women who were dissatisfied with the efforts and knowledge emerging from White feminism . . .

What is more, in understanding intersectionality it should become apparent that people who exist under multiple layers of structural oppression live the daily stress of what I call the “intersectional edge” meaning they are tired, frustrated, depressed, and more than likely angry at an increased level because on a daily and hourly basis, if not in every minutia of their life, they are forced to navigate structures in society that foremost have been created for cis-gendered, able-bodied, White men. It stands to reason that a person who is living intersectional oppression is living a more difficult reality, hence the “intersectional edge”. This is especially so when we consider the interaction effect.

Constructing Genuine Intersectional Events and Discussions

All too often I am asked to speak at conferences and speak on panels where the organizer/s claims to be taking an intersectional lens and practice when in fact they are not. Rather, more often than not they are merely organizing a superficial diversity event. Here are a set of guidelines that will serve the much needed shift from constructing superficial diversity efforts to constructing genuine intersectional efforts.

1. Foremost, intersectionality is a theoretical concept created to convey the complexity of oppression in situations where two or more structural oppressions overlap and intersect: Classism, sexism, racism, genderism, and ableism.

2. Intersectionality is best viewed as a theoretical concept that values fluidity on the ground in the sense that the presences of multiple structural oppressions are experienced in different ways, shifting from person to person.

3. Intersectionality values that people under multiple layers of structural oppression live on a daily basis with multiple overlapping barriers: medical, physical, and economic.

4. Genuine intersectional efforts must move beyond diversity in concrete real ways.

5. Genuine intersectional efforts are organized and constructed in a way that values people are more than their phenotype physiology or appearance. For example, some Indigenous people no longer look stereotypically Indigenous, and some Indigenous people have assimilated into dominant western culture and are no longer rooted in Indigenous knowledge. In addition sometimes a disability is invisible to the eye meaning the lack of a wheel chair does not mean the person is an able-bodied person.

6. Genuine intersectional organizers take the time to select people who have completed the critical thinking needed to understand their oppressions. Adding a brown face or a person in a wheel chair to a conference/panel simply to fulfill your need for appearances is a form of tokenism, is superficial, and not acceptable.

7. Genuine intersectional organizers select people who can speak freely and who will not be prevented from freedom of expression because they are situated within a context, organization, or institution that is powered through structural oppression such as classism, sexism, racism, genderism, and ableism.

8. In terms of conference/panel members’ time allocation, offering each speaker the same amount of time is not an intersectional approach. Some people with disabilities require more time than abled-bodied people to verbally express their knowledge. Further, people under multiple layers of structural oppression embody more of the knowledge of structural oppressions that people need to listen to and learn from.

9. Genuine intersectional efforts must be held within accessible venues for people who require aids such as support dogs, walkers, and wheel chairs. Further, necessary accommodations must be taken for the vision and hearing impaired.

10. Intersectional organizers must carefully consider the allocation of their budgets and fund raise if necessary. For example, an employed speaker and an unemployed speaker must be offered different honouraria / speaker fees. Further, funds must be provided for attendants and drivers of speakers who have a disability. Clearly equity measures, not equality measures, must be taken.

11. Efforts at organizing and establishing genuine intersectional events must move beyond communicating through textual means, such as email and chats, as this form of communication has too many limitations. A larger print does not solve all issues when communicating with a person with a disability. Other options must be relied upon such as the telephone, video chat, and skype.

12. Intersectional organizers must value that all people living and existing under multiple layers of structural oppressions deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, even in situations where it takes more effort, time, and funding.

13. When working toward genuine intersectional efforts it must be valued that the effort will involve a process of carefully navigating the complex and competing needs of the panel members, attendees, and organizers. This must be done in a good and respectful way.

14. Genuine intersectional efforts appreciate the incredible amount of intra-psychic energy required for a multiple structurally oppressed person to navigate the structural and institutional oppressions inherent in our society. Said another way, organizers value that privilege is when a person’s consciousness and intra-psychic energy is dedicated to their own needs versus navigating insurmountable structural oppression.

15. Intersectional organizers understand the “interaction effect” that speaks to the fact that summing up the layers of structural oppressions does not capture the lived reality of living with multiple structural oppressions. Rather, structural oppressions interact with one another in ways that create a new monster of oppression that is greater than the sum of its parts.

16. Intersectional organizers understand the “intersectional edge” that speaks to the fact that people under multiple layers of structural oppressions live a reality that manifests more frustration, sadness, and anger. These emotions must not be criticized, trivialized, ignored, or dismissed as unprofessional or needy.

17. Privileged people who insist they be taught about structural oppression in joyful ways, void of the emotional aspects, are selfish and have no real desire to learn; rather, they want to be “entertained”, thus adding more stress to the oppressed person. Learning about intersectional oppression is rooted in tough love.

18. If your event claims to be about addressing structural oppression such as racism and sexism, yet it is not intersectional you are very likely an ableist which is akin to being racist and sexist.

19. Genuine intersectional organizers know that it is the oppressed who hold the knowledge for society to re-gain its humanity and their praxis reflects this wisdom.

Lynn Gehl, Ph.D., is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe. She is an advocate, artist, and writer and is an outspoken critic of colonial law and policies that harm Indigenous women, men, children, and the land. Her latest book islynn-gehl-head-shot now available Gehl v Canada: Challenging Sex Discrimination in the Indian Act. Her other book The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process, published by Fernwood, is available at her website.

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