Originally introduced as a concept to challenge a feminist analysis which spotlighted a woman’s gender experience while seemingly rendering invisible and irrelevant her other experiences and realities intersectionality is now used to better understand the plight of various marginalized groups and individuals. Intersectionality plays an important role in unpacking how the lives and experiences of an individual’s multiple identities influences how they perceive and interact with their world and conversely how their world perceives and interacts with them. It recognizes the multiple interconnected inequities and forms of oppression that marginalized people face. This interconnection of numerous social identities at the level of individual experience reflect intertwined systems of privilege and oppression at a systemic level.
Kimberle Crenshaw who is credited with coining the concept of intersectionality argued that in the case of black women, feminist theory and antiracist discourse predicated on a discrete set of experiences often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. While some theorists view intersectionality as the complex and cumulative ways in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination i.e. racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty etc. combine, overlap or intersect, others seek to understand and address the intersections of various locations of social disadvantage, not in isolation or cumulatively; but with the recognition that they often combine in a variety of ways to produce specific configurations or intersections of inequality. These inequalities can shift and fluctuate but are almost always present in one combination or another, manifesting in a matrix of marginalization and oppression.
The analytical lens of intersectionality aims not to reveal one group as being more victimized or privileged than another but rather to inform effective responses to persistent and growing social inequities. It allows those who lead and influence community engagement to consider a variety of socio-political forces and understand how privilege, power, oppression and exclusion operate in interlocking ways to shape the lives of individuals and communities. Intersectionality takes into account historical, social and political contexts while recognizing unique individual experiences resulting from the confluence of different types of identity. Consider the experiences of a Minenhle, a young Black African, transgendered male who is claiming refugee status because of the persecution he faced in his home country. His race gives rise to social stereotypes, assumptions and prejudices, with deep historical roots, that may suggest to many that he is socially inferior and not deserving of the same rights and opportunities as others. Some may react negatively and with resentment to his collecting social assistance and label him a burden to society.
The resentment may be further exaggerated if he seeks intervention to affirm his identity. His gender identity, especially in combination with his race, marks him as deviant and even dangerous and separates him from his own ethno-racial community. He is vulnerable to ridicule, exploitation and violence putting him at risk of retraumatization. Further, his nationality, and precarious immigration status all function to create a matrix of power and oppression, which prevent him from presenting his authentic self, connecting to or seeking assistance within his own ethnic community, or from reporting crimes committed against him due to fear of deportation. Attempting to engage such an individual in activities that simply address, for example his immigration status does little to reduce the disparities, subjugation and vulnerability he is experiencing.
Communities are diverse, multi-dimensional entities whose members belong to more than one group at the same time, as a consequence of their multiple identities, some communities or individuals are pushed to the extreme margins and experience profound discriminations while others benefit from more privileged positions. The well-known poet and activist Audre Lorde who once identified herself “As a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist Socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an inter-racial couple, stated that she usually found herself a part of some group defined as other, deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong.” Intersectional analysis helps us to visualize the convergence of different types of discrimination as points of intersection or overlap resulting in a simultaneous experience of oppression and privilege. While in the course of community engagement we may deal with issues separately, for example, food security, crime, or unemployment, ignoring the interrelatedness of these issues and denying the reality and impact of converging experiences of inequities and micro aggressions leaves those most affected feeling excluded and vulnerable.
Intersectional theory helps to deconstruct and assess the impact of these converging identities on opportunities and access to rights, and to see how policies, programs, services and laws that affect one aspect of an individual’s or community’s life are inextricably linked to others. Acknowledgment that communities are not homogenous is commonplace in CE, however, the implications of this are not elucidated and are easily lost in the design, planning and application of CE approaches. It is not enough to merely say that economically disadvantaged youth are in jeopardy or that racialized peoples have different experiences. In developing processes, designing interventions and measuring impact the unique and overlapping experiences and issues particular to disproportionately affected groups must receive appropriate and adequate attention. Conceptualizing each form of oppression and discrimination as compounding, sandbags piled one on top the other, thereby increasing the overall burden of inequality, does not illuminate the full context and quality of the experience of marginalization. It renders invisible the interconnectedness of multiple experiences of exclusion and ignores the fact that something unique is produced at the intersection point.
Engagement strategies often ignore the significance of social identities and are not flexible enough to allow people to see themselves reflected. Without an intersectional lens activities meant to impower individuals to affect meaningful and positive change are inadvertently constructed in ways that exclude and often penalize. For example, a group of parents decides to engage around an issue such as affordable childcare recognizing that the chances of affecting change is increased through a collective approach. However, the newcomer couple who work multiple survival jobs and different shifts to make ends meet, know that no matter how positive the outcome of the group’s activism they will not experience the same degree of benefit as their white, educated, neighbours with 9 – 5 jobs.
Their family commitments coupled with their work demands do not allow the same level of engagement as other members of the group, nor are the outcomes likely to meet their specific needs. Not naming an issue, dismissing an issue as outside of scope, oversimplifying an experience, labeling a need as not common, describing sectors of a community as reluctant to engage or hard to reach are all subtle ways of diminishing and ignoring real and present challenges for those with the least power. Using intersectionality as a key principle in CE requires thinking differently about identity, equality and power, and placing more focus on points of intersection, complexity, dynamic processes, and the structures that define access and opportunities, rather than on defined categories or isolated issue areas. It requires a substantial investment in the analytical and data gathering stages of the work, beginning with the collection of information about how people actually live their lives, the experiences and views of the diversity of the community, especially those living in the furthest edges of the margins. It should include both personal stories as well as quantitative data. It entails critical investigation of principles, assumptions and motivation behind research, interpretation of data, and evaluation of impacts. It requires pause to ask how appropriate a “new” engagement model or better practice is for a particular community rather than jumping blindly on the newest fad or language.
To many this is simply semantics if it doesn’t result in meaningful change. From the standpoint of privilege, oppression can seem less “intersectional”, even when the individual or organization shares some part of their identity with the community with which they are working. Whether paid or unpaid the position of “leader or catalyst” affords a certain amount of power and privilege and all the potential to use such in ways that are not to the advantage of the communities of interest. Without intentional deconstruction privilege often results in a blinkered perspective, masking the interactions of oppressions. Practitioners and activists with multiple social group privileges are often positioned so that the intersections of structures of disadvantage are less readily visible to them. This is the root of the “colour blind” mentality in racism. We are all humans, the only experience is the human experience, or we are all precariously housed and that is the only experience that matters and that binds us. Such naïve perspectives are counterproductive in creating sustainable meaningful engagement. This is not to say that those with some form of social group privilege are fated to remain unaware of how the axis of oppression interacts.
Using an intersectional lens, those in positions of leadership can engage in processes of self-reflection to analyze the advantages of their own socio-political position and determine better practices that counteract and balance the power differential. While it is impossible to name and represent all of the oppressions, identities and structures that may emerge in intersectional analysis, such an analysis should encourage continued investigation of the environment in ways that uncover suppressed dimensions. Meaningful impacts and improved outcomes for communities mean recognizing and focusing on multiple inequities and the way they influence the experience of groups and individuals simultaneously, in much the same way as the interconnections between poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity are understood. The effectiveness of community engagement depends on analyses that can capture complex, entwined issues. If CE approaches and activities are not informed by a complete picture of socio-economic, political, and historical experiences of diverse groups it is unlikely that the full breadth and scope of vulnerabilities, actions and experiences within the community are unearthed. Approaches and activities built on limited information cannot possibly achieve their full potential. What may work to engage and benefit some community members may act to exclude and disadvantage other sectors of the community. To truly reduce or eradicate inequities, the focus needs to be placed on the confluence of multiple dimensions of inequity. Community engagement must step out onto those skinny branches and gather those communities and individuals teetering on the fringes of marginalization.
- Bowleg, L. (2012). The problem with the phrase women and minorities: Intersectionality – an important theoretical framework for public health. American Journal of Public Health, 102(7), 1267-1273.
- Crenshaw, K. (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Form Vol. 1 Issue 1
- Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241
- Lorde, A. (2007). Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. Toronto: Crossing Press. p. 114.
- Symington, A., 2004, ‘Intersectionality: A Tool For Gender And Economic Justice, Facts and Issues’, The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)