Imagine this: You're an African American woman applying for a position at a prominent manufacturing company. You go through the first round of interviews and find out that you were not selected to continue forward in the hiring process. At first, you think nothing of it. Maybe, you weren't qualified. Maybe, it wasn't a good fit. Then, you see that other African American women are not making it past the first interview phase. It seems weird, but maybe they weren't qualified either. Then, you discover that the workforce at this company is comprised of white men, white women, and black men. The white men are managers, the white women are in administrative positions, and the black men are machine operators.
The more you think about it, the more you believe that you have been discriminated against by the company. You talk to the other African American women and consult with an attorney. Collectively, you file a lawsuit. In the lawsuit, you proclaim that your race and gender were both targets for the discrimination you faced. You're positive that it was a combination of both. You go to court and plead your case, only to be told by the judge that you can't double dip. You are told that you cannot benefit from racial and gender discrimination (as if that's truly a benefit).
You must choose and prove which one type of discrimination you endured. You consider saying that it was a case of racial discrimination, but are quickly reminded that African American men didn't endue the type of discrimination you are claiming. Then, you consider saying it was a case of gender discrimination. Again, you are quickly reminded that white women weren't discriminated against. What do you do? You have no legal argument, but you know you were discriminated against. You wonder why the law hasn't considered this before. Consequently, your case is dismissed.
This is what happened when Kimberle Crenshaw, the forward thinker behind intersectionality, agreed to assist the legal team for Emma DeGraffenreid and other African American women, in a suit against an employer. Jobs at this company were segregated by gender, an unwritten rule, of course. There were jobs for women, such as administrative jobs, and there were jobs for men, such as machine operating jobs. These jobs were also inherently segregated by race. In the end, black women were not hired for the administrative jobs because they were black, and they were not hired for the operating jobs because they were women. This effectively meant that black women could not work at this company, resulting in a discrimination suit. However, they were faced with a legal stumbling block.
White extremely beneficial for many Americans, the anti-discrimination laws catered primarily to the 'single dimension' population. White women could attribute the discrimination they faced, clearly to gender. African American men could attribute the discrimination they faced, clearly to race. Differently-abled people could attribute the discrimination they faced, clearly to disability. But what happens if you don't fit neatly into one of these marginalized groups? Intersectionality occurs when a person identifies with two or more minority or marginalized groups. For example, African American women identify with two groups: African American and woman. Lesbian white women identify with two groups: Lesbian and woman. Disabled, gay, African American men identify with three groups: Disabled, gay, and African American. There is no limit to the number of minority groups a person can belong to, but the more marginalized groups a person identifies with, the more difficult it is to explain her or his experience.
Early research into intersectionality showed that identifying with two or more marginalized groups, such as being an African American woman, meant that one had experiences congruent with being African American (regardless of gender) and being a woman (regardless of race). African American + woman= African American woman. However, recent research on intersectionality has discovered that instead of a math equation, where the result is predictable based on the equation, intersectionality is best described as a recipe. The individual ingredients in a recipe come together to create an entirely new experience. If the final product in a recipe doesn't turn out perfectly, it can be difficult to determine which ingredient caused the issue. The same concept can be applied to situations where intersectional individuals feel harassed or discriminated against. Determining the source of the discrimination can be difficult to pinpoint and describe.
The law has since caught up with the concept of intersectionality, but the invisibility of intersectional individuals in the business world is still very prominent. Business leaders are unaware and uninformed on intersectionality. As a result, it's become the diversity topic we aren't talking about.