"Professor, I feel like I'm missing something. I'm going to one class and we talk about ways to attract and be more inclusive of women. Then, I go to another class and we discuss issues facing black and brown people. I don't feel like my experiences and perspective are discussed. I don't feel like I can bring myself into the conversation. What am I missing?"
That was the gist of my bewildered conversation with my professor and advisor in an attempt to understand what was missing. The recommendation from my professor changed my life.
"Demetria, have you ever heard of intersectionality? Have you read about the critical race theory? Do you know Kimberle Crenshaw? Go research and read all you can, then you'll find your answer."
Needless to say, I dove head first into the research to better understand what was missing.
The Roots of Intersectionality
In 1851, Sojourner Truth stood on stage at the Women's Convention and said, "Ain't I a woman? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over mud puddles. Nobody ever helped me into carriages or lifted me over mud puddles. Ain't I a woman?" It was at this point that Sojourner Truth first pointed out the differences in the way white women were treated and how black women where treated. Sojourner was one of the few activists who were mindful of the gap black women fell into. She fought for voting rights for black people and women, knowing that no matter which group were granted voting rights first, she would still come in last. Sojourner's speech was full of examples where she, as a black woman, is treated differently than her white counterpart.
In 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw put a name to the invisibility black women faced in a world where people who faced multiple marginalization often weren't considered. Kimberle Crenshaw called this phenomenon, 'intersectionality'. Her simple analogy explains the concept perfectly. Imagine an intersection where two or more cars crash and, of course, blame each other for the accident. It can be difficult and sometimes impossible to determine who is at fault. The concept of intersectionality is the same.
At the intersection of 'woman' and 'black', it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause of the discrimination or hatred black women face. It could be because she is a woman, because she is black, or a combination of both. Intersectionality has mostly been a part of the social justice vocabulary for quite some time, but is finally picking up steam in our workplace conversations.
Intersectionality today is not much different than it was during Sojourner Truth's time, except that the definition has expanded to describe the experiences of all intersectional people, not just black women. In the workplace, leaders are realizing that the identities we typically group people by often leave many on the sidelines. By focusing on intersectionality, not only do we recognize the many identities we each possess and the uniqueness it allows us to bring, but we bring more people into the conversation and into the solution.
Continue the conversation at the Network of Intersectional Leaders!