What is “Intersectionality” and why is it so important?

My previous article was about diversity. Diversity is all about seeing difference, not as something to be feared, but as something that adds value to your organization, to your business. This seems perfectly logical and when things are going well, diversity is a topic that is easily accepted.

What if things are not going so well? In the midst of struggle, is diversity still a priority or do you revert back to old habits of sticking with people like you? That is where intersectionality comes in. Certain battles are fought together.

In certain struggles you need those who are different from you, for all of you to succeed.

There are many debates about why women as a group continue to suffer from widespread discrimination and marginalisation across many societies in the world for the last two decennia or so.

The reason for this are the cross-cutting dividing lines – women are part of different cultures, socio-economic classes, races, religious communities, and so on. On the surface there seems to be more that divides women than that unites us.

A definition

How do we define “intersectionality” then?

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, intersectionality is “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalised individuals or groups.”

In other words, if you want to tackle big societal (global) issues like racism, sexism or classism it makes sense to tackle such problems in ways that transcend social categories or boundaries.

Privilege and unconscious bias

Privilege blinds us and the more privileged we are, the narrower our perspective on the world.

We are like that emperor from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The emperor thought he was clothed in invisible fabric of the highest quality and all the members of his court and his subjects were afraid to expose the truth, and they played along until a child shouted out that the emperor was naked.

Although the most privileged are most blind, they are also those who control resources and wield power and so others need to be more perceptive and aware to pick up on signs of trouble, to de-escalate potential conflicts, etc.

We perceive anger differently in a white man than in a black woman, for example. For the prior, it is a sign of strength; for the latter, it is re-affirming a pre-existing prejudice about “the angry black woman”.

Our perceptions of reality play out in a way that confirms our pre-existing ideas. This is what we call “confirmation bias”. Our preconceptions blind us to the perspectives of others.

It is normal to have bias and pre-conceptions. Everyone with a brain has bias. Yet, we need to try and eliminate prejudices and address bias where we can. What then is the solution?

How to address bias

Discrimination and prejudice are all about pre-conceived unfavorable notions about certain groups of people and differentiated behaviors towards these people as a result of that.

The problem is that many of these notions are cultivated in childhood or picked up from the environment.

We are not necessarily aware of them. We may not even be fully aware that the way we treat one person or group is very different from the way we treat another person or group.

Because we are dealing with unconscious bias and behaviors, addressing them is tricky.

If the victim of the discrimination calls out the behavior when it is happening, chances of the perpetrator waking up and realizing his or her wrongdoing are minimal. Instead, in their view the person calling out the behavior is only confirming the prejudices the perpetrator already has.

We therefore need others – another person who is not of the same group, who recognises the deviant behavior and is courageous enough to call a spade a spade. This has much higher chances of success.

Intersectionality is thus key in addressing issues of bias and discrimination.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so let me try to draw one.

Three years ago, I was flying to the UK from Rwanda and had a connecting flight at Brussels airport. It was about two weeks after the terrorist attacks, and the flight schedule was still very erratic with many flights being cancelled.

I arrived at the airport and found out my connecting flight was cancelled, so I went to the information desk to get information about the next connecting flight I could take.

I was standing in line behind a group of African travelers with the same problem: their connecting flight was also cancelled and they needed to know how to reach their final destination. The only difference was their appearance.

As soon as the lady behind the information desk saw the travelers in front of me, she started shouting at them. Yelling instructions their way in a very aggressive manner and not taking the time to listen to their actual questions.

Her behavior was very intimidating, so I was very surprised that when it was my turn, a smile appeared on her face, her voice softened and her body language appeared more relaxed.

When I asked her later why she was previously shouting at the travelers that had had the same question as I did, a look of surprise appeared on her face. She did not seem to realise how differently she had treated us. If they would have pointed out her blatant racist behavior, the situation would have escalated. I was not the object of her bias and so hearing it from my mouth seemed to make a big difference.

This is just an example, there are many such examples to those who are aware. It is easier to be aware of biases when they work against you, than when you are privileged or unaffected by them.

Yet, addressing them is extremely difficult when you are the object of unconscious bias… that’s were intersectionality comes in.

If a woman is complaining about unconscious gender bias, she may easily be dismissed as ‘oversensitive’ or ‘emotional’. If it is a man drawing the attention to an incident of gender discrimination, it will have more effect.

To address complex societal problems or organisation-wide issues around race, gender or class, collaboration is key – not just in good times, but in times of trouble too. Then we no longer speak about “diversity” which seems to be almost “reserved” for the good times. We tend to speak about “intersectionality” instead.

If you have not yet heard of this concept, it is time to add it to your vocabulary. Let us cast a wider net to reach a worthwhile target, shall we?

The writer is a women’s empowerment champion, a connector and a skills development enthusiast.

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