Paper to Practice: Intersectionality Transcripts

Intersectionality is a powerful idea that has not gotten enough attention, and when we do hear about intersectionality, we often just hear about it as a way to talk about our many different identities (for example, our race and our gender). But it is so much more than that! Understanding intersectionality can change how we understand and interact with other people and improve the services that we offer.

Intersectionality has been a central focus in Black feminist activism and their writings for nearly two hundred years.

Sojourner Truth delivered her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention where she criticized abolitionists and White suffragettes, who focused on White women or Black enslaved men, but ignored the unique oppression that was experienced by Black women.

In 1989, Black feminist legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, wrote about the legal system and how it did not recognize the experiences of Black women. She called it intersectionality theory and described how our different identities combine to create unique experiences in the world.

Intersectionality means that our identities are not independent parts of us. Instead, our race, gender, sexuality, religion, social class, and a host of other potential identities come together to create a unique understanding of my experience of myself and of the world.

As a result, understanding me as a woman requires understanding that I am a Black woman. And better yet, understanding that I am a cisgender, biracial, Black woman that grew up working class in the United States.

While many think of intersectionality is just a way of understanding individuals and their identities, intersectionality is even more complicated than that.

Intersectionality requires that we go beyond thinking about individuals and consider systems and institutions that impact each of us and how their impact may be different based on the intersecting identities that we hold.

What many do not know about intersectionality is that it is really focused on the fact that structural, systemic, and institutional processes create oppression.

These systems of oppression interact with one another and make each one a bit stronger. For example, racism blends with sexism, classism, and heterosexism, and then each of these are strengthened and supported by one another.

The impact of these different systems of oppression put each of us into social positions that then influence our lived experiences, how we see the world, and our life outcomes.

This is why intersectionality is related to social justice. In fact, Social justice is one of the most important parts of intersectionality because oppression is at the center of the lives of real people.

For example, an intersectional lens on racial health disparities and maternal health outcomes would focus on institutionalized discrimination in medical training and racist or sexist biases of providers as the important factors that create health disparities.

Rather than simply reporting racial differences in pregnancy related deaths, an intersectional framework exposes systemic racism and sexism driving those differences, and shows how women with different intersecting identities are affected by sexism and by racism.

Intersectionality also requires that our activism is grounded in social justice and that creating a more just society for everyone is our first priority.

Intersectionality highlights some uncomfortable truths.

One, our risk of being harmed increases when we have more identities that are marginalized in society. This is called Double or Multiple jeopardy. It is related to intersectionality, but not exactly the same thing. Instead, Double or Multiple jeopardy shows us the increased effects of marginalization associated with having multiple marginalized identities.

So imagine how this works.

As a woman, I may be at higher risk for sexual harassment compared to men. As a Black person, I am at higher risk of racial harassment compared to White people. So as a Black person and a woman, I am at increased risk of being sexually harassed and being racially harassed and am at increased risk of forms of harassment that combine both race and gender.

Multiple jeopardy theory acknowledges that having two marginalized identities means I am even less valuable and protected, so I not only have the increased risk from each type of harassment – this additive risk – but my risk further increases and I am a more acceptable target, generally.

And the more marginalized categories that I occupy, the higher my risk of harm and mistreatment, and we see this at play when we observe the outrageously high rates of violence perpetrated against Black Trans Women in the United States.

And of course, higher victimization rates are then associated with worse physical health and psychological well-being.

It is also important to understand that intersectionality theory is not limited to research on individuals who hold marginalized identities.

Intersectionality theory can, and really should, also be considered when we think about power and oppression among groups that experience multiple advantages, such as middle class, cisgender, heterosexual White men.

Importantly, intersectionality demands that we attend to the fact that Membership in multiple privileged groups increases the likelihood of positive experiences and multiple advantages.

In sum, intersectionality is a powerful tool that we can use to understand individual’s risk for harm as we better understand how different parts of our identities combine to influence our experiences in life. Intersectionality also moves beyond thinking about the individual and focuses on how systems and institutions create structural barriers that affect people differently due to those intersecting identities. And finally, intersectionality focuses on social justice being at the heart of our advocacy work. That we strive to create a more just society that meets everyone’s needs, regardless of the identities that they hold.

Intersectional invisibility refers to the ways identities we hold can combine to make it less likely that people recognize our experiences and needs.

If we do not have any information, most people will imagine a “standard person” as being a White Heterosexual Male. These are the experiences and values that are the focus of most of the stories in the United States. They are considered our leaders, they are seen as central, their needs are prioritized, and as a result, they tend to be our default person in our imagination.

The further away one is from that default person norm, the less likely their story, experiences and values will be reflected or prioritized in policies, laws, education, etc.

To demonstrate how this works,

We can think of dozens of White, cisgender, heterosexual men that are featured in society. We know their stories, they are the ideals of what success looks like in the United States, they are seen as important and worthy.

We can do the same for White women, but probably could name a relatively smaller number that are the focus, and there is less variability in their stories.

Let’s make another twist. How many Queer Black men are central in our national stories? How many of them do you know (particularly if you have not been specialized in this area)? How many of their stories are a focus of popular media?

And let’s take one more twist. How many Queer women of color are a focus in our society? Are their stories frequently covered so that the full diversity of their experiences are normalized and humanized? I am guessing that for most of you, the answer is no.

This is the essence of intersectional invisibility. Individuals are erased. Their stories seem strange, and because they are not prioritized, we don’t know their stories and do not know their challenges.

They’re invisible…

Imagine how this affects our advocacy work with others. We might feel very familiar with the needs of particular types of crime victims because they have been talked about in our trainings, we hear their stories in the media. There may even been tv shows and movies that focus on their experiences. But what happens for other types of crime victims that are not reflected in our trainings, media, TV shows, and movies? If we are less familiar with crime victims in immigrant communities, with Transgender Asian men’s experiences with victimization, then we may not know what questions to ask, services are needed, and help that could be provided. This is the danger of intersectional invisibility. It creates limitations in our knowledge and challenges our ability to connect and meet the needs of those around us.

To work against the effects of intersectional invisibility, we have to work harder to understanding of the kinds of challenges members of a group face; to understand if and how those challenges impact a particular individual; and understand how to have caring, empathetic conversations that invite individuals to share difficult information. We also have to recognize the limitations of our current knowledge and resist the tendency to move forward as if the person’s experience will be similar to what we’re already familiar with.

For example, working with many crime victims following a home invasion may not fully prepare you to understand the concerns and needs of a Transgender Asian man who has just experienced a home invasion. There will likely be things that you already understand and new pieces to consider. For example, they may have concerns that the home invasion was motivated by transphobic or racial hatred, the home invasion may have interfered with their ability to access hormone treatments, or their ability to find a new place to live may be complicated by concerns about whether or not they will be accepted and safe as a Transgender Asian man in a particular apartment complex.

In summary, intersectional invisibility refers to the many ways people’s experiences are overlooked when they do not fit society’s standard of the default person. The farther away they are from that default, the less likely we are to have heard their stories and know their needs. This then requires that we do more to understand their needs and ensure we are offering needed services and addressing their concerns.

How do we put intersectionality into action? Psychologist Elizabeth Cole (2009) listed three questions we can ask to ensure we are being intersectional in our work.

First, who are we including?

Asking ourselves who is allowed to participate in our research studies or our programs, who actually chooses to participate, and who is missing can show us gaps in who we are serving. Asking these questions can highlight groups that have typically been ignored, excluded, or felt unwelcome. From here, we can find ways to include and welcome these groups. As we have more members of these groups included, we can ask the same questions, looking to increasing diversity within the groups.

For example, an examination of Black crime victims should include victims from different socio-economic levels, with different abilities, and different education levels. Now of course, no one study or program can include all of the types of people there are within a group, but identifying who is included and who is missing allows us to set goals for making our programs more inclusive and more beneficial for those we serve.

The second question we should ask is, what role does inequality play? This question reminds us to think about the historic and modern experiences of structural inequality and oppression that influence how group members can move through the world.

Using the same example of Black crime victims, a program might consider how historical structural inequality, such as crimes against Black victims not being prosecuted, is connected to current day inequalities, such as police killings of unarmed Black men, women, and children, and then consider how these realities might change Black crime victims’ attitudes about some of their options.

Considering the role of inequality requires that we understand the connections between being a member of a marginalized group and how group membership relates to unequal access to power and resources in the past and the present.

And our third question: What are the similarities across groups that are often perceived as different? Intersectional work moves beyond a focus on group differences to also ask about the similarities across groups, even if those similarities are largely hidden. Asking this question can help us recognize stated needs, values and goals that create possibilities for these groups to come together and work on mutual goals.

Using our earlier example, programs could consider where there are similarities between Black and Latinx crime victims. Knowing both groups try to educate their children about race in the US to protect their children from police brutality, programs and participants could work together to try to change practices that create harm for both communities.

This builds connections across groups while respecting their differences, and strengthens both groups by working together to change oppressive systems.

In summary, It is important to remember that Intersectionality work pushes us to think about systems of power and oppression. It requires that we think about the larger world that events take place in and that we consider the roles of oppression and privilege. For example, how does systemic racism contribute to racial trauma for crime victims and their reduced willingness and ability to access all of the services available? How might these realities lead to racial differences in the outcomes for racial crime victims that we serve?

True intersectional advocacy promotes social justice and promotes real-life solutions to address systemic oppression. We start doing this by looking at who is included and who is missing our programs; considering how historic and current day oppression influences crime and crime victim’s responses, including how they access programs; and finally, intersectional advocacy encourages us to think about groups that are thought of as different, understand their common needs and goals, and work to find solutions that work for more crime victims.

This video is for those of you that represent offices, departments, or organizations and want some concrete ideas of how you can promote changes that promote intersectional advocacy.

First, consider having a policy audit where you look at your organization’s policies to determine their intersectional impact. Consider how they impact an Asian woman as opposed to a Black man or an immigrant woman. When you notice there is a difference in impact on certain groups, these become areas to consider making changes.

Document your data in ways that reflect people’s intersecting identities. Rather than looking at how many men or women use your services, or how many Black, Asian, or Latinos use your programs, make sure you have a way of capturing intersecting identities so you know how many Black women or Latino men you employ, or how many Asian men are using your services.

Have an intersectional assessment of your Diversity Equity & Inclusion Practices. Similar to the policy audit, the goal here is to see how your DEI efforts impact people differently. What we know is, If we ensure our practices allow those with the most marginalized identities to thrive, then the end result will be that all people thrive because when the needs of those with marginalized identities are met, the needs of all our people will be met.

And incentivize deeper Inclusion beyond numerical representation. Go beyond counting the number of people you have in each category to ensure that everyone has a sense of belonging, their opinions are valued, and their perspectives are considered in your decision-making. Reward those teams that foster inclusion beyond just numerical representation.

Hire DEI experts, facilitators, and mediators that understand intersectionality in the workplace and understand how inclusion yields excellence and improved organizational outcomes across the board.

Finally, I encourage you to look for intersectional failures. Look for what happens in your organization when that intersectional lens is missing. If we think about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle, what could have happened? How much further along could the #METOO movement be now if we could have heard Anita Hill’s experiences of racialized sexual harassment and understood them to be legitimate, relevant to all women, and worthy of all of our outrage? We could be decades ahead in our movement.

I hope these suggestions provide a few initial steps for moving your organization forward in its intersectional practice.

We often think about intersectionality when we are thinking about those who have marginalized identities, such as Black women, but all people have intersecting identities, and for many of us, some or most of those identities are privileged, such as a White, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class man.

Each of these privileged identities impact how he sees and experiences the world.

Intersectionality requires that we consider the impact of intersecting identities for all people and that we look at the ways it can create multiple challenges for some and multiple advantages for others.

Intersectionality can be applied to all areas of our lives and it absolutely applies to crime victim advocacy. Intersectional advocacy allows you to better address clients’ needs, identify when changes are needed, increases clients’ trust, and be a powerful advocate that can help clients create lasting and positive changes in their lives.

When we are thinking intersectionally, we are more likely to recognize needed systems-level changes that will improve the lives of many people rather than just one crime victim at a time, and thinking intersectionally helps us recognize changes that improve the lives of those with multiple marginalized identities, which are likely to improve the lives of many others as well.

There are so many examples we could talk about! One example that I have seen the Black community and other communities of color are challenges reporting a Black assailant to the police.

This is especially challenging when we are talking about a sexual assault cases. There is a long history of Black men being stereotyped as sexual predators and a pressure not to report a crime that could contribute to that narrative. In these situations, we must remember that the crime victim is not just a woman, but a woman of color within a community that has been scarred by generations of police over-surveillance and violence being perpetrated against innocent members of the community when police look for a suspect.

So reporting a Black male perpetrator, could cause pain for other members of the community, including the crime victim’s father, brothers, or friends. Add to this that Black women have be stereotyped as sexually promiscuous, and historically their sexual assaults were not taken serious by police or court systems, and we can see this currently as we see evidence of this in the thousands of sexual assault kits from Black and Brown, often poor women that were never analyzed in Detroit and other cities around the country. And Black people’s emotional responses of sadness and anger are often viewed negatively and can lead to others punishing them rather than helping them.

As a result, Black people, even immediately after a crime, may not show their emotions in the ways police or advocates expect, and this may lead people to discount their story or misunderstand the depths of their pain and their needs.

Addressing these possibilities with a crime victim can be difficult because these concerns may apply, but they also might not. The first thing is for advocates to know enough about the context and history of the group to know that these are potential concerns. This will help you avoid missing important issues that the client might not bring up. It is important that we ask questions that give permission for the crime victim to talk about these concerns if they have them.

For example, if someone is hesitant to report to the police, an advocate might say, “Sometimes having to tell the police that the perpetrator is someone in your community can being up a lot of other challenges. People may not want you to report a Black man in order to protect the community in general or there may be concerns that reporting him will bring more negative attention to the entire community from the police. Are you also wrestling with any of these concerns as you decide what you want to do to move forward?”

Of course, when we ask these questions, we also have to accept that we might be wrong or it might not apply for the crime victim at this time. I think that this is okay because in asking the questions, even if they do not apply, you have shown that you are knowledgeable about these challenges, and it increases the chance that the client will talk to you about them if these types of concerns come up in the future.

Imagine a man was robbed, but he does not want to pursue any services or an investigation. Perhaps you discover he suspects he knows who robbed him, but does not want to pursue anything further. Now let’s bring in some additional information. The robbery was motivated by homophobia, and he does not want to risk his family or his community will find out he’s gay. Here is another pretty common example. Imagine working with a non-binary client from a rural community. They are filling out forms to start services and the only options for gender are male or female. They point this out, and the secretary responds, “Well, the form only has male/female, so just put the best answer for now.” How might this impact this person’s desire to continue working with the agency and receiving crime victim services?

Misgendering or referring to someone using a word or pronoun that does not reflect their gender identity, often seems like a small event to others, but it is incredibly harmful. It makes the individual feel devalued, invalidated, and demoralized. In fact, being misgendered is associated with increased depression and suicidal ideation. If you were to overhear this interaction, it would be important to apologize for the form’s limitations, give them permission to write in an answer that better represented them, and let them know that you will bring up the form’s limitations with the director to make sure no one else has to have this experience again. Thank them for bringing it to the agency’s attention. It can be hard to go into new spaces and point on these types of problems. If the secretary is not present when you say this, be sure to talk to the secretary about a more appropriate response going forward. And of course, be sure to follow through with talking with the director about the problems with the form. This is another common example.

How do agencies and advocates think about and handle clients that miss appointments? In my field of psychology, people are often taught that missing appointments, or being late for appointments, means the client is resisting getting help or they are not ready to start therapy. Many organizations have policies that end services with clients if they don’t attend a scheduled appointment. From an intersectional lens, attendance is much more complicated. Especially when coping with having experienced a crime, there can be many complicated reasons why someone is late or they don’t attend a session. Individuals may be overwhelmed by the resulting mental and physical health effects of the crime. They may have to care for children or elders that depend on them. Clients may lack transportation or they may have to depend on unreliable transportation, such as rides from friends or taking busses. Equally important, clients may have valid reasons to mistrust legal systems and related crime victim services systems.

As an intersectional advocate, it is important that we think about the larger structural challenges that crime victims may be facing and that we consider how experiences of oppression that they experienced or their community has experienced, impacts their ability and willingness to engage in crime victim services. Rather than focusing solely on the fact that a client did not attend a scheduled appointment, we must ask about barriers to attending and acknowledging that they may need to do more to build the trust that is needed for individuals to participate in our services.

In summary, intersectional advocacy makes us better crime victim advocates. This approach helps us recognize how historic and modern day oppression impact crime victims in ways that are often complicated and difficult to see. We become better at addressing barriers that clients face to engaging in services and better at talking about these barriers openly with our clients. This fosters collaborative problem-solving that creates effective solutions to these challenges.

As we do this, we build trust, and that trust extends beyond the individual client and can positively impact an entire community’s trust in you as an advocate and trust in your organization overall.

Thank you for joining me for this Paper to Practice series on intersectionality for the Michigan Victim Advocacy Network. Below this video, you will see links to a variety of resources to learn more about intersectionality and intersectional advocacy. Some of these resources are articles, some are activities that you can use such as the Salient Circles diagrams, and others are resources on how you can move the bar on your intersectional advocacy individually and as an organization.