The importance of understanding intersectionality

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Intersectionality, referring to an individual’s differing identities, is incredibly interwoven throughout all of history and many fields of study. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of my first ever college classes was WGSS 2124 — Gender and Globalization. During one of the first classes, our professor asked if any of us were familiar with the term “intersectionality.” Quite a few of us weren’t, so she explained it to us using a helpful video comparing different types of pizzas to different identities, connecting it all to a fight for equality. Overall, explained that people’s intersecting identities change their experiences. 

Ever since then, just about all my WGSS professors have mentioned this term within the first week of class. I quickly learned it is an extremely important concept and essential to understand, especially when advocating for human rights. 

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality essentially refers to an individual’s differing identities — including race, gender, sexuality, ability, class and other characteristics — overlap and affect their experiences of discrimination and privilege in different ways, as well as how they exacerbate each other.  

It is extremely important to understand. Intersectionality should be taught to more students — not just those of us who have chosen to take certain classes — and aspects of history should be taught with an intersectional lens. 

A perfect example of how it could be incorporated is in learning about some of the early feminist movements. In high school history classes, people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were revered and praised for their work regarding the women’s suffrage movement. However, both Stanton and Anthony had rather racist sentiments and touted ideas of White feminism, which advocated for rights and equality for White women, leaving women of color — in this case, Black women — out of the conversation entirely. 

If high school history classes taught history, especially early feminist movements, with an intersectional lens, students would have a better understanding of history, and the world around them in general. Learning about intersectionality helps people understand that activism must be intersectional and account for people of all races, genders, sexualities, abilities and class. Knowing this ensures that current standards and laws change, and that they change in a way that will benefit everyone, not just a certain group of people. 

Intersectionality is an idea immensely important in the legal field as well. In 1976, plaintiff Emma DeGraffenreid along with a few other women sued General Motors, arguing that GM separated its workforce based on gender and race. DeGraffenreid and the other plaintiffs said Black men were being hired for certain jobs and White women were being hired for others; however, Black women were not hired at all. The court threw out the case because it was a widely held belief that these Black women could not combine their race and gender and make a claim like this. If intersectionality had been a widely understood concept, the case would most likely have not been thrown out, and GM would have had to quickly change the opportunities they had. 

An example where intersectionality should also be considered in a legal sense is in discussions of police brutality. Recent reports have indicated that Black Americans with disabilities are at a greater risk of police violence when compared to many other communities. Understanding the intersections of race and ability is especially important when creating solutions to combat police brutality and to create solutions beneficial for all communities. 

And it is not just important to understand in a legal or historical sense, either; intersectionality is immensely important in STEM fields, such as the field of medicine. Much of medical research is centered around men’s symptoms, as seen with cases of heart attacks; therefore, women are often misdiagnosed when presenting with symptoms of a heart attack. There is also a significant disparity in diagnoses and deaths when comparing White women with Black women, and when comparing affluent and poorer communities and access to healthcare. If medical research took intersectionality into account, these gaps would likely be less significant. If more lawmakers took this into account, perhaps there would be better access to healthcare nationwide as well. 

Clearly, intersectionality is immensely important to understand in many fields of study. It should not be a special term that only certain students learn about; all schools should teach it, emphasize it and incorporate it into various disciplines. It is not something that you learn and can just forget about because it has no real-world implications. Intersectionality is essential to understand to advocate for equality and ensure that real, substantial change takes place. 

1 COMMENT

  1. I loved your article, I am also currently learning about intersectionality in my Thinking Through Race and Racism class and I think it is important that we educate students on the subject. Understanding and educating about intersectionality, especially in younger generations, is going to be a key aspect of the people of our country learning to accept everyone moving forward. We learned that black people (especially women) and transgender people are statistically more likely to have a bad interaction with the police simply because they are being stereotyped based on their appearance. These dangerous interactions with the police are leading to violence and killings that simply should not be happening. If we want to make a real change, it starts with educating people on our differences and helping everyone come to an understanding. Looking at this from a philosophical point of view, it is clear to me that many people in the country do not understand the pain that they can inflict on others simply by not acknowledging them or even worse, making assumptions about them based on appearance. Philosophy teaches us to look at things from different angles in order to see and understand the problems that are being faced and what we can do to help address these problems. It is my hope that if we can teach about this in school we can make the younger generations more understanding about these differences. It should also be mandatory for police officers to be educated about intersectionality and made aware of the struggles that these people face on a daily basis, and how their occupation can be destructive towards them. This is a big issue in our country right now, and there is no doubt that something needs to change soon or there will only be more violence and deaths in the future. This is one of the most important subjects that can be taught right now, and every person should try to do their best to educate themselves on it.

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