Intersectionality is how social categories such as race, class, ability, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are interconnected, creating overlapping and interdependent systems of privilege and marginalization.
Intersectionality is both a lens for seeing marginalization and a tool for eradicating marginalization. As a lens, we can use it to accurately see how power operates and better understand the experiences of being marginalized. Seeing marginalization means recognizing that there are a plethora of marginalizing forces at work in society. These marginalizing forces include racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, and colonialism, to name a few. These forces operate both individually and interdependently.
In the refugee context, intersectionality is a useful tool for understanding the functions and impacts of marginalization. Take Marco, a gay activist in Cuba, who escaped the constant harassment from police and traveled to Ecuador where he no longer could afford housing, barely afford food, and was isolated from his community. As a man, Marco has some privileges that women don’t have access to. If we stopped at this single identity we wouldn’t see that his sexuality and class level (especially upon arriving in Ecuador) are areas where he experiences great marginalization. Similarly, if we stopped after looking at his sexuality we would miss out on how living in poverty created increased vulnerabilities for Marco as a gay man. By using intersectionality as advocates we can better aid refugees like Marco. People cannot be reduced to one aspect of their identity, looking at all aspects allows us to see the full picture, spot possible vulnerabilities, and aid more effectively.
Intersectionality means looking at the intersections of people’s identities. It’s a way to see how people of different backgrounds experience marginalization or privilege.
How to practice it:
- Examine your own privileges,
- Listen to each other, and
- Practice advocacy through a broader, more inclusive lens.
Privileges are where we hold more power in society than others (ex. white, cis-gendered, able bodied). An important step to examining your own privileges is understanding what your privilege prevents you from experiencing. To do this, listen to those who do not hold the same privileges as you (ex. As a white woman I actively listen to the voices of black women as our experiences of oppression are different).
Intersectionality demands each of us look within ourselves at the places we don’t understand and where we feel challenged. It is each of our individual task to learn about issues and identities that do not impact us personally. Therefore, taking up the difficult work of investigating our own privilege is key to intersectional advocacy.
Experiencing forms of marginalization does not erase the privileges an individual has. It might change the way in which they experience those privileges, but it doesn’t make those privileges nonexistent. For example, male privilege exists, but all males experience privilege in different ways. It will depend on their class, race, sexual orientation, (dis)abilities, and so on – remember the example of Marco above.