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Understanding Intersectional Identities

Defining or being defined by only one aspect of identity can be harmful.

A few years ago I was introduced to the term “intersectional identity” and have since come to believe that it is important for everyone to understand.

To grasp this concept, think about the many ways we identify ourselves and others, which of these identities form the core of how we think of ourselves or about others, and how the intersection of these identities affects the way we confront our lives.

This term was first coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and social theorist, civil rights activist, and a leading scholar of critical race theory. Crenshaw became widely known when she gave a TED talk on being female and black, and how these identities of gender and race can work against us. Since then, intersectionality is considered by activists and therapists like me to be crucial to social equity work. It is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices and privileges they face.

In other words, intersectional identity theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged or privileged by multiple sources: their race, age, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers.

Let’s start with myself as an example: I’m 56 years old, white, male, Jewish, married, gay, a Detroiter, and a sexual abuse survivor. I’m monosexual and cisgender. My pronouns are he/his/him.

These things have shaped me and my view of the world. I may meet someone who doesn’t know me, and the first (and maybe only) thing they see about me is that I’m a white male, and because of this they assume I live in my white male privilege, that I have used this benefit to attain greater things in life than others. They may be particularly irked by this inequality of opportunity, judge me, or even be angry with me based on their assumption—all without knowing anything else about me.

However, that is not where I live within my identities. I live in my gay male identity, which has shaped me more than any of my other identities and where I have experienced a great deal of discrimination and potential harm. As a gay man and throughout my life I have experienced discrimination around issues of housing, bullying, and violence. As a gay man, I wasn’t able to legally marry my partner until a few summers ago, and still, there is scant federal protection for us today. I had to worry about being fired for being gay, being denied health care, being denied service in some establishments, and so on.

So, people who only see me as representing white male privilege have no idea who I really am. I have done a lot of self-examination and learning, and I easily acknowledge how being a white man has given me advantages over women, people of color, and so on. Recognizing this, I strive never to abuse this privilege by hurting or disadvantaging someone else.

But the person who judges me based on my being a white male has missed my far more important and challenging identity: queer. This has affected me and how I deal with the world much more than white male privilege. But if someone is so put off by having identified me as someone with white male privilege, then they are unlikely to want to hear anything further from me or treat me with respect as an equal human being.

There can be far more dire consequences when certain identities intersect. Transgender women of color, for instance, have three targets on them because of societal prejudice: being trans, women, and non-white—and they suffer from the highest murder rate in the nation.

I had a female friend who is white and married to a wealthy man. When presented with the thought that she may have benefited, even unwittingly, from any of these traits, she flies into a furious defensiveness about how hard she has worked every day to get to where she is, and that her grandmother and mother did the same. No one has given them anything, she insists. They all had to work hard for what they achieved.

In another example, a male client attended a small left-leaning university to attain a degree in counseling and found himself far outnumbered by women, many of whom were women of color, activists, and lesbians. Though he was an experienced businessperson with highly liberal views, including being a feminist, he could rarely offer up remarks in his classes without being verbally attacked for being a privileged white male. The women simply chose the most obvious identity, pointed the finger, and all conversation stopped. He became isolated and angry and had to develop the discipline of remaining silent in all his classes in order to get through and receive his degree.

Becoming aware of how intersectional identity works has improved my practice. In the 1990s, before I got a handle on this idea, I had LGBT clients come to my office who also were, say, African-American, Arab-American, or Asian-American, and who didn’t want to live in or identify with the LGBT community or culture. They had chosen to live as heterosexual and cisgender individuals because in their cultures coming out and living as an LGBT individual would have meant rejection from their families and their cultures. They did not seek to change who they are with any form of reparative therapy, only to live in their cultures in hiding. I didn’t understand that their main intersectional identities were as black or Asian. Instead, I saw their reluctance to be seen as LGBT as internalized homophobia/biphobia/transphobia, self-hate, and shame, and would have begun therapy around this.

I feel strongly that everyone, especially those in the therapy field, would benefit by understanding how intersectional identities work. To that end, I offer a few tips.

  • Listen! With an open mind, ask about someone’s intersectional identities, and pay attention to how they answer. For example, ask “What does being cisgender mean to you in your world?” Or “How many identities do you think you have, and which do you feel are the most dominant?” Get “out of your lane,” open your eyes and ears to how others live their life in their world.
  • Recognize the difference. Don’t shy away from recognizing that people experience the world differently based on their overlapping identity markers. Don’t feel it is being rude to recognize other people’s differences. Talk about it. Become less judgmental.
  • Avoid simplified language. Become aware of and eliminate words that define people by a singular identity. People are more than just one thing. What you see is not always what you get. More importantly, regulate yourself as you listen to someone with a different opinion than yours. They’re not attacking you. It’s an important life task to learn how people differentiate from you. Conversation stops if you stop listening to other opinions.
  • Help someone to know how their varying identities may be experienced as helping or hurting themselves or others. Do this in an educational way, not a hostile or aggressive way. This shuts down others from listening to you.
  • Some people don’t want to learn about their own intersectional identities and stop the conversation. While you may not like that, you need to understand that. Find other ways to educate the public and your peer group rather than trying to force an understanding onto another person. Talk about your own intersectional identities rather than focusing on another person.

Your way is not the only way in life. Assume nothing. We all have a rainbow of identities.

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