Intersectionality: The Layering of Cultural Identities

Most of us have heard of this phrase: "People are like snowflakes; no two are identical." When we're talking about intersectionality, that's absolutley true. Intersectionality is the layering of cultural identities all of us have, whether it be race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, body size, religion, or anything else you can think of. With every identity, there are privileged and oppressed identities. Added up, the layers intersect tell a story about who we are as people and the kinds of things we experience on a daily basis.

A bunch of terms were just tossed at you, so let's break it down, starting with where the term intersectionality came from.

The term was first coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate and scholar. She needed a way to describe the unique experiences of Black women, who often found themselves caught in the middle of racism and sexism. She pointed out how the experiences of Black women were different from White women. And even within the Black community, the experiences of Black women were different from Black men. Fast forward to today, and intersectionality is used to describe the layering of any and all cultural identities that makes the beautiful constellation that is, well us.

When we talk about intersectionality, you have to think about privileged and oppressed/marginalized identities. Privilege is defined as unearned social power given to a person or group based on their membership in a dominant social group. For example, being White is a form of privilege because Whiteness is the standard against which all other racial groups are measured. They are seen as the default and anything else is "other." Other forms of privileged identities are men, cisgender individuals (people whose sex assigned at birth matches their gender identity), heterosexual people, and non-disabled people. Let's be clear: we all have privileged identities. Privilege isn't inherently a bad thing, but it can become harmful when it's unacknowledged becuase we miss (and some even actively ignore) the struggles of those with oppressed/marginalized identities have.

An oppressed or marginalized identity is one that doesn't have the same social power or privileges as a dominant group. For example, BIPOC, women, transgender people, and disabled people are all marginalized groups. The term "oppressed" is often used to describe how these groups are kept down by systems like racism, sexism, and ableism. So let's be extra clear about this, too: most of us have at least one marginalized/oppressed identity. Those who have multiple oppressed identities can experience a combined impact of -isms. Using the example from ealier, a Black man is likely to face racism. However, a Black woman is likely to face both racism and sexism.

To hammer the definition down a bit more, the intersection of ALL identities a person has, both privileged and oppressed, are what intersectionality is.

You're probably thinking, "If I have a bunch of privileged identities, does that make me bad?" The short answer is no. the long ansewr is having numerous privileged identities doesn't make you bad; it's something you're born with or into. It's unacknowledged privilege that can inflict harm on those who don't have as much social power as you, and awareness of this is important. Denying the experience of a microaggression that someone with a marginalized identity tells you is harmful. Minimizing a microaggression is harmful. Making racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, and other jokes in the same vein is harmful.

You might be thinking now, "Wow, okay, that's a lot. What can I do with all of this information?" Well, a number of things!

  1. Examine your own intersecting identities. You can literally sit down in front of a piece of paper or your trusty laptop and make a list of your identities (hint: take a peek at the first paragraph to see what identities you have and feel free to add any that may have been missed).

  2. Make note of where you do and do not have privilege. This can be a hard part, because it can bring up a lot of uncomfortable feelings. No one likes knowing when they're hurting others. No one likes to feel oppressed. However, it's a reality that we all live in, and facing it is okay to do.

  3. Think about how familiar you are with cultural identities. Look into the identities that you have and are super familiar with and the ones that you're not very familiar with or don't understand. This step is important to do with curiosity and not judgment. It can be easy to fall into a pattern of skepticism or judgmentalism when you come across something you're not familiar with. It's okay to acknowledge that feeling, identify it as some sort of resistance, and lean into the uncomfy feelings; it's okay! We all have biases, and this is a good step to challenge them.

  4. Do your own work. Learn about the history, the movements, the people in a community. Research, read books (or blog posts ;), listen to podcasts, and watch videos. Engage in thoughtful conversations with people about these topics. This is a lifelong journey, so there's no need to put any pressure on yourself to do it all at once or get it "right." Just do your best!

  5. Be gentle with yourself. This can be a tough journey, especially for those of us who have unexamined privileges. It can be easy to get defensive or shut down when someone points out something you're doing that's harmful. It's okay to make mistakes! We all do. The key is to learn from them, apologize if need be, and keep learning.

At Cultured Space, we take intersectionality seriously. All of our clinicians have both privileged and oppressed identities. We work hard to be affirming in everything we do, from the way we think about our clients to the way we design our space. We know that it's important and necessary work, and we're here to help you on your journey. You can schedule a free consultation to learn about how our therapists can support you or book an appointment with one of our therapists!

Regardless of where you are in your journey, we're here for you. When you're ready.