Part 1: Introduction to Intersectionality
Intersectionality is a key principle of DEI that is regularly overlooked in organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Organizational DEI leaders and practitioners acting on good intentions often fuel a misconception of diverse representation based on their DEI bias that tokenizes and singles out specific marginalized identities. This inaccurately silos the scope of DEI as exclusively race based and excludes other non-dominant group members from DEI work. The long term effects of this exclusion reinforces discriminatory standards maintaining larger systems of power and privilege under the control of dominant group members (White heterosexual able bodied cisgendered). Keep reading to learn more about intersectionality and how it impacts organizational leaders.
Intersectionality's Original Author
Intersectionality was first coined by Black feminist scholar, writer, and social justice activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex a Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” In her case study, Crenshaw analyzed three legal cases regarding the discriminatory employment and firing of three Black women. Crenshaw analyzed how the multiple marginalized identities of Black Women (race and gender) directly contributed to the increased discrimination they encountered at their places of employment. She described intersectionality as, “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of the racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated” (Crenshaw, p.140). Read Crenshaw’s original analysis here.
In other words, Crenshaw made the argument that a Black woman’s race and gender cannot be separated when assessing the discrimination she experiences because the two are inextricably intertwined. Dominant group members who attempt to separate the two components of a Black Woman's intersectionality effectively censor the individual and force her to disassociate her vast collection of marginalized experiences and lived truths through dismissal and minimization. In addition, other factors such as classism and access to education further compound multiple levels of discrimination upon the individuals in the case study. Application of intersectionality in DEI work encompasses all non-dominant individuals including and not limited to other religions, sexual orientation, cognitive/physical ability, etc.
Step Up Step Back Intersectional Identity
Influenced by Crenshaw’s foundational work on intersectionality and my observation from professional DEI work, Step Up Step Back defines intersectional identity as the simultaneous discrimination an individual experiences due to multiple aspects of their marginalized identity. Intersectional identity applies to any member of the minority who experiences discrimination due to two or more aspects of their non-dominant identity. The visuals below help to illustrate the compounding negative impacts and risks intersectional identities experience.
Impacts of Intersectionality
In the big picture view of DEI leadership, organizational support of intersectionality yields high return of investments organizationally while negligence of intersectionality is detrimental to all parties involved. When multiple intersectional identities are included in the work space a culture of authentic collaboration and mutually beneficial relationships is built. Intersectional identities are respected and valued as assets to an organization as they offer unique insights and innovative thinking due to the resilience forged in numerous instances of discrimination and exclusion.
Diversity demands a mixture of minds and different experiences to creatively problem solve in new ways. When diversity is represented by only one group, a standard of homogeneity develops stagnating the progress of an organization. In corporate organizations this stagnation looks like executive leadership who all identify similarly as White able bodied heterosexual cisgendered men. In organizational DEI, homogeneity looks like Black women being diversity hires as Directors of DEI without a dedicated team to support her. Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts to better understand how Black Women in leadership are set up to fail in the glass cliff of DEI and how to prevent this from happening.
A skewed and narrow perception of DEI is a negative outcome of ignoring intersectional identities that inhibits comprehensive leadership analysis and organizational productivity. Crenshaw describes the impacts of ignoring intersectionality as a re-centering of attention, “This focus on the most privileged group members marginalizes those who are multiply-burdened and obscures claims that cannot be understood as resulting from discrete sources of discrimination” (Crenshaw, p. 140). This practice ensures the dominant majority maintains power over non-dominant individuals by minimizing, dismissing, and erasing their lived experiences. It places additional burden and emotional labor on marginalized individuals resulting in employee burnout, high turnover, and decreased productivity for the whole organization.
Furthermore, it “creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism because the operative conceptions of race and sex become grounded in experiences that actually represent only a subset of a much more complex phenomenon” (Crenshaw, p. 140). This is embodied in the misperception that a single individual is incapable of being impacted by multiple forms of discrimination all at once and justifies the right way to do things by the "traditional" standard.
Organizational leaders may make comments such as “You’re being too sensitive,” “it must be tiring being marginalized identity A and B”, or “You can’t be both marginalized identity A and marginalized identity B, pick one!” It is an uncomfortable truth for dominant group members to process their participation by continuing to take power from non-dominant group members. In reality, they are enforcing a skewed standard of racism from a White patriarchal colonist lens that centers the comfort of the dominant majority over the intersectional identities while demanding assimilation into American organizational leadership culture.
Ask For Help
Seek DEI professionals with the experience, knowledge, and resources to integrate intersectional DEI application into organizational strategic plans and culture. Intentional focus on intersectional bias will minimize the conscious/unconscious bias in diversity representation which influences organizational policies, regulations, marketing, talent acquisition, employee retention, and job satisfaction. As human beings raised in contact with other humans, each of us have our own biases that influence our perception of the worlds we inhabit. There is no shame in having bias. It is brave and admirable to commit to the process of learning to recognize your biases and actively work against your biases to ensure equitable access for all.
How DEI Leadership Coaches Help
Having the expertise of a DEI professional offers a secondary resource to assist with increasing bias awareness through assessment tools, knowledge acquisition, outcome analysis, and professional development support. It is a DEI professional’s job to have the hard conversations with individuals while removing the burden of retaliation and emotional labor from internal organizational staff (HR, People, Talent Acquisition, etc.).
DEI leadership coaches offer the added benefit of step by step support through the entire journey rather than a one off training where the DEI principles fail to take life once the training has ended. As professional DEI leadership coaches, we have heard it all: shame, guilt, anger, grief, disappointment, stunned silence, and even hysterical laughter. We are equipped with professional work ethics and tools to be empathetic as we systematically address the root issues of power imbalance within organizations.
Nifee Debiru (Thank you) reading all the way to the end! Please share this blog post with anyone who might find it useful and comment below if it resonated with you. Future blog posts will dive deeper into intersectionality and how it impacts the tokenization of Black women in DEI while excluding other non-dominant group members. This is a living post and will be updated as new observations and insights are incorporated.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé (). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex A black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Chicago Legal Forum, 1989 (1), 139-167. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf.