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Macdonald DeWitt Library at SUNY Ulster

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice: Intersectionality

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In his epic poem Song of Myself, Walt Whitman writes, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Whitman was asserting and defending his shifting sense of self and identity. Those lines importantly point out that our identities may evolve over time. What we do and believe today may not be the same tomorrow. Further, at any one moment, the identities we claim may seem at odds with each other. Shifting identities are a part of personal growth. While we are figuring out who we truly are and what we believe, our sense of self and the image that others have of us may be unclear or ambiguous.

The many layers of our multiple identities do not fit together like puzzle pieces with clear boundaries between one piece and another. Our identities overlap, creating a combined identity in which one aspect is inseparable from the next.

The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how the experience of Black women was a unique combination of gender and race that could not be divided into two separate identities. In other words, this group could not be seen solely as women or solely as Black; where their identities overlapped is considered the intersection, or crossroads, where identities combine in specific and inseparable ways.


Our identities are formed by dozens of factors, sometimes represented in intersection wheels. Consider the subset of identity elements represented here. Generally, the outer ring contains elements that may change relatively often while the inner circle elements are often considered more permanent. (There are certainly exceptions.) How does each element contribute to who you are and how might these categories change your self-defined identity?

Intersectionality and awareness of intersectionality can drive societal change, both in how people see themselves and how they interact with others. That experience can be very inward-facing, or can be more external. It can also lead to debate and challenges. For example, the term Latinx is growing in use because it is seen as more inclusive than “Latino/Latina,” but some people—including scholars and advocates—lay out substantive arguments against its use. While the debate continues, it serves as an important reminder of a key element of intersectionality: Never assume that all people in a certain group or population feel the same way. Why not? Because people are more than any one element of their identity; they are defined by more than their race, geographic origin, gender, or socio-economic status. The overlapping aspects of each person’s identity and experiences will create a unique perspective.

Consider This - "I am" Exercise

Complete the following statement using no more than four words:

I am ______________________________.

It is difficult to narrow down our identity to just a few options. One way to complete the statement would be to use gender and geography markers. For example, “I am a male New Englander” or “I am an American woman.” Assuming they are true, no one can argue against those identities, but do those statements represent everything or at least most things that identify the speakers? Probably not.

Try finishing the statement again by using as many words as you wish.

I am ______________________________.

If you ended up with a long string of descriptors that would be hard for a new acquaintance to manage, don’t worry. Our identities are complex and reflect that we lead interesting and multifaceted lives.

Kimberle Crenshaw on Intersectionality

Intersectionality - a closer look

Let's take a closer look at intersectionality, a framework for thinking about identity in a holistic way. In a holistic approach, we acknowledge that the multiple elements in one's identity are inseparable, and that we can't understand an individual's degree of privilege or experience of oppression by reducing them to a single identity category. 

Just as a commitment to inclusivity requires us to ask whether an equitable distribution of voices, skills and interests is represented in a given setting, a focus on intersectionality means attending to the multiple facets of identity that make up an individual--even if some of these characteristics are less visible than others.

Intersectionality is not only a way of better understanding the fullness of identity, and therefore of treating others with respect and empathy, but also offers a more complete picture of the multiple facets that add up to one's degree of privilege.

A White male who has only a high school education likely has less political and economic power than one with a professionally focused college education. Without considering how these different elements of identity work together, we would not gain a comprehensive understanding of relative privilege. 

In the pursuit of a fairer, more equitable society, we can also use intersectionality to better understand the multiple identity factors that can be grounds for discrimination.

A woman of color who is also an immigrant, and who struggles with her new environment's dominant language, may be described as oppressed on three fronts: gender, race, and geography. Paradoxically, a well-intentioned analysis of her situation that focuses on racism, for example in the employment or housing markets, can cause us to overlook or greatly underemphasize the other systematically related elements. 

Intersectionality is especially valuable in the classroom. Ideally, all learning environments are places where participants can authentically express themselves and be regarded as valued community members. This is particularly relevant in public schools, since these are extensions of our democratic, rights-based state.

One who does not feel reasonably secure and comfortable cannot clearly focus on the work of the classroom or experience a sense of belonging in the broader campus community. 

As members of multiple learning communities, whether academic, recreational, or work-related, we should also be mindful of intersectionality because a neighbor who feels marginalized or only superficially understood may not fully participate in discussions and activities. This means that everybody else is missing out on that individuals’ unique contributions, detracting from the richness of an engaged discourse. 

Certainly, such exclusions undermine the learning process for everybody and reveal once again the importance of cultural competence on campus and elsewhere. 

Licenses and Attributions

LicenseCC BY: Attribution

Baldwin, A. (2020). College Success. OpenStax.