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Finding the language to express complex social injustices can be just as challenging as understanding issues of inequity themselves. For instance, how can we explain why white women in the U.S. earn 81 cents for every dollar made by a white man, but women of color earn only 75 cents? What illustrates why Black and Latina trans women are victims of homicide at much higher rates than white, Black or Latina cisgender women?
Intersectionality, positionality, and privilege are terms that can be used to explain the ways in which multiple social identities can coincide to create frameworks of inequality and oppression. They are part of a growing body of scholarship known as critical race theory which recognizes race as a social construct and aims to acknowledge and unravel the systemic nature of racism among its other tenets.
As part of the Center's vision to champion diverse voices and backgrounds, we explore the meaning of these terms and how they can be used to create more inclusive, anti-racist dialogue.
The term intersectionality was coined by civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in response to feminist movements of the 20th century to explain how forms of oppression experienced by Black women were distinct from those experienced by white women, or even Black men.
The white, middle-class nature of feminism at the time largely assumed that the experiences of all women were homogenous, overlooking critical issues of racial discrimination and poverty faced by many Black women. The exclusion of Black voices from the movement led to new waves of protests by many Black feminists who felt that they were being marginalized even in the fight for women's rights.
Crenshaw posited that Black women faced unique forms of discrimination because of the intersection of their gender and racial identities and not as a result of being either Black or female alone.
Today, the term intersectionality continues to be important in helping us understand why a person may experience the world differently than others who share similar identities to them, but have a social advantage in one of them. Intersectionality recognizes that social identities such as "women" and "Black" do not exist independently and often converge to construct unique frameworks of oppression that must be first acknowledged in order to create more inclusive dialogue and solutions.
Example: While only 21% of corporate leaders in the U.S. are women, only 4% of corporate leaders are women of color, and only 1% are Black women. The vast underrepresentation of Black women in leadership positions can thus be attributed to the disadvantages created by the intersection of race and gender instead of the effects of race or gender alone.
In contrast to intersectionality, positionality focuses not only on how our individual identities are constructed, but on how these identities shape the way we see the world in relation to those we interact with. Originally introduced in the field of sociology, positionality can help researchers acknowledge how their own distinct identities and viewpoints inherently influence the results of their work.
Additionally, positionality aims to highlight both how individual identities are created by social constructs and how they are malleable. Definitions of masculinity and femininity, for example, differ from culture to culture, but may shape the way a person perceives men or women and their own behaviors as a man or a woman themselves.
In social contexts, understanding our own positionality can help us confront our own biases. By acknowledging the limitations of our own viewpoints and experiences, we can create space for the inclusion of others and actively seek out new information.
A coworker explains that they feel unsafe walking to the bus stop in the evening. Another coworker responds "Don't worry, I walk that path all of the time - it's completely safe." The positionality of the two coworkers can shape the reality of their experiences. A young, able man might be safer because societally he is viewed as stronger than an elderly, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable coworker. Positionality suggests that the young man is more likely to feel that walking to a bus stop is efficient and the elderly coworker is more likely to see this behavior as dangerous, because of the social constructs attributed to their identities and their own lived experiences.
Some identities and viewpoints have social advantages not conferred on to others and are therefore considered privileged or advantageous.
While it may not be possible to get rid of privilege entirely, recognizing difference, avoiding overly simplified language, and seeking other points of view are all ways to understand and acknowledge privilege while thinking about one’s own intersectional identities and positionality.
Example: Privilege can look different for different people at different times, based on social context. Something as small and often imperceptible such as the fact that most people at your workplace or school look like you can be an example of privilege. On the other hand, larger social advantages such as not having your citizenship questioned when dealing with security officials or not being harassed in public spaces can also be a form of privilege.