Several years ago, I was on a team planning a conference and we were looking at the list of women who had been proposed as speakers. As I perused the list I noticed that all the women on this list were white women. “We need to have a diverse slate of women,” I said. “We can’t have people coming to this conference and believing that the only women who are eminent thinkers are white women. We need to be able to reflect that our thought leaders and earth shakers are not a monolith and are instead, representative of the world in which we live.”
One of the planners retorted, “This isn’t about race, this is about women.”
Reflexively I responded, “Well when I wake up in the morning, I don’t get to choose which one of those I shall be that day.”
In 1976, five Black women, including Emma DeGraffenreid, brought a race and gender discrimination case against G.M. with the allegation that the company’s seniority system, in a last-hired-first-fired layoff program, perpetuated the effects of historical discrimination. This was because G.M. did not hire Black women prior to 1964. G.M. fought back stating that they had, for a while, hired Black people and women, glossing over the fact that all the Black people they had hired were men and all the women they hired were white. Unfortunately for DeGraffenreid and her co-plaintiffs, she lost her case because the courts felt that claiming both racial and gender discrimination would give her “super-remedy” and, therefore, preferential treatment. It seems the courts felt Ms. DeGraffenreid could have left one of those things, her gender or her race, at home when she went to apply for a job. If only the courts had shared how to work this magic with Bernadine Coles Gines. It then may not have taken three years for her to get work with a CPA firm if she had been able to apply as just a woman with the firms that would not hire Black people, and as a Black person, with the firms that hired Black people but only if they were not women.
In 1989, 25 years after the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to discuss the unfortunate synergies that arise when various characteristics intersect in one individual. As she explains it DeGraffenreid’s situation could not be viewed as a case of someone who was a Black person and a woman but as a case of a Black woman, who faced a particular discrimination because she was at the intersection of race and gender.
Transgender people face a significant amount of discrimination in the United States and in 2020, their unemployment rate was 13%, twice the national average of 6.5%. However, within that 13%, the Black transgender rate was double that, at 26%, illustrating the devastating impact of the intersectional discrimination. In addition, the intersection of transgender, Black, and female is where, by far, the most violence is suffered. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans and Black transgender women accounted for two-thirds of the total deaths recorded since 2013.
Ignoring intersectionality often results in the disappearance of people at the intersections, as though a massive sinkhole appeared right in the middle of the intersection and swallowed them right up. Examples include:
- When San Francisco tech companies implemented diversity programs, the representation of white women in management improved significantly but these programs did not improve Asian women’s chances to be promoted into leadership roles.
- In Belgium, the resumés of equally qualified Maghreb/Arab women were overlooked in favor of native/Belgian applicants for high-cognitive jobs.
- LGBT+ women with disabilities face far higher levels of sexual harassment than both men with disabilities and non-disabled men and women.
We cannot look at each other and either/or our intersections. The impacts of each social identity are magnified when they intersect and, at the same time, those at the intersection are marginalized until they vanish in conversations and action. We should ask, for example, if a woman’s initiative in a workplace is benefitting all women in that workplace, or if an initiative to advance racially underrepresented people in a company does not result in benefitting mostly racially underrepresented men while ignoring racially underrepresented women. The gender pay gap of 81c for every dollar earned by men, masks that this gap is 75c for American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic women. Ignoring intersectionality leads to the dangerous vanishing of many in our communities – incomes vanish, discriminations vanish, and violent acts vanish. This is why we need to recognize, as Kimberlé Crenshaw said, the urgency of intersectionality.