The Intersectional Lens as a Guiding Principle in D & I
A trainer specialising in intersectionality, I often encounter this question: “How do we do intersectionality?” For some individuals, the shift from diversity to intersectionality is challenging. This is because diversity has been framed as something that can be quantified:
How many women do we have in the workforce?
How many people of colour are in leadership positions?
How many people with disability are employed in our organisation?
The framing of diversity as “how many” does serve a purpose. It can be used to measure whether the organisational structure and system have created a homogenous workplace through unconscious biases in hiring, retention, and leadership. However, it has also created a silo whereby individuals’ unique and diverse characteristics are being narrowed down to a specific ‘diverse’ category, with the most used categories including:
Race and ethnicity
Age and Ageing
Many organisations have created policies and strategies to address an individual category of diversity such as gender equity, LGBTIQ+ inclusive practice, flexible working hours for carers and parent/s, and creating an accessible workplace environment. Yet, we know that individuals cannot be categorised based on one ‘diverse’ identity. An individual can be a member of the LGBTIQ+ communities, a parent, a carer for their elderly parents, and be part of an ethnic minority group.
The concept of “intersectionality” has been useful to understand and unpack these intersections, where multiple marginalised identities intersect in a constant interplay between marginalisation, disadvantage, power, and privilege. As explained by Kimberle Crenshaw in her original article, the experiences of Black women is that of racism and sexism, and these factors cannot be separated as just a race issue or a gender issue. An intersectional framework recognises this complexity, yet such complexity can also present a challenge for D & I practitioners to “do” intersectionality.
Upon reflection, as D & I practitioners, we have been conditioned to focus on the ‘doing’ to measure progress. This is because ‘doing’ and ‘quantifying’ often go together. For example, it is convenient for us to recruit more women/LGBTIQ+/people of colour/people with disability/etc to quantify and measure success. We often present numbers as an indication of success and use demographic data to demonstrate diversity in the workplace. As such, when we talk about intersectionality, we often ask ourselves, “But, our diversity framework is already working. Look at the number of (insert a diverse group here) in our organisation. Why and how do we do intersectionality?”
Indeed, it is not easy to make the shift from ‘diversity’ to ‘intersectionality’. Intersectionality is as much a theoretical concept as it is a philosophy, a social justice movement, and a practice. As a theory, it challenges the grouping of individuals based on one marginalised identity and recognises the system of oppression as experienced by individuals with multiple marginalised identities. As a philosophy, it recognises that oppression, disadvantage, power and privilege exist simultaneously depending on context. As a social justice movement, it challenges the dominant power ideology that results in on-going oppression and marginalisation, and the replication of a systemic power structure within civil rights movements. Lastly, as a practice, it requires us to constantly reflect and improve our thoughts and conducts by evaluating and examining our own position and relationship with power, privilege, oppression and marginalisation.
To ‘do’ intersectionality therefore is to embrace its complexity and to embody its core principle: that all of us are interacting with power, privilege and marginalisation across various contexts and settings. In practice, we embody intersectionality by constantly asking ourselves these questions:
Where do I position myself in relation to power, privilege and marginalisation?
What advantages have been given to me and who has been disadvantaged by my privileges?
How have I experienced marginalisation and how can I ensure that I do not replicate the systemic power structure by creating oppression within the oppressed?
Who can I be an ally to and how can I amplify their voices, provide an avenue for them to speak, and then step back?
How can I dismantle my own power and privilege, be uncomfortable, and use my discomfort to reflect, learn, and advocate for human rights and justice?
What measures can I take to constantly learn, to be humble, and to improve my skills and knowledge by listening to the voices of those with intersectional identities, some of whom are significantly different to my own identity?
How can I align my values with those of human rights and social justice principles to ensure the safety, inclusion and belonging for all while recognising the unique experiences and needs of those with intersectional identities?
How have our D & I strategies inadvertently homogenised a 'diverse' group by silencing the intersectional voices and experiences, and what do I need to dismantle/change/deconstruct to sit together, establish meaningful dialogues and improve our practices?
Embodying intersectionality is not easy, and it takes time. It is part of our learning agility, our growth mindset, and our leadership traits.
However, as we embark on the journey to embody intersectionality, the ‘doing’ becomes automatic. We suddenly become more aware of our biases, our prejudices, and the power structure that operates behind such biases and prejudices. We become more comfortable confronting our discomfort, our fear, and taking the necessary steps to implement changes both within ourselves and in our daily interactions. We are more attuned to a systemic oppression and marginalisation, and we use our awareness to become allies. We become accustomed to listening, to learning, to being challenged, and to constantly improving our ideas, beliefs, and practices. The intersectional lens becomes something that is within us, our internal motivation to do better, to be better.
In my own journey, understanding, reflecting, and embodying the intersectional lens have assisted me to understand the experiences of marginalised groups within a marginalised group, to reflect on my own position with privileges and marginalisation, and to work towards improving my own practices as part of my learning agility and continuous growth. There is no “start” and “end” point, but an on-going dialogue that requires constant reflection and willingness to learn and improve. Indeed, this article is part of the journey.
As you can see, there is no clear-cut answer to ‘doing’ intersectionality. And it shouldn’t be. As we become more aware of inequality, inequity, and injustice that exist in our society, we are constantly growing and learning. We become more aware of intersectionality, and the way marginalisation is experienced by those with intersectional identities, each with their own unique experiences and relationships to power, privilege, and oppression.
Embodying the intersectional framework requires commitment, however this should not discourage us. It should motivate us in our on-going work towards a just society.
Contact us to explore training opportunities exploring intersectionality as part of D & I thinking and strategies.
Written by Budi Sudarto, edited by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli