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8. Intersectionality--What It Is vs. What It’s Not

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 20-25 Minutes

In 1976, a suit by Emma De-Graffenreid and several other Black women against General Motors for segregating its workforce was dismissed by the court.  As this recent article explains, they argued that they experienced discrimination because women were excluded from the jobs available for Black people and Black people were excluded from the jobs available to women.  So a Black male applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory, but a Black female applicant would not be considered.  A white female applicant might be hired as a secretary, but not a Black female applicant.  The Court dismissed the suit, because the discrimination the women experienced was based upon the intersection of their race and their gender.  

Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw named this clear injustice intersectionality (the original paper is available for those who wish to delve deeper). This work emerged from the need to understand the fact that Black women were missed in cases focusing on both race discrimination, which prioritized the experiences of “sex- or class-privileged Blacks,” and gender discrimination, which prioritized race- and class-privileged women”. This idea that women of color and others with multiple stigmatized identities can disappear when discrimination is presumed to exist along single identity axes -- racism, sexism -- was defined as “intersectional invisibility.”   

In this MLM, we invite you to explore how intersectionality can result in compounded challenges -- and to think about what this means for people’s experiences.  

  • As you engage with this MLM, think about how the idea of “ intersectionality” is different from simply recognizing that we all hold many different identities?
  • Why would it be important to make this distinction?

Intersectional invisibility continues -- and in the last few years, the word intersectionality has made its way into common parlance and pop culture. But as often happens, the phenomena has been watered down and is often treated as simply a synonym for identity difference--a way to say that we all hold a lot of different identities at one time. While it is true that we each carry a lot of different identities simultaneously, the word intersectionality describes a relationship between the many identities that we hold at one time and their respective relationships to privilege. 

In her book So you want to talk about race?, Ijeoma Oluo describes this concept as “a myriad of identities--our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more--that inform our experiences in life and our interactions with the world...the different hierarchies, privileges, and oppressions assigned to these identities affect our lives in many ways. These privileges and oppressions do not exist in a vacuum, however, and can combine with each other, compound each other, mitigate each other, and contradict each other” (p. 75). 

So why is this more important than just the sum of our differences? In this video, educator, writer, and activist Brittany Packnett explains that the convergence of multiple identities creates an entirely separate experience of oppression. 

You don’t simply experience racism sometimes and sexism sometimes -- separately. Instead, women of color often experience exclusion from access to power that neither men of color (who can bond with white men over their shared gender experiences) and white women (who can bond with white men over shared racial experience) have to face.  

For instance, women of color often experience gender discrimination differently than white women.  Presumed gender stereotypes about “women” -- that women are communal, warm, and passive are different for women who identify as Latinx or Black.  Latinx women may have to deal with the stereotype that  they are attitudinal or hot-tempered, while women who identify as Black often have to contend with the stereotype that they are angry.  Asian women can experience the double stereotype of passivity, with the result that in the STEM field, where Asian men are presumed to excel, Asian women have met with significant obstacles.

The chart below shows the percent of employed doctoral scientists and engineers -- and obviously, the percent of Asian women is lower than any other group of women or men.

Source. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Doctorate Recipients: 2008. Table 9-26 “Employed doctoral scientists and engineers in 4-year educational institutions, by broad occupation, sex, race/ethnicity, and tenure status: 2008” Accessed July 16, 2011.

Additionally, in a 2016 study conducted by Perception Institute to gauge how attitudes towards Black women in professional spaces are informed by hair styles, it was found that Black women are deemed less professional when they elect to wear their hair in natural styles. This is yet another example of an experience of oppression at the convergence of race and gender. 

Intersectionality is not solely useful in understanding the impacts of racialized and gendered marginalization experienced by women of color. A recently published report by Building Movement Project found that LGBTQ people of color in non-profit organizations “face compounding barriers” to career advancement into leadership roles. The report lists salient potentially compounding factors as race/ethnicity, gender/gender identity, socio-economic class, and sexual orientation.

As a mentor, understanding how intersectionality could potentially inform how your mentee’s many identities show up with them at school and beyond is pivotal to supporting them in a way that is responsive.  Intersectionality isn’t just about difference, although it’s important to recognize how all of your different identities comprise who you are.


Can you recall an experience where you experienced disadvantage because of a combination of your identities?  Based on the definition explored in this MLM, would you characterize your identities as intersectional?

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #8!