A Beginner’s Guide to Intersectionality

September 3, 2020 - (5 min read)

Across outcomes in education, health, housing and nearly every other aspect of daily life in the United States, race is the single-most predictive indicator of one’s success. Racism is pervasive in government, non-profit and private systems and the policies, practices and procedures that create and uphold those systems and institutions, as we outlined in our previous blog “What does it mean to be antiracist?”   

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones defines racism as “a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call “race”), that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.  

However, individuals do not identify solely based on their race. Consequently, racism is not the only system of power and oppression in our institutions and society. As individuals, we identify by race, class, gender, sexuality and ability, among other waysOur likelihood of success depends on where we fall in the hierarchy of each of these identities 

Racism benefits White people while harming Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Wealthy people benefit from classism while classism harms poor peopleCisgender men benefit from sexism and patriarchy while these systems harm womenfemmes, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming peopleHeteronormativity benefits straight people while harming Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Agender, Pansexual, Genderqueer, and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) people and communities. Non-disabled people benefit from ableism, which creates inequities for disabled people. 

These systems of power and oppression do not operate independently and individually. People who experience harm based on their identity in one or more of these systems face increased oppression of each of these systems compounded together. Accounting for this compound oppression – at the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability – is called intersectionalitya term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. 

Dismantling these systems of oppression requires a framework that recognizes the intersections of these identitiesFor example, a racist policy will create inequities between racial groups (I.e. White people and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), but the same policy may create deeper sexist inequities for Black women, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people than for cisgender Black men. A policy that is both racist and ableist will create inequities for Latinx men but deeper inequities for disabled Latinx men than non-disabled Latinx men.  

In 1977, The Combahee River Collective Statement outlined a framework for operationalizing this work via a Black Queer Feminist lens, stating that, “As Black women we do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess any one of these types of privilege have.” 

How do those with power change policies, and account for these overlapping systems of power and oppression? Anti-racism, as well as the fight against these additional systems, with an emphasis on outcomes rather than intent. Whave to collect and measure data that is disaggregated by race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. By separating the data, policymakers can collect a more accurate depiction of who is most impacted by existing policies and develop targeted strategies to achieve equitable outcomes for us all.  

If the systems to collect these data do not exist, local leaders must create them and monitor the process to ensure that the data are disaggregated, representative, and accurate. Local elected officials play an important role in centering the voices of community members most impacted by these systems and directing resources to these constituents – for example, a Black, poor, non-binary, disabled person, resulting in improved outcomes for us all.  –  To bring an intersectional framework to our policy decisions, local leaders must ask the following questions: 

  1. How do I ensure that the people most impacted by systems of power and oppression are the central focus of policymaking across institutions?  
  1. How am I equipping myself to understand and use a Black, Queer, Feminist lens in my work? How am I  equipping the spaces in which I participate to use a Black, Queer, Feminist lens in our shared work? 
  1. How do I recognize racism, sexism/patriarchy, heteronormativity, and ableism in our policies? How do I apply a Black, Queer, Feminist lens to our outreach, engagement, and analysis? 
  1.  When we acknowledge the need for change within systems of power and oppression in addition to racism (classism, sexism/patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism), how are we applying a Black, Queer, Feminist lens to our outreach, engagement, and analysis?

Intersectionality is essential to our efforts to build equitable communities where all people can thrive. Local leaders have a unique opportunity to address these challenges by employing their governmentto enact antiracist policies, practices, and procedures and by partnering with nonprofits and the private sector to do the same.


About the authors:

Jordan Curry Carter is the Program Manager for the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) department at NLC.  

Ian Snyder is a Senior Program Specialist with NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) Initiative