5 min Read
October 27, 2021

An unpopular opinion about the term “intersectional”

During a recent brand strategy workshop with a national civil rights nonprofit, we led a brainstorm session regarding brand strategy among a diverse mix of interracial, interabled, and gender-diverse stakeholders. We explored traits they hoped would communicate the vision and fundamental values of this new organization: “trustworthy,” “helpful,” “compassionate,” “accessible,” “bold,” “ambitious.” And of course, “intersectional.”

The mention of this word ignited a healthy debate about its implications. What does the word “intersectional” really mean and who gets to use it? Wait, are we intersectional? Of course, right? Some staff confidently agreed and some looked bewildered, while others shared lived and workplace experiences that suggested otherwise. In our work, this is not an uncommon problem. The only thing uncommon about the situation was having so many unique, underrepresented perspectives in the room. If such a diverse organization can’t confidently own its intersectionality, chances are, neither can you. And you should avoid it in the future.

Intersectionality is a theoretical framework first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to explain how a person’s various identities – such as race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and socio-economic or immigration status, to name a few – “intersect” and compound to result in multiple forms of discrimination and inequity. In other words, people have complex identities that result in specific, sometimes invisible, forms of discrimination and impact how they are viewed, understood, and treated. For example, even though a white woman is sure to experience sexism in her life, just as a Black man is sure to experience racism, both are protected from other forms of discrimination faced by, say, an AAPI woman who is transgender.

Until recently, intersectionality was a somewhat obscure academic term that emerged from women’s studies and Critical Race Theory intended to address the U.S. legal system’s narrow definition of discrimination along race and gender lines only. However, as it’s been adopted into the mainstream social justice lexicon in the last decade (it was added to the Oxford English dictionary in 2015 and has become a regular talking point at highly visible events like the 2017 Women’s March and even the 2018 Academy Awards), the term intersectionality has been continually co-opted by organizations, often white-led or majority white and cisgender, for talking points that sure sound good, but ultimately ring hollow.

Intersectionality should not be a goal or attribute but rather adopted as a lens through which you should view every aspect of your organization, from your meeting schedule and annual budget to DEI policy, programmatic efforts, and ultimately your mission. Otherwise, how can you expect impacted communities to engage with your brand if they can’t believe what you say or see themselves in the first place?

Intersectionality is not a badge or an accomplishment. It’s a baseline, and it requires work. That’s why I suggest you stop using the term altogether. Instead, make intersectionality an internal goal and then do the work:

  • Ditch the talking points and set some goals.

If you are using the word intersectional in your name, tagline, or other messaging, really pause to evaluate it. Start by sharing this blog with your colleagues to foster a conversation around if and what you should change.

You don’t have to wait for annual planning to start developing some SMARTIE (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound, inclusive, and equitable) goals for incorporating intersectionality internally and externally. These may look like hiring or promoting a percentage of staff with lived experience by a certain date, completing a workplace training on antiracism, inviting a former client to join your Board of Directors, or tabling a project to dedicate that time and resources to advancing equity in your workplace and programs. While you’re at it, go ahead and hold time on the staff calendar to revisit these goals on an ongoing basis, as often as is feasible for your team.

  • Train staff extensively and regularly.

Change starts within. To fully adopt an intersectional framework and lens in your work, you must have buy-in from everyone. For that, you’ll need to dedicate time and resources to building up a culturally-competent staff that recognizes how white supremacy and systems of oppression show up in your work. As soon as you can, make room in the budget to hire a consultant, preferably from a firm led by BIPOC folks with lived experience, and then allocate funds annually to continue that education.

  • Take inventory of leadership, hiring practices, and decision-making processes.

Schedule time to audit organizational documents as a staff, and invite the Board to join. Diversify the Board and then diversify some more. Incorporate specific questions in the hiring process to exhibit candidates’ awareness and willingness to engage in the transformation process. In decision-making scenarios, pressure-test decisions by designating a challenger (again, preferably someone with lived experience) not in a leadership role whose job is to push back on potential shortcomings.

  • Avoid placing the burden on folks with lived experience.

Too often, employees, clients, and stakeholders with lived experiences are expected to participate, contribute, and even lead equity efforts and programs in the workplace, such as staff who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQIA, or living with a disability. However, an intersectional framework suggests that this in turn disadvantages those staff by burdening them with unfair, unpaid emotional labor.

Unless you intend to give them a title and pay them accordingly, make all-staff DEI trainings optional for employees with lived experiences and invest in separate trainings specific to those experiences and identities. Affinity groups are a great way to support staff by carving out a space for folks to connect, network, organize, or simply pause. If your staff is small, you can still create safe spaces, like a standing one-hour window for staff to take a mental break each week or private Slack channels for staff with shared identities.