A Simplified Guide to Navigating Discrimination and Understanding its Effects
You’ve probably heard of the term “intersectional” or “intersectionality” thrown around before. It’s beginning to show on the horizon of today’s political climate, but I personally don’t believe it is as widely known or understood as it should be.
Intersectionality is the key to dismantling oppressive systems and understanding discrimination and its effects. One major issue holding people back from moving forward in favour of intersectionality and holding space for the concept is lack of education, and thus, lack of understanding. So let’s talk intersectionality!
What does it mean?
If you were to search for “intersectionality” in the dictionary, you would find the following definition: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Let’s unpack and explain.
Basically, understanding the discrimination an individual faces is much more complex and nuanced than simply listing the marginalized (and historically oppressed) communities they belong to. We must further explore how multiple marginalized identities interact with one another, and not take them at face value.
Let’s study me for an example: I belong to several different communities that have faced (and continue to face) oppression. This complicates my life and introduces a variety of possible grounds of discrimination. I’m queer, a woman, a person of colour, and I suffer from mental illness.
All of these defining characteristics mean that my life’s experience will be very different from someone with different marginalized identities. In addition, these communities interact and can often complicate and exacerbate an individual’s experience within those separate communities. For example, mental illness is often either dismissed or highly stigmatized within communities of colour. Thus a mentally ill person of colour such as myself faces additional challenges when it comes to discrimination.
The concept of intersectionality means that each person’s experience with discrimination and its systems is unique because of the interactions of their social or politcal identities (such as race, sexuality, sex, gender, ability, wealth/class etc).
Why is it important?
Intersectionality takes into account the interconnectedness of marginalized identities to form a distinct and unique experience for every individual. This creates a much more nuanced, but much more accurate depiction of discrimination.
By understanding how discrimination works, why it occurs, and what its effects are, we have a better chance at dismantling historically oppressive systems and ending discimination. It also allows us to view victims of discrimination as they are: complex individuals instead of simply a list of marginalized identities.
When researching intersectionality, I had no idea how pervasive and dangerous discrimination actually was within my sample study: people I believed to be generally privileged. Their experiences with discrimination told me that my previous model of interpreting and understanding discrimination was outdated and unhelpful.
Understanding intersectionality allowed me to better understand these people as individuals, and it allowed me to pinpoint exactly what needed to change in society in order for their oppression to cease.
It brought up viewpoints that I hadn’t previously seen, as I was blinded by privilege. Addressing these things was central to my growth as a human being and the way I viewed and made sense of the world.
All about privilege
In the midst of talking about discrimination and oppression, it’s all too easy to get lost in what we are denied. Trust me, I’ve been there.
But the bright side to the systems of discrimination being so complex and varied is that there is discrimination you won’t face. Just as you may be put down for things outside of your control, you may be uplifted by other things outside of your control. These rights and advantages granted to certain groups and communities are known as privileges.
Although it may be hard to tell (or admit) at first, we all have some form of privilege. If you’re curious about what privileges you possess, check out a (simplified!) privilege test at https://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/how-privileged-are-you
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that privilege is not a reflection of your inherent worth, nor is it a reflection of your inherent un-worthiness. You are not in possession of that privilege because you are inherently better than others, nor are you a worse person for having privileges that others do not.
Just like you can’t control your oppression, you can’t control your privilege. You don’t have to be ashamed of your privilege, or apologize for having it. You do, however, have a responsibility to be conscious of it as you go through life, and you must be intentional in your attempts to uplift others who may not share the same privileges as you.
I encourage you to sit down with yourself and be honest--acknowledging our privilege is crucial to understanding the discrimination others may face that you will not, and the rights you are automatically afforded that others are not. Our privileges are often disregarded or dismissed, but they shouldn’t be! They shape our lives and our experiences within society.
Be mindful of your privilege and how it affects even your daily life. It’s easy to list the ways our lives are made difficult and more complex, so I challenge you to list the ways your life is made easier. This transparency and sense of self awareness will benefit you (and those around you) in the long run.
Finding a community
As someone who sits on the intersections of many marginalized communities, I have often struggled with my perceived identity and self worth.
One thing that was of enormous benefit to me was finding communities relating to my marginalized identities. I found that allies, though incredible and necessary to fight against discrimination, did not understand the struggles I faced, and therefore could not engage in the complex and vulnerable conversations I required. It’s much easier to talk to someone who has gone through the same thing as you than someone who has watched from afar.
Talking about your issues and your interests and everything in between with someone who understands can be incredibly cathartic.
Finding communities that I belonged to, that I felt safe in, really helped me to unravel my identity and what that meant for me.
And when I struggle or encounter obstacles, having a community at my back makes all the difference. If you haven’t found your community yet, keep going! The support you will receive is worth the struggle of finding it.
I will also note that unfortunately, because of the nature of intersectionality, very niche communities can be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to find. You’re better off joining several communities for different identities, and each will support you for different struggles.
For example instead of trying to find a community of all young, queer, mixed race, mentally ill women, I found several communities such as the lgbt+ community, the mixed race community, the feminism and womxn community and so on.
While having common experiences and similar viewpoints is comforting and beneficial, remember that your experience is unique and sometimes the challenges you will face will be new and different and unlike others within your chosen communities.
Including intersectionality in the discussion about discrimination is crucial!
Understanding it as nuanced and complex is difficult, but ultimately a much more accurate and beneficial model. Remember to check your privilege and use it to support those who don’t share the same advantages.
Finding communities to belong to can be super helpful when overcoming obstacles, but don’t expect it to solve all your problems.
Remember to educate yourself as best as you can, and to listen to marginalized communities when they speak on their experiences. Best of luck in your social justice endeavours!
Want to reach out?