Intersectionality Is Not a Buzzword


Written by: Frank Starling


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A reflection on the emotional tax that comes with the loneliness of not seeing yourself reflected in your colleagues and leadership.

A few days ago Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first Black person, the first South Asian person, the first person of West Indian heritage to be elected Vice President of the United States. She’s the first VP who is also a stepmother and who is married to a man. She’s notably the first VP to count Prince and Mary J. Blige as their musical inspirations. So many firsts! 

The daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris has been reminded of the gendered and racialised identities placed onto her by our society. She’s recounted how she’s been the only woman or person of colour or woman of colour in the room, increasingly so as she progressed in her political career. To be “the only”, to be “the first”, has defined the gendered and racialised intersections of her lived experience.  

Photo by Gage Skidmore

An Emotional Tax 

So what’s wrong with being the first? There’s an emotional tax that comes with the loneliness of not seeing yourself reflected in your colleagues and leadership. This emotional tax experienced by Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial professionals shows itself in the feeling of having to be on-guard against sexist and racist bias. This tax is further complicated by the unique and intersectional experiences of people of colour, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community and women. 

Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw introduced us to the concept of intersectionality thirty years ago, naming the set of challenges we face across our unique combinations of race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. Intersectionality was never intended to be a buzzword. It is the acute recognition that our lived experiences represent a combination of the ways people categorise us.  

An intersectional lens reveals the greater pay gaps of women of color; maternal mortality rates and police brutality. More recently, Crenshaw started the Say Her Name initiative to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence. Though the horrifying murders of Black men have sparked a global movement, she’s started important conversations about why the murders of Black women haven’t had the same effect. 

As intersectionality makes its way into the mainstream, we must protect it from becoming another buzzword.

This means drawing a personal connection and understanding of what it means to us. Where do we see intersectionality in the workplace? How do we ensure that our colleagues feel visible and represented across the identities that define them? 

As a Black, mixed race man consulting on diversity and inclusion, there’s a lot I can say about the experiences of people of colour, but I often need to both shed light on and leave space for women of colour to share their own experiences. 

When approaching conversations of intersectionality, I see myself as an ally and advocate. Part of my allyship is knowing when to speak up and when to step back. Where can I speak up for a female colleague who’s been interrupted, or had her idea repeated without credit? Where can I admit that I don’t have the answers, and need to leave space for others representing different lived experiences of marginalisation? 

Rethinking Blanket Terms 

As leaders dedicated to creating anti-racist, anti-sexist workplaces, we need to ensure that events and Employee Resource Groups are both specific and inclusive in how they deal with identity. We need to rethink blanket terms and classifications. For example, if we design programming for women, we need to integrate research and support for Black women. When we place people into broad categories, we erase their individuality and the traits that make them unique, and ultimately assets in their workplaces. It’s not about categorising and reducing people to groups, but rather being sensitive to the categories that have been imposed onto them by society.   

At the Front-Row 

For better or worse, our hyperconnected and globalised world has given us a front-row seat for what it means to lead as a woman of colour with the election of Vice President Kamala Harris.  

As  Cate Young put it, “As a woman of Black and Indian heritage, she will have to be both Barack and Michelle Obama wrapped up in one. She will be fighting multiple stigmas at once and be held to the standards of both white femininity and Black patriarchy”. I will be paying attention to the ways in which VP Harris’ work is covered and reflecting on how that compares to her white and male predecessors. Paying attention can help us develop a sensitivity to intersectional bias, whether in the news or in our workplaces. Perhaps if we tune into the emotional tax of intersectional prejudice, we can all contribute to lowering it. •

Frank is the founder and CEO of Variety Pack, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultants.