Intersectionality is a concept for understanding how aspects of a person's identities combine to create different and multiple layers of both discrimination and privilege, disadvantage and advantage. Examples of these aspects include: gender, race, religion, age and of course sexuality and disability.

Intersectionality recognises that a person's identity can contain multiple factors. And that it is when these factors combine, and you occupy two under represented groups, that individuals can experience further disadvantage, exclusion and oppression. 

Intersectionality has been described by those affected as: “Standing in the middle of the road and being hit by cars from many and unexpected sides”.

In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and social theorist wrote a paper coining the term ‘intersectionality’, as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women. However, the theory actually emerged during the 1960s, when black feminists began to speak out about the white, middle-class nature of the mainstream feminist movement where they did not see their struggles represented. Many black women found it difficult to identify with the issues of the mainstream (white) feminist movement, such as the pressure to be a homemaker. Black women, often had to work in order to keep their family afloat and therefore did not have the luxury of being homemakers, they therefore did not feel as though these issues pertained to their experiences.

This is an example of how we often only think about the most obvious, or visual characteristic, of a person-first while not considering the individual holistically. As a society, we need to acknowledge the differences that exist both between identity categories and within them, as well as the overall effect this can have on an individual’s experiences. For example, within gender, a 31-year-old, heterosexual, white woman with no children will likely have a very different experience to a 42-year-old lesbian, black woman with two children. Intersectionality means we view the whole person, not their characteristics separately. As Crenshaw noted, intersectionality is “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem, and a class or LGBTQ+ problem there”.

To mark the beginning of Disability Pride month, the team at the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower want to raise awareness of intersectionality. The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is here to support those with invisible disabilities and recognises that for each and every person that wears the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, this is only part of who they are. We recognise that often our wearers will encounter discrimination and disadvantage not just because they are a person with a disability but because they are a person with a disability who also happens to belong to another minority group.

What can you do?

Recognise difference

People experience the world differently based on their overlapping identity markers and cannot be placed in one stereotypical bucket be that: black, gay, person with disability. We often feel it is rude to formally recognise others’ difference. This can be seen in how people are uncomfortable naming another person’s perceived race or asking for someone’s preferred pronouns. We need to find a way of overcoming this antiquated way of thinking, recognise these identities and step beyond our assumptions that all our experiences are common.

Using statements such as “all women feel” a certain way or that “LGBTQ+ people believe” does not reflect reality. As a society we need to recognise that all unique experiences of identity, and particularly ones that involve multiple overlapping oppressions, are valid.

Representation - look at your world

Recognising difference also involves registering when that difference is not being represented in your world. Diversity of all kinds matters in your workplace, your community, online, in the newspapers you read and television shows you watch. For example, you may feel that your workplace is ethnically diverse and has implemented methods to address the gender pay gap but is it accessible to people with disabilities that exist within these two marginalised groups?

Seek other points of view

Surround yourself with others with differing interwoven identities and listen to their lived experiences. Even when you have a diverse group of people, it often falls on people to educate others about the oppressions they face. But don't expect people with identity markers other than your own to be there or to want to educate others. In your own time, seek out existing intersectional narratives that are available. This could be be in the form of the podcasts you listen to or your evening television shows.

Become an ally

Do not expect people who face different systems of oppression than you to rally for causes you care about, if you do not rally for theirs. As you hear about issues others face, learn about the work that is currently being done around these topics. Listen and defer to those who live with these intersectional identities each day. As you do, you will likely deepen your understanding of your own identity and the subjects you care about most.