What is intersectionality and how does it impact my work?

What is intersectionality and how does it impact my work?

Understanding intersectionality is important if we are to provide the best possible services to women. Especially for those of us from the dominant culture, learning about intersectionality, power, privilege and oppression is a lifelong process.

What is intersectionality?

The word intersectionality describes the complex reality of being human. Each of us is shaped by multiple social or cultural identities that affect how we understand ourselves, the barriers and opportunities we have had presented to us, our abilities to respond to those barriers and opportunities and the way other people respond to us.

As the Learning Network put it in their October 2015 newsletter on intersectionality:

Intersectionality is made up of 3 basic building blocks: social identities, systems of oppression and the ways in which they intersect.

Understanding ourselves & our clients

We need to understand our own social identity and the systems of oppression (and privilege) that have shaped who we are, so we can be aware of biases we may bring into our work. Especially for those of us from the dominant culture, this can be a difficult task. For all of us, it is an ongoing responsibility; something we need to be aware of throughout our working life.

Once we have started learning about who we are, we need to understand the intersectionality of each of the women we serve.

Our social identity is based on the cultures we belong to. Some people use the word groups or communities instead of cultures; in this context they all mean the same thing.

Some examples of cultures to which we may belong are:

  • Race
  • Class
  • Religion
  • Skin colour
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • Geographic location
  • Legal status in Canada
  • Indigeneity
  • Education
  • Language
  • Health (physical, mental, emotional)
  • Disability
  • Family status

This is not intended to be a complete list.

Our cultural groupings are associated with both oppressions and privileges.

Both oppressions and privileges exist within larger societal forces and structures that reinforce notions of us and them, insiders and outsiders, and that ultimately exclude some people and include others. Some examples of these structures are colonization, legal systems, the education system and capitalism, but there are more.

The impact of intersectionality

It is important to understand the intersectionality of people’s experiences, because they are complex and have an impact on every aspect of their lives.

For example, you may have an older white woman as a client. She has privileges because of her skin colour but oppressions because of her age and the social structures that have an impact on people as they get older. You need to understand this to serve her well. She may have felt very privileged all of her life and may now be struggling to understand why she feels excluded; why she feels like an outsider.

Or, you may be working with a woman of colour who has come from an economically privileged background. She may exhibit many characteristics of that economic privilege – she may act in a very entitled way, she may be judgmental about people who are less economically advantaged – but because of her skin colour, she has also experienced the oppression of racism. To see her only as privileged because of her economic privilege denies her intersectional reality and means you miss identifying and responding to the oppression of racism that is part of who she is.

Social or cultural identity both opens and closes doors for women who need to access services related to the abuse they have experienced.

Sometimes, the door is closed because of internal factors: a woman who has high social status may be too embarrassed to seek out services because she does not want anyone to know about the abuse. Or, it may be because of external factors: a woman living in a rural community may not have access to a shelter near where she lives; an Indigenous woman may fear systemic racism will be directed at her or her abuser if she calls the police.

We need to remember that the intersectionality of women’s lives affects the trauma they experience as a result of their partner’s abuse. Resiliency, too, is related to women’s cultural or social identity.


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