It is impossible to describe the human experience as a single interaction, a single moment, or a single life. Many of us are the result of the intersection between our race, ethnicity, gender, age, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 (1). While the theory began as an exploration, primarily, of the oppression of black women within society and the ways in which they both exist at an intersection and experience intersecting layers of different forms of oppression, today the analysis has expanded to include many more aspects of social identity (2). The term was not adopted widely by feminists until the 2000s and has only grown since (3).
I will provide you with a few examples so you can understand better the concept of intersectionality. The human experience is complex and different for each individual, we all face different challenges and encounter different opportunities. We need to move pass the perception that only one of our identities is the reason for our human experience. I often use myself as an example; I am a Latina, immigrant, young physician, all identities for which I need to pay a price and fight the biases associated with each. As a Latina, I often face the discrimination and stereotypes associated with my ethnicity, comments like “go back to your country,” and the perception that because I am a Latina, I am supposed to be “spicy” and “cheerful.” Let us call that the minority tax.
As a woman in medicine, I face gender bias, the pay gap between women and men in medicine, and the negative connotations when I move away from the traditional gender stereotypes (4); we will call this one the gender tax. In addition, as a physician under 40 years old, I often encounter scenarios in which I am told, “you are too young to know,” we will call this the age tax. To summarize, I pay the minority tax, the gender tax, and the age tax every day (Figure 1). They do not subtract each other, but they often multiply and leave me without energy at the end of the day. Sometimes it feels like I was hit by a bus, a car, and a bike all at the same time.
I will provide you with another example, while rounding in the hospital as the attending physician, I am often confused as one of the members of our janitorial services (because of my ethnicity) and when I respond “No, I am not part of the janitorial services” (despite wearing a stethoscope on my neck) then the person proceeds to ask if I am the social worker (a profession associated with female gender) and as I answered the same “No, I am not the social worker”, more professions are thrown at me but never my occupation – the physician leading the team. These interactions are common and describe how we are the result of the interactions of our identities and the stereotypes and unconscious bias of the bystanders. Intersectionality is the sum of all my identities and all the negative association that come with them. I can not only be “The Latina” or “The woman” or “The young doctor”, I am all of them and with them comes the price I sadly am forced to pay.
I hope my examples serves as a clear picture of intersectionality and why we need to eliminate the perception of the single identity experience and understand that our human experience results from the intersection of everything we are.
Intersectional feminism aims to separate itself from white feminism by acknowledging women’s different experiences and identities and how our identities play a role in how we see the world and interact with it. Intersectionality broadens the lens of the first and second waves of feminism, which largely focused on the experiences of women who were both white and middle-class, to include the different experiences of women of color, women who are poor, immigrant women, and other groups. As we continue to understand the concept of intersectionality, we must be aware of the unique challenges that each of us faces and the little we know about our neighbors’ intersectional experience.
Figure 1: Intersectionality from the eyes of a Latina young physician
1. Disch LJ, Hawkesworth ME. The Oxford handbook of feminist theory: Oxford University Press; 2016.
2. Duran A, Jones SR. Encyclopedia of Critical Whiteness Studies in Education. Chapter 41 Intersectionality: Brill; 2020. p. 310-20.
3. Zinn MB, Dill BT. Theorizing difference from multiracial feminism. Feminist studies. 1996;22(2):321-31.
4. Burgess DJ, Joseph A, Van Ryn M, Carnes M. Does stereotype threat affect women in academic medicine? Academic Medicine. 2012;87(4):506.
Dr. Florez is a guest writer for InCrowd. She is an Associate Director CCEP & Thoracic Oncologist at Dana Farber and Harvard Medical School, the Co-Founder of @LatinasinMed, and the Founder of @Florez Lab.