Intersectionality: Challenges and Perceptions for Women of Color

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The concept of intersectionality – referring to the complex and cumulative way different forms of discrimination like racism, sexism and classism overlap and affect people – seems to have popped up relatively recently. But as Brittany Packnett, an educator, activist and writer who is black, told an audience at the New Rules Summit hosted by The New York Times, it was by no means a new idea – it has been voiced in different ways for many decades by those living on the margins of mainstream America. “It’s not merely that some days I experience racism and some days I experience sexism,” she said. “Rather it is that oppression shows up differently for me than it does for black men and white women.”

The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University and the University of California, almost 30 years ago, although it never had the prominence it has now… A study by Catalyst looked at what it called the emotional tax women and men of colour face in the workplace... The survey of almost 1,600 participants in a variety of corporate and noncorporate settings included those who identified as Asian, African-American, Latino or a combination of any of those, she said. Almost 58 percent said they were highly on guard at work; women of colour were slightly more worried about racial bias at work than sexism.

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Yung-Yi Diana Pan, assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, said she knew the emotional cost. “As a woman of colour, students often challenge us in a way they don’t challenge their male professors, especially their white male professors.” Being on guard manifests itself in different ways, often as repressing perceived traits that play into the stereotype of being frightening or intimidating or just “too much.” ...

Alicia Wallace, who is African-American, was once told in a performance review that her hair was “too fun” and that it made people question her maturity. “So, I changed it to be more conservative,” she said, “but it just made me feel I wasn’t living authentically.” The reality, said Lata Murti, an associate professor of sociology at Brandman University, is that “professional white women are the invisible norm.”

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Women of color may face some of the same issues, but the stereotypes they battle are different. For African-American women, it’s often that of the angry black woman. For Latinas, it can be that they are perceived as too emotional or too wedded to their families. Asians are often viewed as the “model minority” – hardworking and dutiful – but this stereotype’s negative side is “being workhorses without creativity,” Professor Pan said. “Also, passive and acquiescent, which aren’t good criteria for a leader.” …

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“We need leadership that truly cares about inclusion – a lot care about diversity, but how do you foster inclusion?” said Latasha Woods, brand manager at Procter & Gamble. “People spend a lot of time on what they know the boss cares about. If they see the boss cares about inclusion they will too.” …For Ms. Packnett, the answer is both glaringly simple and incredibly difficult. “It’s not about helping women of colour handle the hardships,” she said. “It’s about dismantling the [hardships].”

The concept of intersectionality, recognizing overlapping discrimination, isn't new; it's been voiced by marginalized groups for decades. Kimberl? Crenshaw coined the term almost 30 years ago, yet its prominence is recent. A study on emotional tax at work found women of color are highly on guard, facing racial bias and sexism. The challenges vary; stereotypes affect how they're perceived?African-American women as "angry," Latinas as "emotional," Asians as "model minorities" lacking creativity. Achieving inclusion requires leaders genuinely invested in it, not just diversity. Ultimately, change means dismantling these hardships, not just helping individuals cope.
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