By Dr. Linda Wiley
Why did the black woman cross the road? That sounds like the beginning of a familiar riddle; however, the response is not funny. This is a question that pertains to the concept of intersectionality. Let me explain.
I was born, the youngest of four children, in a family that lived in the Marcy Housing Projects in Brooklyn, New York. When I was five years old, my parents moved us to a single-family home in a black middle-class neighborhood. From the fifth grade through high school, I attended private schools. I skipped the 12th grade and graduated high school at the age of 16 as valedictorian of the graduating class. I applied to five colleges and was accepted to them all. I decided to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; one of the seven sister schools at that time.
The Smith College Black Student Alliance had a program for incoming first-year students of color. The program was called Bridge and took place during the two weeks immediately prior to the start of the semester. I attended and all I really remember about the program, besides making new friends and the enlightenment I received, was one question that has helped shape my life and probably my career. That question was something like “do you identify more as a woman or as black”? I’d be willing to bet that you have never been asked to dissect yourself in that way; especially at such a young age.
That question is the essence of intersectionality. I’ll share my response and rationale to the question asked by my Bridge facilitators but first, let’s talk about the concept of intersectionality. The historical exclusion of black women from the feminist movement in the United States resulted in many black 19th and 20th-century feminists, such as Anna Julia Cooper, challenging their historical exclusion. The ideas of earlier feminist movements, which were primarily led by white middle-class women, suggested that women were a homogeneous category who shared the same life experiences. But, those of us who are not white know that that is not the case. There are a unique set of experiences that occur for women of color at the intersection of gender and race.
This concept, known as intersectionality, was made popular in 1989 by feminist lawyer, law professor, and civil rights activist Kimberlee Crenshaw. In her paper, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’ (University of Chicago Legal Forum, Volume 1989, Issue 1, Article 8), Crenshaw states that intersectionality “denote[s] the various way[s] in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s employment experiences”.
You see, when it’s convenient, corporate America groups all black people together as if there is no gender diversity among blacks. And, when it’s convenient, corporate America groups all women together as if there is no diversity among women. We see it in the data, in mentoring and development programs, and in a number of other ways. Intersectionality – the space where being black and being female come together – adds a new dimension of circumstances.
Here’s an example. If you are crossing the road called Race, there is some danger associated with getting hit by racial discrimination. If you are crossing the road called Gender there is some danger of getting hit by gender discrimination. However, if you are crossing the road at the intersection, the danger doubles. You have the potential of getting hit by cars on both roads. That is intersectionality – the double bind of discrimination that black women face because we belong to two marginalized groups. Black men only partially understand this because they only travel on the marginalized road called Race. Similarly, white women only partially understand because they only travel on the marginalized road called Gender. And, most white men just don’t understand at all.
In 1976, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors was a case in which five black women sued General Motors for a seniority policy that they argued targeted black women exclusively. Basically, the company simply did not hire black women before 1964, meaning that when seniority-based layoffs arrived during an early 1970s recession, all the black women hired after 1964 were subsequently laid off. A policy like that didn’t fall under just gender or just race discrimination. But the court decided that efforts to bind together both racial discrimination and sex discrimination claims — rather than sue on the basis of each separately — would be unworkable. In May 1976, Judge Harris Wangelin ruled against the plaintiffs, writing in part that “black women” could not be considered a separate, protected class within the law, or else it would risk opening a “Pandora’s box” of minorities who would demand to be heard in the law. In other words, they couldn’t get justice because it would cause other groups who were subjected to discrimination to want justice, too.
By treating black women as purely women or purely black, the courts have repeatedly ignored specific challenges that black women face as a group. Courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all black people regardless of gender and, sex discrimination was what happened to all women regardless of race. If that is your framework, of course, what happens to black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see.
So, why did the black woman cross the road? She crossed the road to minimize the amount of discrimination she has to face. But, crossing the road is not without consequences. For one thing, it requires covering. Covering occurs when a person downplays or intentionally does not disclose a known stigmatized identity to fit in with the dominant culture. It usually takes place in 1 of 4 ways:
- Appearance – the inability of black women to wear their hair in its natural state because it looks too “ethnic” or wanting Muslim women not to wear hijabs.
- Affiliation – not speaking one’s primary language if it is not English so as not to be accused of talking badly about others or being accused as a terrorist.
- Advocacy – not supporting stigmatized groups (e.g. LGBTQ+) for fear of being accused as a member of the group.
- Association — avoid groups like the NRA or NAACP that may be perceived as having an agenda.
Sometimes the black woman crosses the race road and covers by being “more white” to avoid being hit by the cars on the race road. In other words, she can’t wear her own natural hair, she avoids using words that sound too “ethnic”, she avoids affiliating with black groups, etc. Of course, there are limits to how far black women can go in conforming to white cultural expectations without losing a sense of authenticity. A woman’s sense of authenticity – a conviction that her outward behavior is consistent with her inner values and identity – is essential to her emotional well-being, productivity, and personal satisfaction. So, she cannot bring her full authentic self to work and survive.
We have to stretch our imaginations and be creative in our approaches to understanding intersectionality — this could involve field research, in-depth interviews, discourse analysis, and narrative analysis, among other approaches. We need to know what unique challenges black women face, in their own words, in order to address them. We have to stop assuming that all blacks face the same challenges regardless of gender and that the challenges of white women impact black women in the same way or with the same remedy.
And, what was my response to the question asked of me during the Bridge program that summer? My response was that I identify more with being black because when people look at me they see the color of my skin first and I will suffer more discrimination from being black than from being a woman. If I need refuge, I believe a black man would assist me before a white woman would because he would be more in tune with my struggle.
At the young age of 17 (for those of you keeping track I had a birthday that summer between graduating high school and starting college), I was prepped for my reality in the real world. The reality of having to dissect myself and choose who to be on any given day because of how I am made. It is exhausting.
So, in closing, I am not asking you to ignore my black skin. I want you to see it. I am not asking you to ignore the fact that I am a woman. Please see it. I am simply asking on behalf of all women of color, that you act with intentionality to establish cultures of equity that minimize the hazards on the roads we travel in this journey called life.
Dr. Linda Wiley is an author and the founder and CEO of Turning Point Leadership Group LLC, an organizational development firm that specializes in diversity, equity, inclusion, and leadership development. Her views have been heard on radio and TV.