From Margin to Center: Intersectionality and You

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Image credit: Jennifer L. Lê, Ph.D.
Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term "intersectionality"
Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality”

In a previous post, I said that most efforts and diversity and inclusion fall short because they ignore intersectionality. This renders women of color invisible in plain sight.

As a theory, intersectionality is indispensable to understanding the full extent of gender and racial injustice at all levels of an organization. Thus, it is also valuable for measuring the true progress of an organization toward gender and racial equity.

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What intersectionality is not
Intersectionality is not just a spice or extra flavor. It’s not something that gets tacked on to feminism or anti-racism. It’s a radical reframing of our approach to gender equity and racial justice. By bringing women of color from the margins to the center, we get a more complete view of how gender and race operate in society and in institutions. That more complete understanding is the first step toward correcting the injustices created by racism and sexism.

Using intersectionality in your organization
How can we use intersectionality to begin working toward gender and racial equity in the arts?

It begins with 3 questions:

  1. How many women of color are there, and where do you find us?
  2. How do your organization’s actions impact women of color?
  3. What structures influence these outcomes?

1. How many women of color are there, and where do you find us?
Simply looking at numbers can reveal a lot. Numbers are your first clue that something deeper is at work. A high concentration of women of color in one area or a complete absence in another can indicate structural issues that need closer examination.

Take a look at your organization and do a little bean-counting.

How many women of color are in your organization? Where are we? Are we admin staff? Volunteers? Are we the artists? Are we in the audience? Donors and patrons? Do we occupy positions of leadership? Where can we be found in your organization? More importantly, where do you not find us? How long are we staying with your organization?

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If you make and present work by artists of color, but women of color are nowhere to be found, it’s likely that something is going on there. If you have a program or organization geared toward women, but women of color aren’t showing up or sticking around, chances are there’s something not quite right.

You can expand this beyond a specific organization’s structure too. No group truly works in isolation, so consider the institutions, media outlets, businesses, non-profits, physical spaces, and communities your organization interacts with.

2. How do the organization’s actions impact women of color?
What does your organization do? Don’t limit yourself to mission and goals. Take a look at the activities your organization participates in, the decisions your organization makes about who gets to do what and when, how your organization distributes resources, who gets to join and who has to leave, who gets picked to represent your organization, and how programs and services get chosen.

This is not a trial where you have to prove that your organization is guilty or innocent. It’s simply taking a stark look at how it actually functions. If our impact is to match our progressive and inclusive intentions, we need to be able to shed light on how we’re really doing and where we’re having trouble.

A lot of this stuff is really subtle, and it can be hard to notice without help. And it’s difficult to take note of how women of color are impacted by your organization without actually talking to women of color. Please understand, though, that for many women of color, there is a risk in talking frankly about race and gender, especially when our jobs and professional networks depend upon the goodwill of someone who may not appreciate our candor. So, if there is a woman of color in your organization (as many women of color you can find would be better) willing to open up and share her real thoughts and feelings about what your organization gets up to, please take her out to dinner at a restaurant that serves the cuisine of her choice.

3. What structures influence these outcomes?
An organization’s structure is defined by where power is concentrated and how the organization defines itself. It’s not just who occupies what position. It’s about how an organization functions. There are formal and informal structures, and it’s crucial to examine both.

Formal structures are easy to spot. They’re the things that you find “on paper.” These are the job titles, policies, rules and regulations, stated values and principles, and so on. Informal structures are the relationships, the organizational culture, the “unofficial” flow of communication, and other things that require insider knowledge to understand.

Deliberate attempts to exclude women of color are extremely rare. I want to make that clear. Most people in my generation have been raised to think of gender and racial equality as a given. Nevertheless, 75% of white people don’t have friends of color, and most women of color still earn 53 to 66 cents for every white man’s dollar. In the absence of formal structures preventing women of color from fully participating in today’s organizations, informal structures require special attention.

audre lorde quote
Intersectionality in a nutshell

OK, now what?
So you’ve done your homework, and you found out there may be something deeper at work. At this point, you’ll probably have more questions than answers. What does it mean about your and your organization? Are you part of the problem? How do you begin to change it? Does there need to be a new program or policy? Will you have to completely restructure your organization? What has to happen next?

Don’t feel like you have to know all this. No one is born with all this figured out. We all had to learn it, and we all had to start somewhere. None of us came out of the womb with bell hooks in one hand and Audre Lorde in the other (ditto Angela Davis and Patricia Hill-Collins). It takes years of critical observation, lots of reading, and deep relationships with women of color to learn how to perceive, comprehend, and resist the systems impacting our lives.

You don’t have to do it all by yourself. As a matter of fact, it’s best if you don’t. Working in isolation tends to reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. Oftentimes, as artists, we work things out on our own because we have to.

But here’s the thing: you don’t have to.

There are feminist, womanist, and anti-racist activists and organizers who can help. The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond has been teaching people about undoing racism and community organizing since 1980. The Audre Lorde Project does amazing work organizing and advocating for LGBT people of color, especially trans women of color. Both offer workshops and training year-round, and the leadership of women of color has been instrumental in the work they do. And let’s not forget the individual women of color who have expertise with intersectionality, Black feminism, womanism, critical race theory, activism, and community organizing.

Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You’re not alone.