CBA Record July-August 2021

Intersectionality: A Framework for Understanding Bias and Ourselves

By Justice Michael B. Hyman

H ave you heard the word “intersec- tionality”? Although introduced around 30 years ago, the concept of intersectional- ity has drawn steady mainstream attention in recent years to a range of issues such as equality, inclusion, equity, privilege, iden- tity, and power. Intersectionality refers to the idea that a combination of social categories or identi- ties – some visible and some invisible – shape each of us. Among our identities are gender, race, religion, age, socio-economic status, marital/relationship status, occupa- tion, and physical ability, among others. Intersectionality focuses on the entangled layers of inequalities arising from all the overlapping identities we have in our lives. Intersectionality affects how others see, treat, and value us. Law professor and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw coined “intersection- ality” to explain the many dimensions of discrimination faced by Black women. She argued that the experiences of Black women must be assessed by accounting for the cumulative effect of being both Black and female, not by viewing race and gender as mutually exclusive. According to Crenshaw, “Intersec- tionality, then, was my attempt to make feminism, anti-racist activism, and anti- discrimination law do what I thought they should — highlight the multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppres- sion were experienced so that the problems

last-hired, first fired policy. So, the court found no merit to the gender-discrimina- tion claim. Similarly, for a considerable time, GM had hired Blacks. So neither claim had merit, despite the policy’s dis- proportionate impact on Black women. What happened here? Black women were grouped either with white women or with Black men. Obviously, Black women differ from white women and Black men. Black women inhabit a marginalized iden- tity along the axes of both race and gender, and, as a group, that fact excluded them as a protected class. Not only the law but also our society too often construes bias as a single issue. There is racial bias. Gender bias. Sexual- orientation bias. National origin bias. Religion and belief bias. Disability bias. Ethnic bias. Ethnicity bias. Age bias. Body- size bias. Addiction bias. Parental status bias, and many others. Yet, bias is rarely a one-and-done experience. Indeed, bias operates at the intersection of all of these categories. In other words, each of us is a complex, multidimensional being with

would be easier to discuss and understand.” Since its introduction, the concept’s reach has broadened to embrace individu- als and communities with multiple identi- ties. Writes Crenshaw, “Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power….Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circum- stances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.” An oft-cited case illustrating intersec- tionality is DeGraffenried v. General Motors Assembly Division , St. Louis, 413 F. Supp. 142 (E.D.Mo.1976). Five Black women fired by GM under a “last-hired first-fired” policy sued, claiming the policy perpetu- ated past gender and racial discrimination. At the time (the 1970s), Black women held few seniority positions at companies across the country. Many companies, including GM, had just begun hiring Black women. The District Court dismissed the lawsuit on both gender and race discrimination. The court concluded that GM had hired women for a significant time before the

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