Embracing intersectionality can make us better human beings

For the uninitiated, the idea of intersectionality views all our identities not as independent of each other, but as interconnected. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, it describes diverse elements of our identities of race, class, gender and other characteristics as intersecting with the other and overlapping. Intersectionality helped put in perspective why different people experience inequality differently as compared to others. Crenshaw framed the concept in a way that simply looking at individual characteristics of identity, or ranking them in terms of importance (for example: identity as a gender and my caste) individually would not present a correct lens. Intersectionality as a concept acknowledges that all these various identity characteristics in effect co-exist mutually and in many ways mix together to provide a fuller understanding of privileges and inequalities.

One can simply ask, why does intersectionality matter? It matters because it helps us understand and take into account the myriad ways power plays out through identity and the ways oppression occurs. With the intersectional lens, one can understand social, economic and political outcomes through the interplay and active interaction of identities happening both at the personal as well as the systemic level. In an interesting paper titled “On Intersectionality, Empathy and Feminist Solidarity: A Reply to Naomi Zack,” author Alison Bailey engages with Anne Coplan's description of empathy as “the imagined position of the self in the circumstances of another”. In her exploration of empathy and intersectionality, Bailey shares the risk that accompanies. She surmises that engaging with empathy with the intention of focusing on common aspects of someone else's experience will mean having to center oneself to be able to understand their experience in a better way. The risk she asserts, is that even if one could try and attempt to understand the experience of another, the actual experience and the attempt to understand are different. She shares that in order to use empathy as an effective tool to use the intersectional lens, we need to engage in active listening to the experiences of others.

One would think that intersectionality is only for those working in larger ecosystems. However my take is that intersectionality can also help us be better human beings. How powerful would it be if we were to listen to diverse life experiences even before we begin to judge people, before we begin pigeon-holing them into categories? Here I make a case using Bailey’s framework that the lens of intersectionality can help us build empathy. Intersectionality can come to our aid to help unravel the layered nature of our identities made complex with the interplay of caste, gender, class hierarchies and access playing crucial roles. Can we at our workplaces and in our homes factor in these dimensions when we speak, behave, listen and think? Can we then build our response (in a manner that is multi-dimensional and reflective) to situations unfolding in our own lives? Can we be mindful of the complexities arising out of identities and experiences as we interact with others? Can we then build solutions with empathy? Where does one start? One starts internally, of course! It starts with each one of us. I reckon here is where active listening comes to play a big part. By listening to different experiences, by investing our time and energy into understanding the nuances of those experiences that may be diametrically different to our own, we can begin our journey towards building empathy. By learning about privilege and power and their manifestations in our everyday lives, we can learn a lot of how we have allowed for the perpetuation of some oppressions. By unlearning aspects of our own social conditioning to be able to build ecosystems that allow for inclusive thought and expression, we can be taking simple steps towards being part of the solution. My exploration into the world of intersectionality has just begun, however one aspect that I’m certain is that by embracing intersectionality we do not stand to lose, if anything we may just end up being better human beings.

About the author:

Varsha Pillai is an Associate Director, Communications & Advocacy at Dream a Dream and is also a PhD Research Scholar studying Gender Advocacy in Digital Media. She is also an alumnus of Femme First Foundation.