Quicklit: 5 questions you need intersectionality to answer

Inequality between groups is everywhere. Women are still paid less than men and the racial wealth gap is growing. Millions of Americans live on $2 a day. Beyond race/ethnicity, class, and gender, researchers are paying more attention to nationality, age, sexuality, and ability. Analyzing any one mechanism or pathway to inequality limits our ability to grasp the complexity people actually experience. Clearly, the problems Black men and women experience cannot be reduced to race and racism; neither can the issues of poor and middle class women be reduced to gender and sexism. Intersectionality is a framework for understanding and acting on different kinds of inequality and privilege for overlapping social groups simultaneously.

Here, I spotlight some recent empirical sociology that explicitly employs an intersectional lens, providing new insights on well-known social issues. (Feel free to add other insightful pieces in the comments.)

1. How does inequality manifest in the workplace?

Minorities who work in settings with largely majority group members can become tokens for the organizations they work in. These minorities tend to represent an organization’s commitment to diversity. Sociologists have expanded our understanding of tokenism to explain how the intersections of race, gender, and class inform the experience of tokens. Adia Harvey Wingfield’s (2009) uses the idea of partial tokenism to explain Black men’s experiences in professional occupations. They reap some benefits as males in male-dominated professions, but experience challenges as racial minorities.  For instance, heightened visibility results in increased social support for some of these men, while some are careful to maintain professional presentations so they will not be stereotyped as dangerous. In another case, Flores (2011) introduces the term “racialized tokens” to highlight the interactions and experiences of Latina teachers in a racial environments with high and low percentages of minorities in California. Compared with Latina teachers working in predominantly White environments, Flores found that Latina teachers in schools with a higher percentage of minority teachers feel less like tokens.  They are less segregated within the teachers’ lounges and feel more comfortable with expressing Latino culture whether in the form of familism, speaking Spanish, or wearing clothing with famous Latino icons.

2. How does social context influence our perceptions of race, class, and gender?

How we think, discuss, or see things when it comes race, class, and gender depends on our experiences.  Recently, Penner and Saperstein (2013) find that survey interviewers sometimes classify the same person in a different racial group over time, depending on their other social statuses. Women are more likely to be reported as Black if they have received welfare. Having been incarcerated makes men more likely to be perceived as Black, but a suburban residence leads interviewers to identify people as white. (The effects are small, but statistically significant.)

Place also matters for how people construct and understand race, class, and gender identities. Robinson’s (2014) work introduces region as an important social category.  Black Southerners understand and experience race, class, and gender through regional lens.  For instance, the Black southerners in her study view Southern Blackness as more authentic than Northern Blackness and expect racism from Whites, but attempt to deal with it in a calm and composed manner.

3. How does discrimination work?

Discrimination is not simply about race or gender or class. Harnois and Ifatunji (2011) report that racial discrimination against Blacks also has gender-specific components that affect Black women but not Black men and vice versa. That means it’s helpful to sue for intersectional discrimination in court, right? Not really. Best et al. (2011) show that when a person files a discrimination lawsuit on the basis of two or more ascriptive categories (e.g., race, gender, nationality), they are about half as likely to win as people filing for one dimension of discrimination. Still, Grollman (2014) shows that experiencing multiple forms of perceived discrimination results in young people reporting higher levels of depressive symptoms and worse self-rated mental health than those who report experiencing only one form of (or no) discrimination.

4. How do people experience their age?

Sociologists using intersectionality have recently focused on age. Slevin (2010) demonstrated the complexities in how older people manage ageism and give meaning to their bodies. She shows that race and sexuality intersect with gender to produce different image strategies. Women are more concerned about looking old than men are; lesbians and Black women are less concerned than straight White women. Meanwhile, Estrada and Hondagneu-Sotelo (2011) tell the story of poor, immigrant Latino children who work as street vendors. These youths, who do not experience a “normative” childhood, develop “intersectional dignities” to counter the stigmas of their status, using inversions of common stereotypes related to race/ethnicity, immigration, and gender.

5. How does sexuality relate to home, work, and family?

In the United States, we’ve witnessed increasing support for members of the LGBT community to have basic human rights. Intersectional approaches remind us that members of the LGBT community face pressures associated with their race, class, and gender identities. For instance, Kazyak’s (2012) research shows that rurality, gender, and sexuality converge to privilege masculine performances of sexuality over feminine ones for White gays and lesbians.  Participants talk about effeminate gay men not being compatible with rurality while more masculine lesbians are more likely to fit in.  For example, White lesbian women who present themselves more masculine do not suffer from the same distancing and boundaries people draw against effeminate gay men in their small town.  

Photo courtesy of Max Nathan // Flickr Creative Commons
Photo courtesy of Max Nathan // Flickr Creative Commons

Moore’s (2011) study on Black lesbian families details how Black culture, institutions, and history influenced their family formation patterns as well as their family lives. For example, Black lesbian mothers struggled with Black politics of respectability, and valued financial independence in their relationships; most of the couples have separate bank accounts and a joint account.  Logan (2010) found links between wage disparities among male escorts and sexual stereotypes. Black men receive premiums for sexually dominant services, but suffer severe wage penalties for being sexually submissive.

Comments 1

King Mer

December 8, 2015

These are wonderful questions to bring up and look more closely at intersectionality. I am currently putting together a presentation for my workplace on using intersectionality to be more inclusive of our program, and am also working on an article regarding the matter. This is a wonderful and well written article and definitely helps bring up some important questions.


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