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Embracing Intersectionality: Unseen Dimensions of Identity

Intersectionality is a concept that has influenced our understanding of identity and discrimination. The term was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and acknowledges that individuals often occupy multiple social positions simultaneously, and these intersections can create unique experiences. It’s important that organisations, leaders and managers recognise intersectionality and explore its’ multifaceted nature, whilst acknowledging that not all intersections are visible and understanding how this might impact individuals in both positive and negative ways.

an intricate geometric network in intersecting wires,  comparison to intersectionality of characteristics

Not All Intersections Are Visible

The essence of intersectionality lies in recognising that individuals possess a complex web of identities that may not be immediately apparent.

The concept challenges us to look beyond the surface and recognise that each person's identity is not one dimensional but more a complex interplay of various factors. While some aspects of identity, such as race or gender, may be immediately apparent, many such as sexual orientation, disability, mental health, socioeconomic status, and more, remain hidden from view.

One of the most prevalent invisible intersections involves sexual orientation. LGBTQIA+ individuals often face the dilemma of whether or not to disclose their sexual orientation in different contexts. Fear of discrimination or prejudice can force them to conceal a crucial part of their identity.

Research by Accenture - ‘Getting to Equal’, suggests that in the UK less than half (41 percent) of LGBTQIA+ employees are fully open about their gender identity, expression, or sexual orientation at work. And approximately one in four LGBTQIA+ employees (26 percent) remain totally closeted.

Sitting alongside sexual orientation, disability is another frequently occurring intersection which is not readily visible. Conditions such as chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, mental ill-health, or neurodivergence are not likely to be apparent to others. This can lead to not only a lack of support and accommodations at work but also lead others to judge behaviours or actions of people who are managing invisible conditions.

Our socioeconomic status is another intersection that impacts our health and wellbeing as well as our opportunities and it often remains hidden. People from diverse economic backgrounds face different challenges, and those from less financially mobile or affluent backgrounds are often faced with a reduced range of opportunities, compared to those with access to wealth, these disparities are rarely evident at first glance.

As Kimberlé Crenshaw reminds us, "Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects."

The challenges people face with their mental health are frequently invisible and mostly individuals wrestle with them privately. The stigmas surrounding mental health discourage open discussions, hindering access to support and adjustments at work.

The World Health Organisation reports that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, but many individuals suffering from it may not seek help due to stigma. This emphasises the importance of acknowledging and destigmatising invisible intersections related to mental health.

Understanding that not all intersections are visible is essential for fostering empathy and inclusivity. It requires us to go beyond surface-level judgments and assumptions about others. By acknowledging the hidden dimensions of identity, we can create a more compassionate and equitable society that values each person for their unique experiences and challenges, both seen and unseen.

Visible Difference: A Double-Edged Sword

Visible aspects of identity, such as race, gender, or physical disability, can have profound impacts on an individual's life. These visible differences can be a double-edged sword, simultaneously offering advantages and disadvantages.

If we look hard enough rather than seeing the obvious negative aspects of being different, we can uncover some advantages, which we can use to further our efforts to create inclusive workplaces and communities.

Being visibly different can enable individuals to gain recognition and raise awareness of the intersections they embrace. Access to the media – and specifically social media, has enabled prominent individuals from marginalised groups to create huge and far-reaching platforms on which to campaign and raise awareness of specific challenges or discriminatory practices. This has enabled many to serve as role models, inspiring others to break barriers and reach positions of influence that were once considered unachievable.

In some cases, visible differences can be leveraged to access accommodations that facilitate inclusion. For example, laws and policies that require public spaces to be accessible are in response to seeing how wheelchair users struggle to access buildings, transport networks and other physical spaces. There is still a long way to go but these changes have begun to make physical spaces more inclusive for all.

Individuals with visible differences may choose to use their drive and lived experience to become advocates for their communities. Their experiences and perspectives can become powerful catalysts for positive change and social progress.

There are however still so many disadvantages of being visibly different, and these are often deeply engrained in society through social systems, processes and societal norms.

Visible differences often trigger stereotypes and unconscious bias. People make assumptions based on appearances, leading to discrimination and unequal treatment. For instance, racial profiling, gender pay gaps, assumption of intellect based on disability.

Some visible differences are stigmatised in society, leading to social isolation and mental ill-health. For example, individuals with visible skin conditions or neurodivergent’s who visibly ‘stim’, or those with Tourette’s amongst many other things experience judgment from others creating stigma.

Sometimes society is seen to place undue pressure on individuals to represent their entire community or group. This burden of representation can be emotionally taxing and lead to feelings of isolation, stress and burnout.

Microaggressions in the workplace and society have come to prominence over the last few years, they are subtle forms of discrimination or bias, and are often a constant presence for those with visible differences. Overtime these often seemingly small actions, comments or behaviours can erode a person’s sense of belonging and self-worth.

For example, women, especially women of colour, often face stereotype-based discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace. While gender is visible, race adds another layer of complexity to their experiences. They may be seen as "angry" or "difficult" when advocating for themselves, a stereotype that is a consequence of both their gender and race.

Understanding the dual nature of visible differences is crucial. While difference can provide opportunities and advantages, it can also perpetuate inequality and discrimination. Recognising the multitude of complexities is essential if we are to foster inclusivity and dismantle stereotypes and biases associated with visible differences.

It reminds us that true equality is achieved when every individual is valued for their unique experiences, regardless of the visible aspects of their identity.

The Challenge of Communicating Invisible Intersectionality

Invisible intersections can pose unique challenges. Communicating aspects of identity that are not immediately apparent can be challenging, especially when individuals face the risk of discrimination or misunderstanding. This can lead to feelings of invisibility or erasure.

Kimberlé Crenshaw noted, "When feminism does not explicitly oppose racism, and when antiracism does not incorporate opposition to patriarchy, race and gender politics often end up being antagonistic to each other."

While visible intersections of identity can often be readily observed and acknowledged, invisible intersections present unique challenges when it comes to communication.

Many individuals with invisible intersections, such as those related to mental health or sexual orientation, may fear disclosing these aspects of themselves especially at work, because of potential judgement, stigma, discrimination, or misunderstanding. This fear can lead to a sense of isolation and a reluctance to seek support or understanding.

For example, a person struggling with depression may hesitate to open up to their boss, or colleagues about their condition due to concerns about being perceived as weak or unreliable.

Where organisations create a culture of inclusivity enabling people to disclose and bring their whole selves to work, they attract and retain a more diverse workforce and reap the many benefits.

Since invisible intersections are not immediately apparent, others may be unaware of the challenges individuals face. This lack of visibility can result in a lack of empathy and support from others who may not understand the hidden dimensions of identity.

Studies have shown that people with invisible disabilities often encounter scepticism from others because their conditions are not readily apparent.

Advocating for the needs and rights of individuals with invisible intersections can be challenging. Unlike visible differences that are self-evident, those with hidden aspects of their identity may need to actively disclose their experiences, which can be emotionally taxing and create untold stress.

Crenshaw's work once again emphasises the importance of recognising these hidden intersections in advocacy efforts: "The intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism."

When individuals do choose to disclose their invisible intersections, they may face misunderstandings or stereotyping. Others may have preconceived notions about what it means to have a particular invisible intersection, leading to further challenges in communication.

Think about someone revealing their non-binary gender identity, they are likely to encounter misconceptions and questions based on binary gender stereotypes, or misinformation.

Some individuals with invisible intersections may normalise their experiences, believing that their challenges are not significant or unique enough to warrant communication. This can contribute to a cumulative lack of awareness about the impact of these hidden aspects of identity.

Research indicates that individuals from marginalised backgrounds may internalise biases and not communicate their experiences, leading to underreporting of discrimination.

Everyone Deserves to Be Valued

At the core of intersectionality is the belief that every individual, regardless of their visible or invisible intersections, deserves to be seen, heard, and valued. Embracing intersectionality means recognising the unique experiences of each person and acknowledging the systemic biases that affect them.

Addressing these challenges requires the creation of safe and inclusive spaces where individuals feel comfortable sharing their invisible intersections without fear of judgment or discrimination.

It also calls for increased awareness and education about intersectionality and the diverse aspects of identity. By fostering open and empathetic communication and creating inclusive workplaces we can ensure that everyone's unique experiences and needs are recognised and valued.

Intersectionality is a powerful framework that reminds us that identity is multifaceted and complex. It is essential to recognise that not all intersections are visible, that visible differences have both advantages and disadvantages, and that effective communication and inclusivity are keys to valuing every individual. Embracing intersectionality is not just a concept; it is a call to action for a more equitable and inclusive society.

I challenge you to discuss intersectionality with your teams at work, shine a light into those dark corners of intersection and get comfortable with discomfort. If you need help having those conversations reach out. That’s what we do.

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