Somewhere at the intersection of her gender (female) and her sexual orientation (lesbian) Jennifer Eden found herself in danger of falling through the cracks.
When the 27-year-old Baltimorean went to a local clinic for an HIV test, clinicians assumed she was heterosexual. They asked if she uses condoms — instead of eliciting information and suggesting practices that would protect her from sexually transmitted diseases.
Likewise, women living in Baltimore public housing found recently that the intersection of their gender (female) and race (mostly African-American) put them at risk. Earlier this year, the city agreed to pay $8 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that maintenance workers demanded sexual favors in exchange for making needed repairs.
Though the lawsuit didn’t specify the victims’ race, most public housing residents in Baltimore historically have been black.
These days, intersectionality — a term that describes the scaffolding of discrimination experienced by people belonging to more than one minority group – has become a buzzword not just in social policy circles, but in popular culture.
Case in point: Rowan Blanchard, who stars in the Disney series “Girl Meets World,” last year described herself as an “intersectional feminist.” She was 13 years old at the time.
Intersectionality is used to describe situations on college campuses and in medical clinics, on factory floors, at crime scenes and inside the plush offices of white-shoe law firms.
“If you Google ‘intersectionality’ today, you’ll get more than a million hits,” says the Columbia, Md.-born Ange-Marie Hancock, an associate professor of gender studies and political science at the University of Southern California.
“That would not have happened 20 years ago, when the word was known mostly to a small cache of scholars. But ... It’s troubling when people talk about ‘intersectionality’ without fully understanding the concept.”
Hancock also authored “Intersectionality: An Intellectual History” released this year.
“When you’re talking about racism, the default assumption is that you’re talking about a black man,” says Eden, a peer navigator for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland.
“If you’re talking about sexism, the default assumption is that you’re talking about a white woman. And if you’re talking about homophobia, the default assumption is that you’re talking about a white, gay man. That leaves a lot of people out of the conversation.”
Perhaps the clearest example of intersectional prejudice was the 1975 federal lawsuit that Emma DeGraffenreid and four other black women filed against General Motors. GM had jobs for black people on, for instance, the assembly line, but they were only open to men. They also had jobs for women as, for example, secretaries, but only white people could apply for them. There were exactly zero jobs for which black women were eligible.
The court dismissed the suit, finding that the black women couldn’t prove discrimination based on race (because GM hired black men) or gender (because there were jobs for women).
“A lot of people think that intersectionality is only about identity,” says Kimberle Crenshaw, the scholar and activist who first coined the term in a 1989 essay. “But it’s also about how race and gender are structured in particular workforces.”
The actress Patricia Arquette was widely pilloried after she made comments at the 2015 Academy Awards that differentiated “all the women of America” from “all the gay people” and “all the people of color” — as if lesbians, transgender women, Latinas and black women were a figment of society’s collective imagination. Arquette was trying to make a feminist point. But her tone-deaf phrasing explains why some women don’t feel represented by the feminist movement.
Part of the reason that intersectional discrimination historically has been obscured is the paucity of data to illustrate it.
For example, the blistering, 163-page Department of Justice report on discriminatory policing in Baltimore that was released in August raises red flags for equal rights advocates.
“If you don’t have a lens that’s been trained to look at how various forms of discrimination come together, you’re unlikely to develop a set of policies that will be as inclusive as they need to be,” says Crenshaw, the law professor who co-founded the African American Policy Forum.
“The report has five or six pages about the Baltimore Police Department’s problem prosecuting sexual assault cases. But the report doesn’t identify victims by race.
“Where is this burden falling? Are the police a little bit more concerned about some sexual assault victims than others? Should we be thinking of this as part and parcel of the Baltimore Police Department’s racism problem? The data isn’t there, so we don’t know.”
Other studies fill in some missing pieces:
• Women made up 38.8 percent of full-time faculty at medical colleges last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Included in that: African-American women make up 2.8 percent of all faculty; Hispanic women, 1.8 percent — lesser percentages than they appear in the U.S. population.
• In 2014, women working full-time earned a median $719 a week, compared to $871 for men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But two segments of women earned less than the female median — $548 for Hispanic women and $611 for black women.
• The African American Policy Forum reports that in the past decade, more than $100 million has been invested in achievement, dropout prevention, and mentoring initiatives exclusively targeting minority boys. Less than $1 million was earmarked for minority girls.
These data illustrate why Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead was so disturbed when the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture declared 2016 the “Year of the Black Male” in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death.
As the mother of two teenage boys, Whitehead understands the urgent need to tackle the problems afflicting young black men. But concentrating the spotlight on one group, she says, can leave other, equally deserving groups unseen.
“I had a problem ... with the automatic focus that we have to rush in and save black males,” says Whitehead, an associate professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland.
“What about black females? We have our own problems with racism and with police brutality, and they are different than the problems that black men face.”
If an obstacle to combating intersectional prejudice is that the problem often is hidden from view, equal rights advocates are working to increase public awareness.
In late 2014, The African American Policy Forum published a report called “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” that looked at disciplinary measures by race against schoolchildren. The Forum also has launched the “Say Her Name” campaign aimed at highlighting police brutality that victimizes women of color.
“Everyone knows the name of Freddie Gray,” Crenshaw says. “But no one knows the name of Mya Hall, a transgender woman who was also killed in Maryland last year by police.”
(Hall was fatally shot March 28 and two others were injured after a stolen SUV barreled through a checkpoint at the National Security Agency.)
In May, Baltimoreans Aisha Springer and Brittany Oliver organized the first-ever “intersectionality week,” in which nationwide branches of the Younger Women’s Task Force held events aimed at combating intersectionality-based discrimination.
“There were probably about three dozen panels that were held around the country that explored the intersection of race and gender,” Springer says.
But increasing recognition is only part of the solution. At least one entrepreneur is taking a more pragmatic approach.
Laura Mather used her doctorate in computer science and her experience in government and business to develop software, Unitive, that she says eliminates unconscious bias from hiring.
“We all have way too many different decisions to make every day, so our minds make the quickest pattern match possible. We’ve designed a computer program that forces people to focus only on the skills and values that are really important for doing the job.”
Next on Unitive’s horizon: developing software to eliminate bias from performance reviews and promotions.
“My goal is to help a company’s workforce reflect the demographics of the community it’s located in. If that happens on a large enough scale, the world is going to change. A lot of the problems that are facing society now will solve themselves. I’ll have worked myself out of a job, and that would make me ecstatic.”