What is intersectionality? It is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2021). When looking at this term, I also echo the words of Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw who coined this term to address the specific social inequities seen among black women (Crenshaw, 1994). She realized that black women were experiencing levels of oppression that were homogenous and specific to their gender and their race. In looking at the prevalence of how black women were being impacted by societal views, Dr. Crenshaw went on to work and address the uniqueness that they faced due to their ownership of multiple identities such as being black and female. In coining the term intersectionality, Dr . Crenshaw opened a pathway for conversations to be had that focused on the life experiences of individuals who fell in between the intersection of identities and navigating systems that they were traditionally rejected from.
In building upon this framework—the intersection of blackness and feminism, intersectionality can also be applied to other identities outside of race and gender. Examples of intersectional identities include but are not limited to, disability, age, sexual orientation, class, marital status, and political affiliation. Although the concept of intersectionality has been widely used in social sciences studies, one can also apply this concept to the study of public health and why it is important for future public health practitioners to become competent in this framework. Acknowledging the need for intersectional work and study is imperative in understanding how population groups can overlap and how that overlap can have just as much of an influence on one’s health outcome as their sole identity status. Ignoring intersectionality in essence can widened health inequities among vulnerable populations. While Dr. Crenshaw did great work in establishing a narrative for intersectional work—I believe she may have omitted other important identity groups which we as scholars and researchers now have an obligation to explore and uplift.
In the wake of the second wave of social and racial injustice and diversity and inclusion progression, the field of Public Health must create space in which all these health disparities can be addressed within a single framework. In a study on immigrant health, researchers found that perceived discrimination based on race is directly correlated to poor health outcomes such as—lower levels of physical and mental health, poor access to quality healthcare, and deleterious health. Behaviors (Edna A.Viruell-Fuentesa, 2012). Examples of these negative health outcomes range to a higher level of depression, limited access to medication for hypertension or cancer treatment, lack of physical activity which leads to high incidences of obesity and diabetes. However, within the scope of discrimination, immigrants who were suffering from negative health outcomes were also facing unique barriers to healthcare access due to their immigration status. The study went on to show how compared to U.S.-born citizens, health outcomes among immigrant groups varied greatly and this was due to the intersection of race and ethnicity and other identity statuses.
In looking at health implications and the impact of using intersectionality theory in approaches to public health, studies have found the benefits to be invaluable. The theory allows for the advancement of social justice via the critical study of health disparities, health behaviors and practices, systematic influences on health outcomes, structural, and a combination of the aforenoted levels (Jasmine Abrams, 2020).
As we move forward in addressing the health inequities found within marginalized and non-marginalized communities, it is important to use frameworks that look to improving health disparities and inequities, not only according to individual experiences but according to multiple identity commonalities as well.