Black feminist researcher Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw first proposed the concept of intersectionality in 1989 by to represent the many different layers of social stratification that can combine to disadvantage people. This includes factors like race, sexual orientation, social class, age, disability, and gender. Expanding on this concept, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins described the intersectional points as the matrix of domination, with vectors of oppression and privilege.
I think intersectionality is useful to consider in general and also with respect to mental illness and stigma, and it helps to explain the diversity of our experiences.
Recognizing the effects of discrimination
I’ve written before about the intersection of race and mental illness. Not only do certain racial/cultural groups have negative beliefs about members within the group having mental illness and accessing mental healthcare, people of racial minorities who have mental illness face racism from outsiders on top of everything else. The discrimination people experience related to one element of their identity can never truly be separated from another stigmatized piece of their identity.
Those of us with mental illness will sometimes cross paths with police as a result of our illness. That’s likely to be a very different situation for me as a Canadian white woman than it would be for an American black man. Imagine if I were to try for “suicide by cop”, and a black man in Ferguson, Missouri did the same thing. Who’s more likely to “succeed”?
Discrimination in the workplace isn’t supposed to happen, but it does. It seems only reasonable to suspect that the more social strikes against you, the more likely it will be for employers to discriminate.
There is a difference in the mental health care that’s available to people of higher vs. lower socioeconomic status. This is even more pronounced in countries where there isn’t public healthcare; however, even in Canada, publicly funded psychotherapy is only available to a very small set of people.
Recognizing our own privilege
It’s also important to give some thought to the ways in which we are privileged, and recognize that not everyone will share that same level of privilege and the social consequences that result.
As a white person, I have tremendous privilege. If I fail to recognize that, it limits my ability to see that people of racial minorities may face barriers that I do not. Being cis-gendered may not immediately come to mind for many people as an area of privilege, but if you consider it from the viewpoint of the stigma faced by transgender and gender queer individuals, there’s a clear gap.
On top of all of those layers come individual differences. While, in general, black non-heterosexual women are likely to face more systemic discrimination than white straight men, that doesn’t mean that a specific white straight male is always going to have a more positive experience than a black lesbian woman.
We live in a complicated society, and that’s what intersectionality is all about. There are many layers of significance, and many things that have the potential to be used for or against us. Perhaps what matters most is recognizing that complexity, and being open to the fact that people of other backgrounds may have very different experiences than we do. Certainly within the mental illness community, we face enough stigma already without inadvertently pulling each other down.
What are some of the factors that contribute to your level of privilege or lack thereof, and what role has intersectionality played?
There’s more on social issues on the Social Justice Issues page.