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Intersectionality of Social Identities
Antioch University New England
6-18-16 Working Document
Thesis: The psychologist recognizes that identity and its self-definition are layered and
complex and appreciates the intersectionality between and among individuals, families,
groups, communities, organizations, and the relationship with the psychologist.
Psychologists are encouraged to attend to intersecting sociological and structural contexts
that make up the worlds of their clients, students, research participants, consultees, and their own
life experience. Awareness of individual and cultural diversity in the multitude of contexts
where people develop various identities has been recognized as essential to psychologists’
effective practice (Roysircar, Dobbins, & Molloy, 2009). Intersectionality has its theoretical
origins in the anti-racism movement of the late seventies, primarily with regard to Black women
and their experience of the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation (Grabe &
Else-Quest, 2012). Intersectionality, by its broadest definition, incorporates the vast array of
cultural, structural, and social contexts and roles by which individuals are shaped and with which
they identify (Howard & Renfrow, 2014). Intersectionality focuses attention on “the vexed
dynamics of difference and the solidarity of sameness” (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013, p.
787) experienced by individuals located within a range of social groups, with a focus on
marginalized aspects of identity that result from structural inequalities and oppressions (e.g.,
experiences of African American women lesbian professionals vis-a-vis experiences of White
American women lesbian professionals). The descriptor “women” qualifies the descriptor
“lesbian” because they represent different oppression experiences. African American women
have queried, “Ain’t I a woman also?” when they have compared their gender status relative to
that of White women. As a social critique, the political argument is that some Black people are
women, some women are Black, and some Black women are lesbians. To paraphrase Crenshaw
(1989), Black women experience discrimination in ways that resemble White women’s
experience and in some ways that are similar to Black men’s experiences; they often experience
double discrimination, which refers to the combined effects of race and gender; and sometimes
they experience discrimination as Black women—not the sum of racism and sexism (i.e., race +
sex), but as black women whose identity and social location are not simply derivative of White
women’s and Back men’s lives.
Intersectional identities are relational experiences of overlapping and intertwined
contexts, some oppressive and some privileged. Take the example of a White gay male of the
upper middle class, who is discriminated against because of his sexual identity, but is privileged
because of his dominant racial and male identities. Interdependent societal contexts (in this
example race, gender, class) work dynamically to inform individuated experiences and identities.
That is, people’s perspectives are shaped by the multiplicity of contexts to which they belong,
some without privilege or oppressed and some privileged. Here oppressions and privileges are
aspects of interlocking identities and results of various systems of inequality that are transformed
by the intersections of multiple identities. Thus, intersectionality is more than the sum of its
parts because it involves a transformation of inequalities and equities of unidimensional systems.
Intersectionality stands in contrast to linear, unidimensional, discrete or “single axis”
demographic variables assumed to cause between-group difference (e.g., race, ethnicity, sex,
class, immigrant generation status, nationality) that encourage deriving knowledge from the
notion that all members of a structural category have essentially the same experience (Grzanka,
2014). Thus, intersectionality captures the vast within-group differences in identities found
among members of racial, ethnic, gender, class, GLBTQ+, age, ability, and religious groups.
Intersectionality theory argues that focusing solely on the effect of one or two reference group
identities (e.g., interaction of race and age studied through covariate analyses) on overall identity
fails to consider the multiple social and cultural identities that intersect within an individual’s
life. This linear approach keeps invisible the forces of patriarchy, heteronormativity (i.e.,
meaning that heterosexuality is the only sexual identity or norm, and sexual relations are only
fitting between people of opposite sexes), class oppression, ableism, and other forms of systemic,
institutionalized oppression (Shin, 2014).
Thus, to understand individuals with whom psychologists work, it is not enough to
acquire and apply a knowledge base of group differences and work with an individual through
that single-axis lens. Rather, psychologists are encouraged to recognize and understand that an
individual’s identity is comprised of multiple intersecting social locations derived from
interacting societal structures and associated macro-level biases, informed by the power,
privilege, oppression experiences, social dictates, constraints, values, strengths, and perceived
deficits of those identities. Further, through a focus on how the contexts of those identities
inform biases, the mental health client and the psychologist strive to develop a formulation for
their surrounding world, and the psychologist also recognizes how his or her own range of
identities interact with those of the client, engaging differences as well as commonalities that
impact and influence their work together. Attention is drawn to a psychologist’s intersectional
framework that encourages a depth of curiosity and willingness to learn from diverse
perspectives necessary for a holistic understanding of the psychologist’s self as well as the
person of the client.
Recognition of intersectionality translates into social change through psychologists’
analysis of power that deconstructs societal dynamics, provides information on identity
formation, arouses cultural awareness, and results in expressions, all leading towards the change
process (Cho et al., 2013). Thus intersectionality provides both a societal paradigm shift as well
as a psychotherapeutic change framework. It is not simply a linear statistical phenomenon but
merges macro, upstream levels, and micro downstream levels of analysis (Howard & Renfrow,
Psychologists strive to be aware and attuned to their own intersecting identities, as well
as those of the individuals with whom they work. In any interpersonal situation, two or more
individuals hold a multitude of identities. Each of these provides the individual various levels of
power, privilege, and oppression experiences. With regard to psychologists, in addition to their
personal level of social privilege because of their class and professional identities (Roysircar,
2008), they also carry the power of being change agents in their respective occupations. For
instance, intersectionality theorists and researchers have pushed the field forward and have
become activists, identifying social justice interventions for marginalized and subjugated social
groups and leading coalitions against systemic operations of power and privilege.
Intersectionality scholars practice self-reflexivity and are constantly engaged in the critique of
their own work and refinement of their ideas and practices (cf. Clough & Fine, 2007).
Psychologists are encouraged to recognize how each of their intersecting identities, along
with their respective experiences of oppression (e.g., having marginalized identities of a
transnational woman of color feminist, an immigrant woman, an American having a non-
American accent when speaking English) affects the client’s identities, as well as the working
alliance. The feminist perspective emphasizes transparency between the psychologist and client
with regard to identity (Dee Watts-Jones, 2010). When the psychologist and the client are open
about their intersecting identities, it is hoped that an egalitarian therapeutic relationship results.
Psychologists are encouraged to acknowledge when one of the client's identities is an area where
the psychologist lacks knowledge. The client is then placed in an expert role with regard to that
aspect of their identity, although this perceived client credibility is encouraged when the
psychologist also brings a shared understanding of identities. The feminist model encourages
psychologist self-disclosure of intersecting identities to explore individual and cultural diversities
of the client and the psychologist.
Application to Practice, Research, and Consultation
For novice practitioners, it can be challenging to explore and address interlocking
identities, as well as their associated privileges and oppressions. The challenge for trainers is
how to break down the potential complexity of intersectionality to make it understandable and
useful so that it becomes the regular part of practice. The GRACES model consolidates a
multitude of potential identities into fifteen social categories: gender, geography, race, religion,
age, ability, appearance, class, culture, ethnicity, education, employment, sexuality, sexual
orientation, and spirituality (Butler, 2015). With simplicity and clarity, GRACES provides an
accessible scaffold from which to consider power, oppression, strength, and connection in the
world of clients, therapists, and therapy. The contextual identities of a client are considered in
unison and used both to address the client’s lived experiences and to focus on skills development
in practitioners who seek out the uniqueness of their clients’ intersectional lived experience as
well as their own. The training task is to develop clinical hypotheses and questions to pursue in
assessment as well as identity resources or privileges for the client. In GRACES training,
practitioners may reflect that they were drawn towards areas of social difference that they felt
most comfortable in addressing and which were most pertinent to them and avoided differences
that they felt they knew less about. However, using intersectionality as a frame may compel
them to link together different areas of social identity and consider the relationships between
them and how these relationships produce unique opportunities and constraints for a client.
Practitioners might need to work for a longer period of time to take more risks in exploring
controversial aspects of difference, such as the intersection of their Whiteness with middle class
status and how these privileges might intersect with the lived experiences of a client’s contexts
of race and class in helpful and unhelpful ways.
One way to explore practitioner biases is to insert various hypothetical clients with
different intersecting identities into the same case study (Butler, 2015). Practitioners may find
that they would react differently to a case depending on the client’s intersecting identities. The
more time spent discussing their own intersecting identities, the more comfortable new
practitioners may become in addressing complexities of client identities and their privileges and
Self-disclosing and exploring intersecting identities require some level of vulnerability
for both the psychologist and the client. Addressing vulnerabilities can be a difficult
conversation; therefore, it is recommended that the psychologist develop the working alliance
with therapist attributes and therapeutic conditions before addressing intersectionality issues.
(Dee Watts-Jones, 2010). The relationship-building process also provides the psychologist with
time to gain some comfort in having identity conversations. According to Dee Watts-Jones
(2010), some location of therapist identities relative to a client’s is easier to share than others.
There may be vulnerability for the therapist in sharing a subjugated identity that is not overt to a
client, but the client is privileged in that identity, such as, in mainstream religion or spirituality.
Class position is particularly vulnerable for both the therapist and client to approach. The
location of class in regard to self is more difficult to address in general because the influence of
class, interpersonal sizing up, markers, assumptions, and the quality of services associated with it
are rarely acknowledged explicitly. Nor do we have the language to facilitate this conversation
across classes. Rarely do people refer to themselves as poor or lower class, labels prescribed for
them by people of more means. Transparency of identities of privilege and devaluation is
encouraged to be engaged in a way that does not shame the therapist or the client. Thus the
approach to location of self may become a selective one. It is certainly useful to reflect on what
goes into the relative ease and difficulty with talking about our identities. Creating a space for
thinking and talking about pros and cons to intersections of identities with clients would seem
especially important. A client’s Identities different from the psychologist’s and those with which
the psychologist has less experience could become the preferred focus for some psychologists,
who may prioritize these because of the limitations arising out of differences from the client.
Last, psychologists strive to understand that the task of self-disclosure may be difficult or
uncomfortable for the client as well and strategies can be implemented to make the client feel
comfortable in identity self-disclosure. Strategies include authenticity, tone, spontaneity,
therapist self-reflexivity, practice, patience with stumbling, supervision, and consultation (Dee
When the alliance is ready for a conversation about identity, discussing intersecting
identities allows the psychologist and client to explore similarities, differences, and areas in
which they lack knowledge. This conversation can open the relational environment to discuss
differences and to share common experiences. The psychologist might then ask how the client
feels about client-psychologist similarities and differences, and discuss ways that these might be
an aid or hindrance to therapy. Despite varying levels of oppressions and privileges for the client
and psychologist, a conversation on intersecting identities may strengthen the working alliance.
Allowing for self-disclosure and openness to intersectionalities lays a foundation to explore the
structural contexts of the client's presenting problem (Dee Watts-Jones, 2010) and may foster
broader routes towards change.
With regard to research, psychologists Michelle Fine (2007), Elizabeth Cole (2009), and
Lisa Bowleg (2008) have shown how deeper attention can be paid to structural dynamics
resulting in social identities through the use of qualitative and quantitative research designs as
well as interdisciplinary research teams (e.g., comprising of psychologists, sociologists, political
scientists, women studies faculty, ethnic studies faculty, legal scholars). Qualitative methods are
more sensitive to social complexities and personal subjectivities than demographic
questionnaires that rely on preexisting frameworks to place social groups in hierarchical
frequency order and count individual experiences as an additive aggregate. For example, Lisa
Bowleg (2008) detailed how she went about a psychological study of Black lesbian women only
to find—in the midst of data collection—that the study had been configured along an additive
model of identity (i.e., Black + Woman + Lesbian) that could not account for the
intersectionality of her participants’ experiences. As a result, Bowleg has become an advocate of
critical methods to better capture intersectionality dynamics in psychological research. The
additive approach is antithetical to the theoretical fidelity of intersectionality because it posits
that social inequality increases with each additional stigmatized identity. In intersectionality
research, people’s experiences are not conceptualized as discrete, independent, and summative.
Similarly the option “check all that apply” is an inadequate additive approach. Questions on
intersectionality should focus on meaningful constructs like minority stress, discrimination,
voluntary integration of diverse cultural groups, equality versus inequity, homophobia, prejudice,
and racism (Helms, Jernigan, & Mascher, 2005). Rather than looking for orthogonality in
constructs, what need to be investigated are interdependence, multidimensionality, and mutually
constitutive relationships that form the core of intersectionality.
Cole (2008) offered three guiding questions that psychologists can ask themselves
throughout the research process. First, who is to be included in an intersectionality category?
Second, what role does inequality play? Third, where are the similarities? With regard to the
first question, rather than just using college samples, researchers are encouraged to study groups
belonging to multiple subordinated categories; for instance, the category of Black women
includes women of different social classes and sexualities. Considering who is included within
an intersectional category is more than being inclusive; it improves psychologists’ ability to
theorize and empirically investigate the ways social categories structure individual and social life
across the board. With regard to the second question, Cole made a useful distinction between
looking “downstream” for causes (that is, in individual behavior that may be associated with a
social category membership, such as, a minority race) and “upstream” at macro societal
processes that define systems of social inequality, such as laws, cultural mores, institutional
practices, and public policies.
Consideration of the role of inequality helps psychologists draw attention to how groups
stand in relation to one another (e.g., racial group differences) and to public and private
institutions, including family, schools, workplace, and the law, and, correspondingly, how
political, income, and social inequalities lead to class, race, and gender differences in outcomes.
With regard to the third question, Cole (2008) stated that intersectional researchers seek sites of
commonality across differences, which, however, does not mean defining homogenous groups.
The shift to the possibility of finding a common ground between groups deemed to be
fundamentally different makes the concept of similarities a tool for political organizing.
Opportunities are provided to psychologists to reach across group boundaries to identify
common ground across communities and build coalitions among diverse groups who are
disadvantaged by public policy that attempt to regulate, for example, gender identity, sexuality,
or sexual identity or that confer resources and privileges on the basis of gender or sexual
behavior. At the same time, it is critically important from an intersectional standpoint that in
recognizing similarities, researchers remain sensitive to nuanced differences across groups, even
when similarities are found. For example, middle class Black men and working class White men
may experience similar stressors, but their experiences of stress are not equivalent or identical
(Roysircar, Thompson, & Boudreau, 2016).
Patricia Clough and Michelle Fine (2007) have offered exemplars of self-reflexive
“scholar-activism.” They explained their respective experiences of working as academic
researchers with incarcerated women of color and people leaving prison after periods of
incarceration. They shared deeply personal stories of how their positions of privilege highlighted
and intensified during the process of research and questioned the politics and efficacy of
participant action research and other forms of scholar-activism that do more for those on the
scholar side of the equation than those being studied—the individuals and groups under the
social scientific microscope.
When consulting with institutions about people who live in a diaspora, such as
immigrants or refugees, psychologists explain how transnational identities are distinguished by
perpetual transformations determined by federal, state, and local institutions (green card status,
asylum visa, a person’s nationality classification as being independent of his or her U.S.
citizenship status, the driver’s license, relocation settlements, English language requirements,
deportation, absence of citizenship privileges, social security benefits for retirees). Psychologists
may inform educational institutions that intersectional identities of immigrants comprise both a
personal agentic process (i.e., this is how I choose to identify myself: Asian Indian) and
structural institutional dynamics (i.e., this is how others, including the institution, identify me:
South Asian, East Asian, Asian American, or Indian American). Psychologists point to
intersectional oppression when explaining the complexities of immigrant women of color
feminists by not imposing U.S. White American women’s narratives and theories upon
immigrant lives and identities.
Often, U.S. Americans are curious about people with international backgrounds. They
may ask such questions as, “Have you gone home?” When did you last go home?”
Psychologists caution consultees that they need to be careful with the “home” question because
of the ambiguity or fluidity in the meaning of home for foreign-born individuals. For
immigrants, what is the meaning of home? Is it their birthplace? Where they grew up? Where
their parents live? Where they currently live and work as adults? Who are an immigrant’s
community? Is home a geographic space, a historical space, an emotional space, or wherever the
immigrant makes home in the second culture? How one understands and defines home is a
profoundly political one. An international student or new immigrant may not wish to be called a
person of color, just as a Muslim woman may not wish to be unveiled because her hijab/burkha
or head covering is her femininity and not a result of societal oppression. Psychologists provide
the lesson that for immigrants, their home, community, and identity may fall somewhere between
the histories they have inherited, their current choices, structural accesses with regard to
employment, community affiliations, neighborhoods, non-familial friendships, relationships,
English language acquisition, and connection with their former home country.
Linda is a 32-year-old, 3rd generation Latina and high-ranking medical officer in the
United States (U.S.) Army who returned home six months ago from a tour in Afghanistan. Linda
started to have recurrent insomnia and nightmares the past several months; has been noticeably
despondent and lethargic; and feels “lost and alone.” She appears to be confused about who she
is, given that she has returned to the U.S. without employment. She misses the excitement of the
emergency room she worked in when stationed in Afghanistan.
Linda is from a traditional Mexican American, Catholic, working-class family. Her
ailing father, with whom she has always been very close, is dying from pancreatic cancer and not
expected to live much longer. Her mother is distraught, but grateful that her daughter has
returned home to help take care of her father in his final days, especially in light of the fact that
there is little money for home care, and Linda’s other siblings live out of state. Linda’s father,
who did not understand her decision to join the Army, seems obsessed with knowing she will
find “the right man to take care of her” before he dies. He claims to be dreaming of attending
her wedding before he “goes to heaven.”
Linda does not identify as transgender or lesbian, but does acknowledge feeling more
comfortable presenting a more socially stereotypic male character. She has many male friends,
prefers “jeans and old flannels to pantsuits and heels,” presents with a quiet, tough affect, and
claims to “tell it like it is.” She has had few relationships to speak of and wonders aloud if she
would be “better off” (a position of privilege) as a lesbian, but can’t seem to imagine herself
sexually with another woman. In fact, she can’t imagine herself being sexual with anybody right
now, and wishes she experienced some sense of attraction. Linda has sought therapy on the
advice of her medical doctor at the Veterans Administration Hospital near her hometown, hoping
to find her energy and figure out who she is now that she is back in the world she once
understood so well.
Linda’s case highlights a number of important intersectionality considerations. If
examined with a simple, single-axis conceptualization, the first challenge would be deciding
which contextual variable is the primary source oppression or privilege from which to
understand Linda’s identity. Applying an ethnic minority framework, we may consider higher
rates of depression among Latinos (Alegria et al., 2008), and the implications present for gender-
role and/or sexual identity confusion for ethnic minority people. Similarly, psychologists could
consider only the well-established power differentials relevant to working women, particularly
those in male-dominated hierarchies, such as the military. It is also tempting to consider the
implications of Linda’s traditional religious and conservative upbringing, and sudden role
confusion as an adult woman living at home again, taking care of her parents after commanding
the respect that comes from running a hospital on the frontlines of a battle-zone. The
psychologist could also examine Linda’s experience of her working-class upbringing. These
analyses could be done in a singular additive manner, addressing separately each contextual
An intersectional perspective does more than examine various types of identity as
independent of each other or their respective interactions. In fact, viewing intersectional theory
as directly related to understanding only identity development is controversial with the risk of
dismissing power differentials as relevant to contextual oppressions and privileges and favoring
objective identifiers of sociodemographics (Mexican American, former military officer, woman,
asexual identity, working class, Catholic, parents’ home) (Grzanka, 2014). The intersectional
framework instead encourages psychologists to examine the axes of power as they overlap,
creating complex intersections at which two, three or four of these axes may meet. To explore
intersectionality, the method of “ask the other question” may be used. When the psychologist
sees something that is sexist, the psychologist asks, “Where is the heterosexism in this? “Where
is the ethnic gender role in this?” When the psychologist sees something that is homophobic, the
psychologist asks “Where is the cultural issue in this?” “Where is the religious issue in this?”
When the psychologist sees the devaluation of a successful woman, the psychologist asks
“Where is the patriarchy in this?” “Where is the class issue in this?”
Linda is not only a third-generation Mexican American woman of color and an intelligent
successful American military leader from a working-class family, she is also confronting gender,
sexual identity, potential trauma, and mental health issues. It is not enough to consider single-
levels of disempowerment or potential empowerment. Psychologists are encouraged to consider
the interlocking of types and levels of disempowerment and their dynamic interactions within the
contexts of privilege, history, group membership, the female gender role of Marianismo to be
informed of Linda’s confusions and struggles (Vazquez & Clauss-Ehlers, 2005). Psychologists
strive to hold the multitude of structural contexts that inform a client’s experiences and identities
to promote an understanding of underlying, implicit dynamics and, in so doing, work with clients
to facilitate a process of change.
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