The concept of intersectionality — referring to the complex and cumulative way different forms of discrimination like racism, sexism and classism overlap and affect people — seems have popped up relatively recently.
But as Brittany Packnett, an educator, activist and writer who is black, told an audience at the New Rules Summit hosted by The New York Times, it was by no means a new idea — it has been voiced in different ways for many decades by those living on the margins of mainstream America.
“It’s not merely that some days I experience racism and some days I experience sexism,” she said. “Rather it is that oppression shows up differently for me than it does for black men and white women.”
The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles, almost 30 years ago, although it never had the prominence — at least in some circles — it has now.
“I think about this all the time,” said Stacy Brown-Philpot, the chief executive of TaskRabbit. “When I get on stage, I’m a black woman. And I’m a black C.E.O. Being a C.E.O. in general can be lonely sometimes. As one of the few black female C.E.O.s, the loneliness builds.”
A study by Catalyst, a nonprofit consulting and research organization on women in business, looked at what it called the emotional tax women and men of color face in the workplace.
“It’s a feeling of having to protect against bias or unfair treatment — of having to be on guard,” said Dnika J. Travis, vice president of research for Catalyst.
The survey of almost 1,600 participants in a variety of corporate and noncorporate settings included those who identified as Asian, African-American, Latino or a combination of any of those, she said.
Almost 58 percent said they were highly on guard at work; women of color were slightly more worried about racial bias at work than sexism.
Yung-Yi Diana Pan, assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, said she knew the emotional cost. “As a woman of color, students often challenge us in a way they don’t challenge their male professors, especially their white male professors.”
Being on guard manifests itself in different ways, often as repressing perceived traits that play into the stereotype of being frightening or intimidating or just “too much.” Dr. Travis said some black men talked about making sure they arrived at meetings early so they could be seated when others arrived to appear less threatening.
Alicia Wallace, who is African-American, was once told in a performance review that her hair was “too fun” and that it made people question her maturity.
“So, I changed it to be more conservative,” she said, “but it just made me feel I wasn’t living authentically.”
The reality, said Lata Murti, an associate professor of sociology at Brandman University in Irvine, Calif., is that “professional white women are the invisible norm.”
Women of color may face some of the same issues, but the stereotypes they battle are different. For African-American women, it’s often that of the angry black woman. For Latinas, it can be that they are perceived as too emotional or too wedded to their families.
Asians are often viewed as the “model minority” — hardworking and dutiful — but this stereotype’s negative side is “being workhorses without creativity,” Professor Pan said. “Also, passive and acquiescent, which aren’t good criteria for a leader.”
A report by the Ascend Foundation, a research organization on Pan-Asian leadership, looked at Silicon Valley in 2007 through 2015. It found that although Asians were the largest racial cohort in the work force, they were the least likely among all races to be promoted to managers and executives — and Asian women trailed Asian men.
“We need leadership that truly cares about inclusion — a lot care about diversity, but how do you foster inclusion?” said Latasha Woods, brand manager at Procter & Gamble. “People spend a lot of time on what they know the boss cares about. If they see the boss cares about inclusion they will too.”
Tiffany Dufu, founder and chief executive of The Cru, a peer coaching service for women, said “one of the challenging things of intersectionality is that being black is one aspect. I’m also a straight person who isn’t worried about bringing a partner to a work event. I’m also middle class. I’m also a fertile woman. When someone says something inappropriate to me, I think about the times as a straight person I said something insensitive. Or talked about my children around those who don’t have any. I use it as a teachable moment.”
Otherwise, she said, she would just feel angry all the time.
For Ms. Packnett, the answer is both glaringly simple and incredibly difficult.
“It’s not about helping women of color handle the hardships,” she said. “It’s about dismantling them.”