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What Is Intersectionality and Why Is It Important?

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

In our most recent installment of South Asian Voices, we hosted a conversation with Dr. Bala Chaudhary, a prominent environmental scientist and professor. Dr. Chaudhary shared her experiences as a South Asian woman in STEM, and how her intersecting identities have shaped those experiences. If you haven’t listened yet, click here!

In Dr. Chaudhary’s case, her experiences are in STEM and academia. As a professor, a scientist, and a woman of color, Dr. Chaudhary has dealt with her more than her fair share of naysayers. She recalled applying for the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the highest recognition early career scientists can get in the US. Despite Dr. Chaudhary’s obvious qualifications, she was often discouraged from applying.

However, had she accepted the narrative others tried to force on her — you can’t get it so don’t try — she would not have proved them wrong. She applied and she won! Clearly, she was not only qualified, but the best candidate. So why did so many discourage her from applying?

One might think that being a South Asian in STEM is not uncommon, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But none of us are two-dimensional. Dr. Chaudhary’s identity as a South Asian is just one part of her whole. Our experiences in life are not defined solely by our nationalities or ethnicities. Each of us is the sum of ourselves. Understanding how our pieces rest upon each other is intersectionality.

So, What Is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality is not a new concept. It has recently entered the public lexicon in a big way, but it has been an evolving study since its coinage in 1989. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer and civil rights activist, first used “intersectionality” to describe how race, class, gender, and more “intersect” and overlap.

In other words, intersectionality describes the ways each of our identities interact with each other to create our entirely unique experiences. For example, Dr. Chaudhary is, first and foremost, a scientist. She is also South Asian, a woman, a mother, and an academic. Each part of her interacts with each of the others, adding up to her own unique identity.

Intersectionality was coined, and is often used for, describing systems of oppression and how different groups of people are affected by them. In the context of our own South Asian community, it can be understood in how the experiences of a Pakistani-American differ from those of an Indian-American.

Within those groups, how are the experiences between men, women, and nonbinary folk? How are those experiences shaped by income or class? What about religion? Ability? Sexuality? Our identities cannot be boxed neatly, especially not in a community as large and diverse as our own. Understanding this is intersectionality.

Why Is Intersectionality Important?

Intersectionality is important because of the nuance it provides. Take, for example, SEWA-AIFW’s South Asian Queer League. It is the first group of its kind in the Midwest. Members of SAQL have spoken to how important it is for them to have a space designed specifically for South Asian queers. Such a space is only possible through an intersectional approach where we understand that South Asian queers do not experience “queerness” in the same ways as the American LGBTQ+ community at large.

The work of any culturally specific organization, not just SEWA, is an incredible example of intersectionality at work. No work is one-size-fits-all. Intersectionality is the lens through which we can identify demographics that are disadvantaged by systems and institutions in place. Without the perspective and nuance intersectionality provides, social progress would simply stagnate.

According to Professor Crenshaw, intersectionality was a necessary development to push law and society in a more egalitarian direction. It was her observation that courts were viewing race discrimination as a universal experience among Black people, and gender discrimination as a universal experience among women. She made the argument that racism is experienced differently for men and women, and for different minority groups. Sexism is experienced differently for Black women than for white women, and so on.

How Does This Affect Our Community?

In the latest South Asian Voices episode, Dr. Chaudhary spoke about her experiences growing up in the Desi community. South Asians in general are stereotypically thought to be very education and career-minded. However, it is her observation — and the observation of many — that our community’s stereotyped drive for success is very gendered.

The Model Minority myth purports simply that South Asians are hardworking and career and college-driven. However, that simplification ignores the intersectionalities within the community. In Dr. Chaudhary’s experience, boys are encouraged to be career-driven and girls are not so much.

“Boys are raised to be someone,” she explained, “and girls are raised to meet someone.”

She is not unique in making this observation. A 2012 Washington University study examined how a group of South Asian women construct their experiences, with regard to their intersecting identities. All felt a high degree of agency and autonomy as South Asians. However, the majority of them also spoke to a “cultural script,” with marriage at the center. You can read the full study here.

In other words, participants of this study felt free to choose their own destinies, so to speak, as South Asians. But as South Asian women, they felt pressure to conform to our cultural script.

When speaking about this observation, Dr. Chaudhary noted that it is rarely the case that stereotypes of women in STEM are self-fulfilling. Rather, they are enforced. As both a professor and a scientist, she sees that her university’s science departments have no problem attracting women to their programs. She sees that young girls are as excited by science as boys are — until adults discourage them.

As both a South Asian woman of color in STEM and a mother to a young son, Dr. Chaudhary felt it important to facilitate the tough conversations. With a colleague, she penned a popular article, “10 simple rules for building an antiracist lab.” You can read that article here.

When asked to give a message to young girls who may be listening, Dr. Chaudhary instead asked to give a message to the boys. Women are capable and qualified and able to be leaders, and that doesn’t diminish opportunities for men — the same message she gives to her son.

We’re making progress as a community every day. But we have to remember — fixing misogyny and patriarchal practices is as much the men’s fight as it is women’s, if not more so. We can work together to make our society better for everyone.

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