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On The Importance Of Intersectionality: Multiple Forms Of Discrimination And Health

Black Gays for Justice and Respect

Over thirty years ago, Black feminist scholars and activists began emphasizing the importance of recognizing every identity and status of which each individual is comprised.  We are not merely a particular gender, nor race, nor class.  In fact, the crux of the perspective known as intersectionality is that we must account for the intersecting nature of our identities and statuses.  For example, a full understanding of the lives of Black women cannot come from considering their lives as Black people only, as women only, nor as the sum of these two sets of experiences.

Fortunately, sociologists like myself are beginning to recognize that it is crucial to examine intersectionality in our research.  But, it seems one key component of the theoretical framework of intersectionality is often overlooked.  Black feminist scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw, called not only to examine the intersections among race, gender, class, and sexual identity, but, more importantly, to focus on the intersecting and mutually reinforcing relationships among systems of oppression: racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity.

In my own research on the health consequences of discrimination, I have noticed that almost every one of the hundreds of studies on discrimination and health focus exclusively on one form of discrimination – especially racial discrimination.  There is solid evidence demonstrating that one’s experiences with discrimination are consequential for one’s mental and physical health; however, these studies have not examined whether the relationship between discrimination and health depends upon the number of forms of discrimination individuals experience.  Could it be the case that individuals who face sexist and racist discrimination fare worse in terms of health than those who experience sexist discrimination or racist discrimination only?

In a study I published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, I find that the answer is yes, at least among youth.   Using a sample of 1,052 Black, Latina/o, and white youth aged 15-25 from the Black Youth Culture Survey of the Black Youth Project, I found five important patterns.

  1. First, disadvantaged youth report more frequent exposure to their status-specific form of discrimination.  Black and Latina/o youth report more frequent race discrimination than white youth.  Girls and young women report more frequent gender discrimination than boys and young men.  Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report more frequent sexual orientation discrimination than heterosexual youth.  And, youth whose families have been on welfare or state assistance report more class discrimination than youth from wealthier families.

    Reports of Each Form of Discrimination

  2. Generally, more frequent exposure to each form of discrimination is associated with worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms in the past month.
  3. Multiply disadvantaged youth (e.g., Black working-class boys, Latina lesbian and bisexual girls) report facing more forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination overall (i.e., the sum of the frequency of exposure to the four forms of discrimination).

    Number of Forms of Discrimination Reported by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

    Overall Frequency of Discrimination by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

  4. Youth who face multiple forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination report worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms than youth who face fewer forms and less frequent discrimination.

    Self-Rated Health by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

    Depressive Symptoms by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

  5. Multiply disadvantaged youth experience worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms compared to their more privileged counterparts.  This is due, in part, to their disproportionate exposure to multiple forms of and chronic discrimination.  That is, exposure to multiple forms of discrimination contributes to these documented health disparities.

These findings reiterate the importance of examining the intersections among systems of oppression.  In the case of this article, only examining racial discrimination or gender discrimination, for example, would miss that youth who are disadvantaged in more than one way face the greatest amount of discrimination.  Unfortunately, scholarship and popular discussions of racism, or sexism, or homophobia in isolation from other forms of oppression continue to gloss over the experiences of individuals whose lives are constrained by multiple systems of oppression.

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