What Does Intersectionality Mean in Mental Health?

Image courtesy of Kimberlé’s Twitter

 Intersectionality

The term intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American civil rights advocate and scholar, describes the overlap of social group categorizations (race, gender, social class, etc) and its relationships to systems of oppression and discrimination.

The term intersectionality as it relates to mental health is important as the term can help minority groups describe our experiences as we navigate our social and political worlds. As Kimberlé noted in her TedTalk, when we are unable to name an issue, we are unable to fix the issue.

Intersectionality and Mental Health

Minority groups already have a clear understanding of what it feels likes to not belong to a dominant culture. We know what it feels like to be unrepresented in certain circles. One of our most basic psychological need is belonging. When we feel like we do not belong to groups, we experience feelings of invisibility, unworthiness, loneliness, and low self-esteem and self-worth. Over prolonged periods, these negative emotions have lasting impacts on our mental health.

The importance of intersectionality is that it recognizes that people do not always only belong to a single minority group. For example, black women experience dual minority status (being black and being woman). Another example is a black lesbian woman; this person would experience a triple minority status (black, lesbian, and woman). Lastly, I’ll use myself as an example. In college, I quickly learnt that I was a triple minority. After much discourse with my African American female friends, I quickly began to understand my social status. I am a triple minority [black, woman, and immigrant (Jamaican)].

Low self-esteem/self-worth and continuous trauma are some of the factors that can cause poor mental health. Minority groups suffer many traumas due to discrimination and prejudice, sometimes on a daily basis. The field of mental health, through its support of multiculturalism and social justice, is now cognizant of the fact that the experiences of minority groups can differ greatly from those of the dominant culture. People of minority groups (race, culture, sex, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender fluidity, nationality, and ability) are all treated as ‘other’ as they are outside of the dominant culture. As most of us are not just one thing, the idea that we belong to multiple groups attests to our complexities.

Black Women

As a black woman in counseling, I understand the issues of representation. Many people of color are distrustful of therapy for various reasons. However, this does not change the fact that black women trauma is unlike any other. We are not represented by white women as their very skin color affords them privileges that are not available to us. Additionally, as Kimberlé also highlighted, when we hear of racial trauma, the conversation usually revolves around black men. In some ways, even within our own communities, we are still invisible. Black women have always been the backbone of our race. If we research our histories, we will see how much we have been traumatized and brutalized. Those traumas live in our blood and are passed down through generations.

We are also invisible in society and culture as we are criticized about our attributes, whether it is our hair, lips, or hips, our natural beauty is criticized but appropriated by other cultures but credit is never given where it is due.

Through conversations, I find that black women and our experiences are always lumped in with our groups when our experiences are very different. Even within the black community, our experiences are different. Caribbean and African black women have different experiences based on our cultural backgrounds. In college, it was hard to understand some of the points about race made by my girl Krystal Jackson but as I explored my environment and realized that on first interaction, I was simply viewed as a double minority (black and woman) and was treated in similar ways as Krystal had previously described.

Intersectionality gives us a place to explore our various social groups and the struggles we face within those groups.

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