Intersectionality, Privilege and Lived Experience

by Emily Unity

History of Intersectionality

The term “Intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, who described it as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” She published a paper titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” where she examined three legal cases that involved issues of both racism and sexism. Crenshaw argued that the law seemed to forget that black women are both black and female, and thus subject to discrimination on the basis of not just race or gender, but a unique combination of the two.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Types of Privilege

Today, intersectionality encompasses much more than the intersection of race and gender. Different privileges result in experiences of marginalisation and power that exist on a spectrum. Here are some examples below: 

Type of PrivilegeMarginalisedPower
CultureMinority CultureDominant Culture
EducationUneducatedFormal Education
EmploymentUnemployedStable Employment
GenderMinority GenderCisgender Male
HousingHomelessProperty Owner
LanguageLinguistically DiverseNative Language
SexualitySexually DiverseHeterosexual
Skin ColourDark SkinnedLight Skinned

My Lived Experiences 

Using an intersectional lens allows us to see the multiple privileges and contexts that can influence and are influenced by each other. My lived experiences are not simply the sum of my marginalisation or privileges, but they often overlap and catalyse each other. As some examples, when it comes to intersectional feminism, my experiences of sexism are also inherently tied to my experiences of…

Sexism x Racism

My mother is a Vietnamese refugee, and my father is a Malaysian immigrant. Often my experiences of sexism reference my race, whether it be daily microaggressions or even being assumed to be a “mail-order bride.” Additionally, in my parent’s cultures, gender plays a large role in determining one’s role in the home, workplace, and society. I have felt significant pressures to conform to what was expected of my assigned gender, even going so far as to use skin-lightening products to adhere to cultural beauty standards. In this example, sexism overlaps or amplifies experiences of racism.

Sexism x Ableism

I received my first mental health diagnosis when I was 12 and have engaged with many public and private support services. However, I was only diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when I was 20 and later diagnosed with ADHD when I was 21. The psychiatrist who gave me my diagnosis wrote on my papers, “people assigned female at birth often present differently to traditional representations and can be unfortunately overlooked.” The priority given to male-identifying people in diagnostic manuals and evidence bases has resulted in many non-male people receiving late- or misdiagnoses. In this example, sexism has catalysed and created ableist barriers to support.

Sexism x Homelessness

My experiences of gender-based violence have often involved someone that I have lived with. Earlier this year, I wrote an article about how COVID-19 resulted in me being Locked Down with Domestic Violence. Like many other survivors, domestic violence made my home the least safe place to be. Finding safety often means finding somewhere new to live. However, a lack of available housing resulted in me making a choice between staying with my abuser or being forced into homelessness. In this example, sexism has amplifed and instigated my experiences of homelessness.

What You Can Do

Colossal systemic change is not going to happen within the time it takes you to read this article. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t make a change. Here are three tips for you to consider regarding intersectional privilege.

Learn about Yourself

We must think critically about our privileges in order to address them. Checking your privilege may be uncomfortable at times. However, this discomfort can be used to recognise when change is needed.

Learn about Others

Start learning about what other mental health privileges look like from the people experiencing them. It’s imperative that we understand the limits of our own view. We are each the experts of our own experience.

Speak Up and Show Up

Ask questions, raise issues, and make space for those people that are less privileged. Leverage your privilege to amplify the voices that are not heard as often. Identify and advocate for not just co-design, but genuine lived experience leadership.

In conclusion, equal access and opportunities should be a right, not a privilege. I don’t believe we’re fixing our system unless we’re fixing it for everyone.

I am committed to leveraging my privilege to help others, and I hope that you will too. I believe that we all have a role to play in creating a world that is equal for all people, regardless of background, identity, or intersectionality.

Emily Unity is an award-winning mental health lived experience professional and software engineer. They are passionate about designing creative solutions to systemic inequalities. Emily advocates within various organisations, focusing on amplifying marginalised voices. Currently, they work with the Royal Children’s Hospital, Beyond Blue, Headspace, Orygen, UNICEF, VMIAC, and many more. 

Emily grounds their work in their lived and living experiences with mental health, disability, LGBTQIA+, homelessness, neurodiversity, and being a young carer from a refugee and migrant background. For their work, Emily was awarded Mental Health Advocate of the Year, Youth of the Year, Disability Leadership Award, Innovation in Protecting Children Award, Children and Youth Empowerment Award, Community Leadership Award, 30 Under 30 LGBTQIA+ Award, and inducted in the first cohort of the Multicultural Honor Roll. 

Emily endeavours to use both their professional and lived experience to help design a world for all people, regardless of background, identity, or intersectionality. 

YWCA Australia wishes to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we work, live and play and pay our respects to Elders past and present. We recognise First Nations people as the custodians of the lands, seas and skies, with more than 60,000 years of wisdom, connection and relationship in caring for Country.

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