Awareness of, and Strengths in, Intersections of Identities

Click here to see my article in the January 2014 Newsletter for Sacramento Valley Psychological Association (SVPA)

Text below:

By: Ryan A. Cheperka, Ph.D.
SVPA Diversity Co-Chair

After consumption by the holiday season, psychologists and clients alike are reminded of the intricacies of identity and the various communities that we are a part of. Each of our unique identities is associated with our experiences and connects us to others. It is easy to think of our clients in regards to only one or a few of their identities, such as being a woman, a Christian, a person with a disability, or a person of color. We also often categorize people based on singular identities, lumping them with others in that category. However, for those who strongly identify with multiple underrepresented, or “minority,” groups, this singular identity approach can increase a feeling of marginalization. It is important to attend to how a person’s identities intersect and the unique experiences and strengths that are associated with those specific intersections.

Intersectionality can be understood as how identities and associated experiences mutually construct one another; without one, the others would not be the same. Authors like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Elizabeth R. Cole, and Lisa Bowleg have discussed types of intersectionality, such as structural and political intersectionality. An example of structural intersectionality is how a woman of color’s position at the intersection of race and gender is qualitatively different from that of a white woman. Political intersectionality represents the situation that those with multiple minority statuses face in regards to being affected by political agendas of more than one group, with the resulting need to split one’s political energy described as intersectional disempowerment (Crenshaw, 1994). These concepts are important not only because they highlight how easily certain groups can experience marginalization, but also because they enable psychologists to more fully understand the unique experiences of specific groups and to provide better care.

In the spirit of providing better services to underrepresented and marginalized groups, I focused my dissertation project on the experiences of those who identified as African American or Black, queer/lesbian, and mostly female (one trans* man). The study was qualitative and 12 individuals were interviewed about their life experiences, factors that have had a positive and/or negative impact on them, and about their personal strengths. Psychology literature has historically focused on disadvantages of minority groups, so a strengths-based focus seemed important. If we are able to see a person as a whole and really know what they bring to the world, I imagine we can help them much more by including strengths than if we only focus on what problems they face. Thus, I will discuss some of the important findings from my study, Strengths in intersecting identities: The experience of being Black and a sexual and gender minority (Cheperka, 2012).

Through exploration and processing of information from their lives, participants described a context that both challenged and supported them. The context included the larger society and sociocultural factors, various communities that participants were a part of (e.g., LGBT community), religious and spiritual influences, and connections with important interpersonal relationships. Through navigating both positive and negative experiences in all of these contexts, participants developed various strengths. Atendency toward intrapersonal growth and development was very common, as self-reflection, resilience, and coming to understand one’s identity and worthiness were evident. Perseverance was notable among the group, as each of them were goal-oriented, determined, motivated, or had an impressive sense of optimism. Participants also displayed an admirable sense ofconnection with others, through their expressed empathy, helping behaviors, open-mindedness, and nonjudgmental aspirations. Participants had developed strong coping mechanisms over time, which included use of spirituality and creativity. And lastly, participating in activism was important, as their experiences had led them to embrace advocacy, education, and empowerment of others.

This study is just one example of how important gathering deeper meaning and understanding of intersecting identities can be. Not only within the person, but how our identities as psychologists intersect or interact with those of our clients, is crucial to explore and examine. As was found through this study, relationships and community had a huge impact, and can yield both pain and impeccable growth. The few factors mentioned here may assist both psychologists and clients in recognizing and capitalizing on internal strength.


Works Cited:

Cheperka, R. C. (2012). Strengths in intersecting identities: The experience of being Black and a sexual and gender minority. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Southern Illinois Univerisity, Carbondale.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1995). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. In K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, & K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement (pp. 357-384). New York: New Press.