What are intersectionality, privilege and positionality?

Vice president for diversity Mark Brimhall-Vargas explains these controversial topics in under 5 minutes in our latest podcast.



Below is a transcript of the episode.


Hello and welcome to this edition of the Brandeis University podcast, “The Take: Big Ideas Explained in Under 5 Minutes,” where experts explain core concepts of their research in under five minutes. Our topic for today is, “What are intersectionality, privilege and positionality?” 

These terms are bandied about a lot nowadays, but their meaning is often unclear. 

I'm Lawrence Goodman with the Office of Communications and my guest is vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Mark Brimhall-Vargas

Thank you for joining us. 


Thank you for having me, Lawrence.

HOST: What is the larger context or issue we're dealing with when we use terms like intersectionality or positionality?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: We're really trying to answer a basic question of why does inequality exist. Intersectionality, privilege and positionality are attempting to describe particular functions within this larger structure of our society to give people insight into why this happens. 

HOST: So intersectionality, what is it?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: Different identities have different amounts of social power. When we're thinking about race, white people have more social advantage than people of color. Men have more social advantage than women or people who are nonbinary, etc.

So the question about intersectionality is, what happens to people who experience multiple forms of oppression at the same time? We want to pay attention to that particular intersection where two forms of oppression come together because there's a story there, and it's a story that is almost never told.

HOST: A working-class African American woman — how does intersectionality apply to her?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: Intersectionality says that person experiences the world differently than other people who may share these identities, but perhaps have a social advantage in one of them. So for example, a working-class African American woman is going to experience her blackness differently than a working-class African American man.

I worked in an environment where there was a desire to focus on advancing women in senior leadership positions. We ended up inadvertently thinking about the experiences predominantly of white women. We didn't necessarily focus on all women.

So when thinking about an African American working-class woman, by paying attention to her experience, we are able to create systems that are the most just for everybody.

HOST: Next term, privilege. What do you mean by that?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: Most people, when they think about privilege, actually think about something that is earned. For example, if I work really hard, I get promoted into a job. That is an earned advantage that someone has through hard work. 

The term privilege is used differently here. It is actually attempting to focus on social advantages that are not conferred by effort or some type of merit, but rather simply by how one was born. For example, there is an understanding that being white or light-skinned or male in society has certain privileges. Being in these groups gives you certain social advantages that are not afforded other groups of people. 

HOST: Is a low-income white woman privileged?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: She is privileged by her status as a white person, but woman and low-income, those are subordinated identities. Just by virtue of having racial privilege, that doesn't mean she doesn't experience economic oppression.

HOST: Finally, let’s take positionality.

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: In a previous place of work, I was facilitating a conversation between a white man and a white woman. Positionality is important when you're thinking about their experiences of walking that particular campus. 

The white woman said of a particular parking lot that she didn't feel safe walking in that particular parking lot at night. His response was, “I don't see what's wrong with that parking lot. I walk in that parking lot at night all the time.” To understand why they experience that parking lot differently, one needs to understand positionality.

She sees that parking lot as a woman. He sees that parking lot as a man. It is their social positions that give them insight into what is the reality of that space. That's why positionality is important. It gives us insight into what other people experience that we may not.

HOST: A low-income, gay, white man meets a wealthy, straight, Latinx woman. How does positionality affect their interaction?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: I suspect that they may see the world very differently. But there are opportunities where they might see some things similarly if they each understand that positionality is informing how they're interacting.

A low-income, gay, white man experiences advantage through being white and male, but disadvantage through being low-income and gay. A wealthy, straight, Latinx woman experiences advantage by being wealthy and straight, but social disadvantage by being Latinx and a woman.

If they have enough self-awareness of understanding their social advantages and disadvantages, they can provide insights to each other about different experiences to help them have a better sense of how people experience that environment.

HOST: And there you have it, “What are intersexuality, privilege and positionality?” explained in under five minutes. You can find this podcast on iTunes, Spotify and SoundCloud, so we hope you’ll subscribe and keep listening to “The Take: Big Ideas Explained in Under 5 Minutes” brought to you by Brandeis University.

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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