How Intersectionality Promotes Equitable Opportunities for Children and Youth

Posted August 31, 2016, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Different forms of discrimination can interact or overlap depending on people’s identity categories. In particular, racial discrimination can be further compounded depending on poverty, immigrant or refugee status, gender and/or sexual orientation. The intersection of these categories positions children of color differently within our society, resulting in some facing more structural barriers to success than others.

The term “intersectionality” recognizes this connection between identity, structures, power, discrimination and outcomes. A recent Foundation report on LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system analyzed disaggregated juvenile justice system data by race, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. The disaggregated data revealed that youth of color are overrepresented among LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system and that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented within the overall justice system. This overrepresentation was higher for girls who identified as LGBTQ than boys who identified as LGBTQ. An intersectional analysis of this data uncovered the extent to which LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system experienced different forms of domination based on how they were socially positioned within the system.

The report also identified structural and institutional practices that contributed to the overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in juvenile justice systems. LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color, reported that they experienced “profiling, indiscriminate stops and searches, physical, verbal and sexual harassment, and arrests for “quality of life” offenses (e.g. being charged with sex offenses for consensual sexual activity).’ By applying an intersectional perspective to their data, researchers uncovered these structural and institutional practices that subjected youth to different discriminatory experiences based on their identities. This structural perspective is integral to intersectionality because it removes the responsibility of discrimination away from minoritized people and places it on structures and public policy. As a result, intersectionality investigates how structures and public policy marginalize or exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities to create further disempowerment among different people and communities.

While intersectionality unveiled disparate outcomes and overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system, it can also be used as a powerful platform for advocacy. Some examples include LGBTQ, immigrant youth incorporating intersectionality into mobilization efforts aimed at passing the DREAM act in California; non-English speaking, Asian immigrant women using their intersectional identities to fight for fair labor and wage laws in the San Francisco Bay area; and black students sharing their intersectional experiences to speak out against racial marginalization at Harvard University.

These examples predominantly show how intersectionality uncovers discrimination, but intersectionality does not only stop there. As our report on LGBTQ youth in juvenile systems explains, all children and youth express race, gender and sexuality in different ways. During adolescence, their identities are fluid, requiring an environment that prioritizes their health and well-being and allows them to explore their emerging sense of self. Through intersectional perspectives we can equip ourselves to recognize, honor and encourage those different identities while creating equitable structures and institutions. By using intersectionality to create equitable opportunities, we can help all children and youth grow within safe and inclusive spaces.

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