What is the frame?

As noted in an earlier blog post, a central tenet of this discussion is the fact that trauma must be considered from an anthropological and culturally-sound framework that makes room for the complexity of human experience and the nature of meaning-making in human interaction with the world around them.

That being said, intersectionality and intersectional feminism can serve as a frame for the analysis of: the definition of trauma (and, by extension, other mental illnesses) both socially and therapeutically, the application of said definition to diverse populations, and the challenges this framework presents for current practice. Using a liberative framework that considers the interconnected nature of human experience and the multidimensional quality of identity, we are better able to account for the complex nature of trauma and mental illness.

What is intersectionality?

According to Bowleg (2012), intersectionality is “a theoretical framework that posits that multiple social categories…intersect at the micro level of individual experience to reflect multiple interlocking systems of privilege and oppression at the macro, social-structural level” (p 1267).  Initially emerging from the Black feminist movement and scholarship (Kimberle Crenshaw), intersectionality challenged dominant social narratives that failed to account for the complexity and difference amongst groups (i.e. women of color experiencing both race and gender).  In doing so, the concept of intersectionality gave rise to what is commonly identified as the third wave of feminism and furthered conceptual frameworks that challenged traditional theories of identity, politics, and social location.

Basically, intersectionality considers how each level of a person’s identity– race, class, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, immigration status, access to education, physical ability– adds up to a person’s identity and their accumulated privilege.  A person’s resultant social location is the product of interlocking, complicated, macro- and micro-level interactions with people and social structures that reveal systems of power and oppression inherent in dominant society.  In doing so, intersectionality helps to conceptualize the intricate nature of systems of oppression and identity formation.

How can intersectionality help us to better understand trauma?

Given the steady increase in attention and research dedicated to PTSD and trauma-informed care, it is imperative that we consider the dimensions and complexity that might be added to our understanding if we look through a lens of intersectionality.  Our current, dominant social narrative of trauma has significant limitations, particularly as it relates to the macro-level issues that can lead to an individual’s complex vulnerability and risk.  As Quiros and Berger (2014) note, “the rigid and narrow conceptualization of trauma” fails to capture the sociopolitical elements involved in our patients’ experiences of trauma (p. 3).  As such, intersectionality (with its attention to various social systems and the privilege assigned to each layer of identity) helps to shed light on the development of systems of oppression, complex risk, and structural violence that impact victims of trauma in particular ways.

How is trauma culturally-defined?

There are historical legacies of victimization implicit in the social construction of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic level, citizenship, political capital, etc. which contribute to the ways in which trauma is understood and defined by society at large and practitioners and victims in particular.  The limitations of trauma-informed care and cultural competency in general are rooted in the failure to consider and adequately challenge the historical, embedded, ongoing reality of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, heteronormativity, cisgender privilege, and gender role rigidity that face significant portions of our population.  As Herring, Spangaro, Lauw, and McNamara (2013) note, “the cultural competence frame provides a platform for seeing difference and culture; however, without the lenses of trauma and racism, difference appears only as dysfunction, shrouding the manifestations of…people’s continuing rich culture” (p. 108).  I would argue, additionally, that the lens of intersectionality would further illuminate the ways in which understanding difference provides space for the complexity and richness of human experience to emerge.