Invisible in Plain Sight

More than the sum of our parts.

People are complicated. How we socialize, how we develop our cultural and political institutions, and how our individual
 and group identities powerfully shape all of those processes is complex. We are never just one type of person presenting ourselves to the world according to a single script. Nor could we simplify or ignore our shifting and complicated identities even if we wanted to, as other people are continuously stepping in to categorize us in ways that reflect their own backgrounds and suit their own needs.

So when marketing and brand management teams design surveys, establish personas, or work with segments to “get at” one kind of consumer – the Hispanic, the Soccer Mom, the Millennial – they are truly missing the mark. When they explore opportunity areas or develop strategies that are based on this type of work, they perpetuate the problem, ignoring important differences within and across identity categories and leaving large parts of the story untold.

Consider the commonly cited statistic that, on average, American women earn 78 cents for every dollar that men earn. While this gives us some picture of gender inequality, when we zoom out a little further, we realize that the picture becomes blurry and incomplete. In fact, it is white women who earn 78 cents for every dollar that white men earn. African American women make 64 cents on that same dollar, and women who identify as Hispanic/Latina make 54 cents.

And so, a new product offering or marketing campaign that hopes to resonate with real women would have to go a step beyond traditional research and innovation methods to get at the diversity that exists within that category. Turning standard consumer segmentation on its head in this way allows us to understand the complexity of identity formation as well as the layered social context within which it exists.

Kimberlé Crenshaw and 
the theory of intersectionality.

Intersectionality – the theory that people are subject to multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination – is a concept that truly emerged from the ground up. In 1977, as legal counsel on the case of DeGraffenreid vs. General Motors, Kimberlé Crenshaw represented five black women claiming that they could not get work at GM because of the company’s discriminatory hiring practices. While GM hired black men for manual labor on the factory floor and white women for secretarial positions in the head offices, the complainants brought forth charges that black women were not considered for either position and, therefore, suffered discrimination based on their
 race and gender. Crenshaw, herself a black woman, saw a glaring gap in the legal language that was available to her in this case. There was no terminology, or indeed, concept, that expressed the clear and present effect of two different but simultaneously applied forms of discrimination. In 1986,
 as a Professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, Crenshaw developed this language and built a social theory around it, stressing the applicability of intersectionality to any group that is similarly “invisible in plain sight” to society and the judicial system. Crenshaw’s notion that race, gender, age, sexuality, and other aspects of our identity must be clearly marked, acknowledged, and understood as more than the sum of its parts has resonated strongly with people whose marginalization comes from one or more aspects of their identities.

Although marketers acknowledge, and sometimes fervently pursue, certain ethnic groups or generational cohorts, it is all too often done in shallow
 or one-dimensional ways. Considering how important identity politics has become in our culture today, and in light of the varied ways in which people are labeled and categorized without their participation, it is hard not to wonder what a future would look like if products and services responded to the intersectional manner in which people experience the world.

Signs that we’re finally crossing the intersections:

Izzy Camilleri

A Toronto-based clothing designer who has developed a line of stylish and adaptable wardrobe basics for women who use wheelchairs, Izzy Camilleri is responding to the needs of women who are tired of having the limits on their mobility create limits for how they express their personal style.

Prime Timers Worldwide

With over 80 chapters throughout North America, Europe, and Australia, Prime Timers is a leading organization for “mature gay and bisexual men.” through the facilitation of regional gatherings, global conventions, and chartered cruises, the organization provides a space for gay seniors to meet their social needs in ways that acknowledge both their sexuality and their age.

CARA B Naturally

A line of chemical-free, plant-based
 hair and skin care products for “ethnically diverse” children, CARA B naturally situates itself in the space of overlap between black hair care and baby 
hair care product lines.

What if…

How would your business measure up in an innovation space where multiple forms of difference are clearly marked and accounted for?

01/ How could you sharpen your understanding of how people relate to their personal and group identities? What practices could you employ to set that understanding as a foundation for innovation?

02/ What needs and desires of your consumers are currently not being considered within your product or service portfolio? How might you modify or market your offering differently to either acknowledge or fill this gap?

03/ In what ways can you ensure that your marketing strategies are engaging real people on a level that makes few assumptions and multiple accommodations?

the author

Maya Shapiro

Dr. Maya Shapiro is a resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.