Upward Bound: Examining Intersectionality As A Route To Achieving Upward Social Mobility

Author: Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar is an activist, actor, artist, and author from Chennai, India. She founded and runs the Red Elephant Foundation and works for gender equality and peace education.


Understanding the impact of one’s parents’ social status in determining the future of the person is grounded in understanding intersectionality. If we must break the cycle of poverty, our approach must be grounded in intersectionality and inclusive of all identity attributes that impact an individual, be it the privileged or the oppressed.

The way to understand intersectionality is to understand privilege and how it plays out. For the privileged, the dynamic could be as clear as choice and consequence. If we took a one-size-fits-all approach on the choice-consequence axis, we are definitely going to assume that everyone has the freedom of choice. But in most situations, choices are preceded by circumstances. Adding circumstances to the mix offers an enriched understanding of multiple oppressions that stem from multiple identity attributes.

Look at this through the narrative of a Dalit Woman:

For the uninitiated, “Dalit” refers to a caste in India. As a community of people, it has faced years and years of oppression and marginalization and is placed vulnerably at the bottom of the hierarchical ladders of India’s caste system, class segregations, and gender identities.

If feminism was not intersectional and looked at from a choice-consequence dimension, it would view the Dalit Woman as one identifying as a Woman; as one who is vulnerable to violence; as one who is, well, like any other women. Intersectional feminism, however, would see her differently – Vulnerable as a woman, disenfranchised as a caste and marginalized as a caste. She is isolated and oppressed in society and therefore even more vulnerable than most other women, and there are numbers, facts, stories, and truths to back this correct understanding of a Dalit Woman’s position. There is enough and more in the form of evidence to show you exactly how Dalit Women are exploited, oppressed, discriminated against, isolated and vulnerable to violence. In a nutshell, not only are they dominated over by men in the power relations of a patriarchal social order, they are also fighting against a toxic hegemonic pillar of power in the form of caste with the poverty that comes in with a progressively divisive class system. This establishes the circumstance.

Let’s say a Dalit Woman, and a woman from a caste and class that are higher up (let’s call her privileged woman) in the hierarchy, are brought into the mix. Let’s say that both of them have aspirations for their lives ahead and they aspire to pursue a course that would make them Mechanical Engineers. (If you raised an eyebrow, check your privilege and break those limiting stereotypes inside your head). The Dalit Woman is encumbered by the burden of a system that started with her exclusion: she had no access to education that would suitably enable her to attempt the entrance exam, which, by the way, is administered in English. But the privileged woman has had the benefit of the school, extra classes, and access to resources online.

They take the test. The privileged woman makes it, but the Dalit Woman doesn’t. Strike one. She still harbors some hope, that she will make it in the quotas that have been reserved for a range of castes and classes. But no, she is among the last few in the pecking order, and therefore, waits, and waits, and waits. Strike two. Almost like an afterthought, she is sent an admission letter – a rarity, for many of her caste, are left at the bottom of the pot. But the fee she is expected to pay is the next new hurdle in her path. Where can she afford to pay a year’s tuition if her family can’t scrape enough to afford a square meal? Strike three. This shows you how constrained choice truly is.

These “choices” are not choices. And so, even without the right to make a choice, she has to bear consequences.

In a preview of the report titled Fair Progress: Educational Mobility Around the World, the World Bank explains that there are two concepts of intergenerational mobility: absolute, which measures the extent to which the current generation has managed to climb up the ladder relative to the previous generation, and relative, which refers to the extent to which every individual’s position on the economic ladder is independent of the position of his or her parents.

Both kinds of mobility are important for economic progress, and, “for sustaining a social contract that addresses the aspirations of society.” If there is no absolute mobility, there cannot be an improvement in living standards, and there may be a risk to social cohesion because different groups in society will wind up continuing to compete for their share in a “fixed or shrinking economic pie.” Without relative mobility, growth will be constrained and society would be less inclusive over time, therefore affecting poverty reduction adversely.

If we look at experiences through the lens of intersectionality, our approach to enable social mobility to facilitate access to education can yield tangible results.


This post is a part of a series on intergenerational mobility hosted by Friendship Ambassadors Foundation (FAF) in support of the World Bank’s #EndPoverty campaign. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FAF or the World Bank. To see all posts in the series, click here.

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