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Intersectionality: Living in Many Worlds at Once

Originally Published in Coaching for Transformation

Culture plays an integral part in the socialization process by which people learn behaviors, values and beliefs. The goal of socialization is to prepare people to become active functioning members of society.1 Generally, parents or guardians are the primary agents of socialization,2 providing social norms and order to children;3 however, secondary agents of socialization may include media, authority and educational institutions throughout life. In instances when a child belongs to the dominant group of society, the individual’s socialization process can remain seamlessly aligned— primary and secondary agents of socialization reinforce accepted behaviors, values and beliefs of society.

Latino, Asian, Black or immigrant parents living in the United States face the task of raising children able to survive and prosper in a society that devalues their ethnicity or race. Secondary agents of socialization provide messaging that may be inconsistent with cultural messages taught by family and others in the cultural group.

For example, if you’re coaching a Latino parent with children in an American school that minimizes, deters or institutes punishments for speaking Spanish, how will you support dual socialization? Your client may want coaching on how to talk to teachers who consider speaking Spanish a detriment to the child’s learning. At the same time the client may want a road map for simultaneously respecting her elders, which includes honoring their culture by speaking Spanish. Your client may need support for navigating conflicting values and determining how to teach her children to belong in multiple cultures and environments.

Another common challenge faced by teens and adult children and grandchildren of immigrants and others from the non-dominant culture is the pressure they face to conform to the cultural expectations of their parents and cultural communities despite their desire to adopt some of the practices of the dominant culture or even other cultures that are meaningful to them. This may include pressures to marry someone within the culture or to practice the same religious beliefs and rituals of the culture, despite the actual desires of the client.

At times the pressures can be so severe that a client may feel the need to choose between one world and another—sacrificing personal values, needs and beliefs or the connection with family and cultural community. How can you help your clients navigate, balance and honor the competing personal desires and pressures they may experience?

How will you help clients address issues of race or ethnic socialization—the process of preparing children to understand their unique heritage, culture and their station in a minority group in society? Clients may want coaching on the challenges of straddling two or more worlds. What may be acceptable in one world, may not be in the other and how they are valued in one, may not be mirrored in the other. This might include coaching on how a minority fits into dual worlds in their workplace or community. Or clients may want support for the pain of being asked to choose between their family and the person they love.

The desire to belong results in a conflict of two or more worlds; each having its own rules and perception of what it means to be part of the group; influencing how we answer the question, “Who am I and do I fit in?” W. E. B. Dubois, in The Souls of Black Folks, describes the consequence of slavery for African-Americans as living in a world of “double consciousness”—defining and seeing ourselves through the eyes of the dominant culture.4

Dual socialization is a phenomenon commonly experienced by people of color—as well as other groups—all of their lives, consciously or subconsciously. How will you support your clients to function well in the dominant culture, while also living in their own respective group ethnicities or identities? Managing dual socialization requires tremendous emotional and mental agility. High emotional intelligence is essential for dual socialization, in continuously learning and abiding by firm yet unspoken rules to a game of survival in dominant cultures.

Emotional loneliness is commonly experienced by Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians, especially, in academia or other professional settings. Fear, distrust and self-protection may serve as inner critics inherited from generation to generation for a client with this life experience. At the same time, it is important that we remember that these inner critics are probably living side by side with an inner strength and resilience that comes from a client’s pride in their culture.

Since parents or guardians are the primary agents of socialization, what is the impact when a child is raised by parents or guardians not of their culture? For example, children of color adopted by white parents or someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender raised by parents who are heterosexual. Coaching people with these life experiences is likely to include helping them navigate the various cultures they live in—they may experience isolation, alienation and stigmatization from their own family members.

Questions for consideration:

  • How can you discover what taking a risk in the workplace feels like for a client not from the dominant culture?
  • How can you support clients who feel torn between pressures from family and community and the desires of their own hearts?
  • What do you want to keep in mind when coaching a client from a different culture?


1 Thompson, V. L. S. (1994). “Socialization and its relationship to racial identifi cation among African Americans.” Journal of Black Psychology 0.2: 175-188.

2 Peters, M.F. (1985). Racial Socialization of Black Children. In H. P. McAdoo & J. L. McAdoo, Black Children: Social, educational, and parental environments (pp.159-173). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

3 Glass, J. & Bengston, V. L. (1986). “Attitude similarity in three-generation families: Socialization, status inheritance, or reciprocal influence?” American Sociological Review, 51, 685-698.

4 DuBois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.

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