Jacob and Al's Intergalactic Intersectionality Adventure
Our identities and histories can be important and awesome, but they can also be a little difficult to figure out. What happens when your ideas about who you are clash with each other, or when you don’t feel like you fit anywhere at all? Perhaps you think you identify with words like ‘bisexual’ or ‘black/white’ or ‘man/woman’ but nothing feels quite right. Who is the real you? It can sometimes feel like everyone else knows who they are while you’re wearing clothes that don’t quite fit. Amidst that confusion it can be a struggle to navigate relationships with family, friends, and community. Intersectionality is here to help!
This is about seeing people as the complex entities they are so that we can improve our self-understanding, our relationships, and our communication with others. This means that we can support each other with more care and attention, and it helps us be more inclusive and understanding when we try to do good in the world.
Part 1: Everything Counts and It’s Gloriously Messy
Who even am I?
To get started, let’s ask a question: How would you introduce yourself to a group of people you didn’t know? What are some of the first things you would say to those people, if you wanted them to know who you are? Would they include your age, your nationality, your beliefs, your orientation, your gender, maybe your neighborhood, or even your favorite flower?
It is why we emphasize serving those who are usually the most excluded in society and the ones most likely to fall through the gaps.
At first glance those attributes might seem to describe you pretty well, but there tends to be more nuance in the details. For example: What if you said your favorite flower was hibiscus? Sensory details such as smells can be connected to our early memories, and perhaps the smell of hibiscus reminds you of the traditional cuisine that your family used to cook together, but doesn’t anymore. This could be because you don’t get along with your parents, because they disapprove of your sexual orientation or gender identity. And so to you the hibiscus flower symbolizes all those raw parts of yourself: the love, the feeling of home, the familial rejection, your ethnicity/race, and your ancestry, even if you didn’t think about it consciously. This one piece of information represents who you are and how these different parts of your experience collide, or intersect. When we look closely, it becomes clear that the labels and categories we use to describe groups of people are more complicated than they seem.
Another word for this complexity and messiness is intersectionality. It was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black feminist lawyer who used it to describe how black women especially are failed when progressive gender and race discrimination laws are only ever applied separately. Crenshaw argued that we need a word to describe how oppression is ignored when it has multiple causes, and the importance of blending our feminism, our anti-racism and other forms of resistance.
We would phrase our definition like this: Intersectionality is the way in which the different things that make ‘you’ smoosh together. Your orientations, your body, your family history, your ability/disability, and all the other stuff all contribute to your experiences and your own understanding of your identity. These different aspects of you are smooshed together and can’t be picked apart into separate categories. A black woman is not just a person who is black and who is also woman, or vice versa, but a black woman whose experiences are different from those of people in either separate category. So everything counts and it’s gloriously messy.
←This Smoosh may contain:
Every experience you’ve ever had contributes to who you are, and therefore every form of discrimination or systemic oppression attached to those experiences is included in how you are shaped as a person: racism, ageism, sexism, adultism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, Islamophobia, classism, and all the other nuanced forms of hatred that might not fit into the -isms we usually think of.
Now that you know this about yourself, imagine how it applies to everyone around you. That person with the purple hair and a copy of Watership Down on the subway! The Holocaust survivor who came into class last week to give a speech! Your partner! Your parents!
9 ways we can trip up...
We admit that trying to do good for the people in your life in a world that relies so heavily on stereotypes is not easy. So we will probably make a bunch of mistakes. Even if you are deep in activism and have read all the books and worn all the t-shirts, there is absolutely no way you will do everything ‘right’. However, we can pass on to you what we have learned. Here are some common mistakes we've made ourselves or seen others make. Look out for them and you may avoid some mighty deep potholes:
- Sometimes people interpret intersectionality as a box-ticking exercise. This could mean applauding statements simply because certain groups were name-dropped. Somebody might say: “My speech references people of color, disabled people, the LGBT community, and women, therefore it’s the best.” But that isn’t what we are talking about when we say ‘intersectionality’. Even if we’ve tried our hardest to be inclusive, it’s an ongoing process and there are always gaps. This isn’t about being perfect, or the best, but being open and listening. The quicker we make that change the more inclusive and stronger our activism will be.
- Can an alliance be built? Conversely, using box-ticking to negatively judge opinions you don’t like can miss the point. “Not everything in your speech about pro-choice movements applies to my personal identity so it’s not intersectional enough.” What about the points which were made? Is there work that needs to be done to tell your story? Or has there been a hard limit crossed?
- Getting drawn into “Everything intersects so everything is fluid, nothing has any meaning so stop talking about race/gender/class etc.” ways of thinking is a mistake. These identities and the histories or relationships they represent can mean life or death for a person in the wrong place at the wrong time, or contribute to a wonderful part of their life. Understanding those factors also means being able to talk about them and react to problems. Traffic-light colors are also a social construct but we would advise against questioning whether red really means stop in the middle of a journey.
- Using a different word or way of talking about intersectionality is okay. It’s a strange word with lots of syllables and people have been doing its work loooooong before English-speaking academics and activists popularized the term. Saying intersectionality in a mirror three times doesn’t make it appear and failing to say it does no harm at all. It’s just handy and right here if you need it.
- Include awesomeness! For many of us intersectionality isn’t just a measure of inconvenient oppressions - great art, insight, and culture can emerge in us from our histories under oppression, our struggles, our desires, and beliefs.
- It doesn’t need to be named to matter. We may not self-identify with a label for many of our experiences. Sometimes we don’t even find words that feel right to us. But that doesn’t mean our struggle means any less.
- We may internalize this discrimination too, making it difficult to feel comfortable with who we are and our family or communities. But it’s important to know that these identities come in all shapes and forms. You're not any “less gay” because you're black, or “not a typical woman” because you use a wheelchair, or “not Jewish enough” because you're trans. You are who you are with many identities, ideas, and biases, and they won’t always fit nicely with each other, but that’s because you're a person, not a cookie-cutter stereotype of a certain social category. Your unique experience can also reveal truths about your community that others might not notice. What could be realer than that?
- Don’t try to use shame and guilt. If we speak about an oppression you may be on the historically oppressive side of, or find a nuance in something you previously generalized, we don’t encourage shame. Getting bogged down in guilt helps no one; simply making more compassionate decisions than our predecessors is what will make things better. Guilt and shame are just the pain we feel for the past, they can be debilitating. Moving forward comes from taking action, not suffering in shame.
- If you crash a red car into a blue car you don’t get a purple car. It’s worth focusing not just on the number of experiences overlapping but also on the ways they interact. Not everything fits into an identity or a spectrum. Having two different cultures from each parent does not give you 50% access to each one. Sometimes it means dealing with surprising problems, or experiences that neither group experienced before.
But when will we be nuanced enough?
When we talk about intersectionality it can seem we are saying ‘Kinda, but not quite!’ to every statement ever. If you think about it too much you may start pulling at your hair, pacing in circles shouting, “When will we be nuanced enough? When?!”
But before you start grabbing at those tufts, remember that there is no end point - no distant land where everything is explained, where there are no more exceptions or overlaps, where we see all the patterns, where it all makes sense and we never get things wrong. So nobody expects you to get there.
There is no there there...
Where you are is okay...
... That feels a bit better doesn't it?
Wherever there has been widespread discrimination there have always been incredible thinkers and activists who have seen patterns in how oppression happens and given it names. That’s what our theories of patriarchy, white supremacy, classism and ableism are. But there is another way to engage too. There have also always been people who ask tough questions and try to see through these ideas to what might be missed in the real situations.
As important as it is to try and understand common oppressions and act on that understanding, it is equally important to pause, question assumptions and change your actions. You have to do a bit of both.
Embracing intersectionality is a way you can be part of this tradition of questioning, which notices details, highlights forgotten injustices and treats people's unique stories with compassion and attention. It’s as important as all the rest of the work we do for ourselves and those around us.
For more on how to do that, have a nosey at Part 2 where we discuss how you can apply the idea of intersectionality.
The whole intersectionality series:
- Intersectionality Part 1: Everything Counts and It’s Gloriously Messy
- Intersectionality Part 2: Putting It Into Action!
- Intersectionality Part 3: A Personal Take (or "Are we like pies?") Article Version - Webcomic Version
- Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use”
Further reading from Scarleteen: On activism, identity, community, relationships and other intersections
- Activism 101
- Be Your Own Superhero: Learning How and When to Stand Up for Ourselves
- Disability Dharma: What Including & Learning From Disability Can Teach (Everyone) About Sex
- Connecting with WOC and Sexuality
- My Boyfriend is Trans, but not out yet. How do I support him?
- Building Bridges: Sexual Orientation Shifts
- The Rainbow Connection: Orientation for Everyone
- Living without Labels
- Q is for Questioning
- Trans Summer School: What's the Deal With Gender?
- Hair, There and Everywhere