Getting the Hang of Intersectionality

Audre Lorde
“There is no such thing as single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

It’s that time of year when some of us look forward to twelve days of Christmas and the requisite partridge in a pear tree, but for me it’s eight days of lighting a menorah.

So, instead of twelve tips, you’re getting four ways to better apply intersectionality in your own life. Don’t think of these as the totality of what you must learn. Rather, treat them like a springboard that can propel you into a fuller understanding of how intersectionality works at every level of society.

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Instead of giving you a list of do’s and don’ts to abide by, I’m going to pose a series of questions that will hopefully help you gain perspective and come up with your own analysis of institutions and structures that are operating in your own life and in the lives of your family, friends, and peers. Consider this post an expansion of “From Margin to Center: Intersectionality and You,” but applied on a broader scale.

“There is no such thing as single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” –Audre Lorde

1. How do race, gender, and class impact issues beyond racism and sexism?

It’s one thing to talk about race, gender, and class when directly speaking of racism, sexism, and poverty, but it’s important not to confine discussions of race, gender, and class to boxes labeled “race issues” and “gender issues” and “class issues.”

Only bringing up race, gender, and class when it’s time to talk diversity makes the mistake of turning them into special interest topics rather than fundamental elements of our attempts to create a society (and therefore institutions and organizations) that live our values rather than just speak of them.

So, yes, bring up race, gender, and class when you talk about the environment. Go ahead and talk about them when you’re in a conversation about religion or philosophy. It’s always relevant.

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“Intersectionality draws attention to invisibilities that exist in feminism, in anti-racism, in class politics, so obviously it takes a lot of work to consistently challenge ourselves to be attentive to aspects of power that we don’t ourselves experience.” — Kimberle Crenshaw

2. Who is invisible in plain sight?

Because of the dynamics of privilege and oppression in American society even within marginalized groups, a dominant perspective emerges. So, racism becomes primarily about Black men, sexism becomes primarily about white women, and class only gets mainstream media attention when middle-class and rich (white) people start feeling the pinch.

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As a result, there are entire layers of experience and power dynamics that get lost or deemed a distraction to the “real” issue at hand. These intersections of identity are not purely academic. Human beings live at these crossroads. If we are to truly help, we must take care not to render them invisible to their own struggle.

Poor and working-class women of color are at the center of intersectionality. But nothing about intersectionality means all of those women are heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, thin, Christian, or naturalized U.S. citizens.

Feel free to keep focused on women of color while expanding your analysis to include women of color who are also lesbians or bisexuals, transgender, disabled, mentally ill, neurodivergent, fat, Jewish or pagan or atheist, and/or immigrants.

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I have something very specific in mind when talking about centering women of color. Are the women of color the center of the discussion? Are they participating? Writers are writers, they’re not necessarily activists… I took that responsibility. There is a very clear documented history of a global movement excluding women of color. […] Racism and sexism can’t be solved just by us. Sometimes we put that on ourselves. I hold other people accountable for making hostile work environments where I have to be this assertive. —Lori Adelman

3. Where are the women of color? What do the have in common? How are they different?

I keep bringing this up because it’s so crucial to how I’ve come to understand how systems of oppression work. I’ve mentioned how simply counting women of color in a particular organization can reveal a lot, but you can go a lot further with this and use it to apply to an entire industry or movement.

What formal and informal networks are they connected to? What made them choose to become part of the organization? What are some positives and negatives they experience as part of the organization?

Pay attention to the similarities and differences you find. If you are doing better or worse than you hoped, there is a reason for that, and it isn’t chance.

Despite long-standing claims by elites that Blacks, women, Latinos, and other similarly derogated groups in the United States remain incapable of producing the type of interpretive, analytical thought that is labeled theory in the West, powerful knowledges of resistance that toppled former social structures of social inequality repudiate this view. Members of these groups do in fact theorize, and our critical social theory has been central to our political empowerment and search for justice. —Patricia Hill Collins

4. How much is being learned from women of color?

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I’m going to share an experience that everyone who is not a straight white man has had at some point.

It goes like this: somebody asks a question about gender, race, or sexuality that’s borderline offensive, but nevertheless, you want to help. So, drawing from your own personal experience, you calmly and rationally explain what that person needs to know.

And that person…Just. Won’t. Get it.

Not content to sit by themselves in their ignorance, they will then proceed to aggressively continue not getting it by debating or arguing with you as though you haven’t heard everything they’re saying a million times before. Their refusal to acknowledge your experiences is so complete that it has you questioning your intelligence and your grasp on reality.

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But then someone from their group comes in, says the exact same thing you did almost word-for-word, and suddenly the light bulb comes on.

I illustrate this example because I’ve encountered it so many times in progressive circles from people who otherwise know better. It’s a persistent problem I’ve encountered in people who grasp the concepts intellectually, but can’t quite apply them to real people.

I think one of the many issues behind this pattern is the over-reliance on allies (most notably in Tim Wise and Hugo Schwyzer) who “translate” the savage and unintelligible gibberish of the woman-folk and Brown and Black exotic foreigners into proper speech. Could you feel the sarcasm there?

I’m not going to tell you not to learn from allies, but take stock of where most of your learning is coming from. If it’s always from an indirect source, from someone who doesn’t go through the issues they talk about, are you really getting the gut-level human truth, or are you getting a product pre-packaged for your consumption?

Wrapping it up

Sometimes, you might not have an answer to one or more of these questions, and that’s fine. None of these questions requires you to take a position and defend it. The point of these questions is to help you start paying attention to things that may tend to slip past your radar.

Once you get the hang of asking and answering these kinds of questions, you’re going to find it a lot easier to not only notice but analyze different issues and situations using intersectionality as a framework.

When you can do that, you’re going to be much more capable at creating strategies that are effective and take you to where you want to go in whatever group or organization or institution you find yourself in.

So think on these things and, if you celebrate, have a happy holiday season. And if you don’t, have a happy early new year.