Identity crossroads

Taking a complex 'intersectional' approach to identity allows us to tackle oppression more effective

Intersectional is a fancy word that feminist theorists (spurred by Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins) use to advocate for a complex approach to thinking about oppression. They argue that various facets of identity and society must be analyzed together rather than thought of as autonomous phenomena.

Think of it as a bunch of roads—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, disability status, age — all crossing one another. The nexus of that great big intersection is your identity, and the unique privileges and oppressions you might experience on a daily basis.
For example, I am a Scottish-Irish-Norwegian-American, able-bodied, young woman originally from an upper-middle class nuclear family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, currently living as a middle class artist in a low-income neighbourhood in Brooklyn and in a heterosexual relationship.

Now before you get all paralysed and convinced that intersectional analysis advocates a politically correct fractioning of real human beings until they are just so many census boxes, let me assure you that this approach—while complex—is also rich with potential for some really profound analysis about modern life.

One of my favourite former students is a white, upper class young male who appears to be—for all intents and purposes—living a quintessential life of privilege. Half way through the semester, however, he revealed to me that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

If I were to just consider his experience of the world through the white, upper class young male lens, I might conclude that he knows little about the kind of oppression that one of my immigrant students of color experiences. But when I follow the road of his disability, I come to understand that he also has a combination of privilege and oppression to deal with—as do we all.

Rather than fracturing us, this approach links us all together. We stop making sweeping generalizations about complicated human experience and start understanding the ways in which we all interact with power (whether we are straining to have more of it, unconsciously using it, or consciously relinquishing it).

Peggy McIntosh made her mark in feminist theory by writing an article called Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which is basically a list of all of the unconscious privileges that Peggy realized she had when she started thinking intersectionally (in her case, not just about being a woman, but about being a white, heterosexual women).

Her list includes things like being able to find a band-aid that is the colour of her skin, being taken seriously in banks and stores, and never wondering if she is passed over for a job because of her race. I encourage all of my students to “unpack their knapsack,” and they are usually shocked and grateful to realize how many unconscious privileges they have (regardless of the unique composition of their intersectional identities.)

Once we begin to see the ways that power is at work intersectionally, we can make more informed decisions about how we want to use the power we have, personally, and how we can create a world where it is more evenly distributed and more compassionately wielded publicly.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body (Piatkus Press). Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.