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
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage