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
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn hammers David Cameron on green energy – but skips Syria

In a low-key exchange ahead of the Autumn Statement, the Labour leader covered two areas where the government is vulnerable: renewable energy and women's refuges. However, he failed to mention Syria and the Russian plane shot down by Turkey.

When PMQs precedes an Autumn Statement or Budget it is usually a low-key affair, and this one was no different. But perhaps for different reasons than the usual – the opposition pulling its punches to give room for hammering the government on the economy, and the Prime Minister saving big announcements and boasts for his Chancellor.

No, Jeremy Corbyn's decision to hold off on the main issue of the day – air strikes in Syria and the Russian military jet shot down by Turkey – was tactical. He chose to question the government on two areas where it is vulnerable: green energy and women's refuges closing due to cuts. Both topics on which the Tories should be ashamed of their record.

This also allowed him to avoid the subject that is tearing the Middle East – and the Labour party – apart: how to tackle Isis in Syria. Corbyn is seen as soft on defence and has been criticised for being too sympathetic to Russia, so silence on both the subject of air strikes and the Russian plane was his best option.

The only problem with this approach is that the government's most pressing current concern was left to the SNP leader Angus Robertson, who asked the Prime Minister about the dangers of action from the air alone in Syria. A situation that frames Labour as on the fringe of debates about foreign and defence policy. Luckily for Corbyn, this won't really matter as no one pays attention to PMQs pre-Autumn Statement.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.