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28 November 2007

Identity crossroads

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

By Courtney E Martin

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.

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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.