Labels on my soul: “Intersectionalist”

Okay, so I lied. “Writer” isn’t the only label on my soul. For the rest of this week, I’ll be talking about some of the other things I’m very passionate about, how they define me and the place they have in my life. And the best place to start is with intersectionality, because it’s a theory that has totally shifted the way I view identity politics, social justice and the world around me.

This will be the first in a series of 101-style posts – introductory things that you can share around with your friends who ask you what a term means, or things you can bookmark in case you want to refer to them later. That said, I am not the definitive authority on any subject except Jaythenerdkid, Adult Prodigy and Writer For Hire (Seriously, Call Me!), so take everything I write with a grain of salt. I do make mistakes just like regular human beings, and to paraphrase the great Albus Dumbledore, given that I am considerably more intelligent than most people, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.

(“Modest” has never been a label on any part of my being.)

Enough waffle. Let’s talk about this label and what it means.

Intersectionality is the theory that people exist at different points along various intersecting axes of oppression/privilege, and that a person’s place in society can’t be completely understood without taking into account all of these axes, how they intersect and how each person’s unique combination of privileges and deficits thereof positions them within a society. Basically: it’s not as simple as being black or being female or being gay or being trans or being disabled or being poor, etc. We don’t exist only on one axis – we coexist on several, and in order to truly unpack the ways in which we’re privileged or oppressed, we need to understand that all of these factors are constantly at play, and almost never in isolation.

I’m a Muslim cisgender bipolar bisexual female from an upper-middle-class family, university educated (though without a degree), living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world and currently employed part-time. That’s a whole lot to unpack, and if you try to see me as just a woman, or just cis, or just Muslim or whatever, you won’t even come close to understanding how I interact with society and how societal prejudices affect me (positively or negatively). It’s not as simple as, “I’m female, so I’m oppressed,” nor is it as simple as, “I’m cisgender, so I’m privileged.” Sure, both of those statements are factually accurate, but they have to be understood in context or they’re practically useless.

Overall, I would consider myself a relatively privileged person. The things for which society oppresses me (my gender, my skin colour, my faith [due to where I live, not because Muslims in general are persecuted], my sexuality) are balanced out by the privileges I enjoy (I’m cis, I’m well-educated, I’ve never had serious financial troubles, I’m in relatively good health, I’m in a relationship that “passes” for straight). This doesn’t mean, however, that the ways in which I’m oppressed aren’t important – I still have a one in five chance of being raped (or a one in four chance of being sexually assaulted in some way), I still deal with street harassment, I suffer from a mental illness that comes with pretty heavy stigma, my identity as a queer person is often erased by both GSM and non-GSM people, I still weather a fair amount of racist abuse and vitriol, and so on. Those things are pretty serious and it’s important to fight so that I and people like me don’t have to suffer any more. I shouldn’t have to worry about walking home alone after sunset. I shouldn’t have to endure being called a sand-n****r or a towelhead. I shouldn’t have to deal with men becoming angry or aggressive when I don’t feel like talking to them at the bus stop. A lot of things do need to change.

However, I’m not blind to my privileges. My parents paid for an education that plenty of people, even people from double income families, can’t afford. I have four years of university under my belt. I’ve never been homeless, starving or deprived of food and water. People tend to listen to me when I speak because I’m eloquent, and they read what I write because I write like an educated person. Folks afford me a little more respect just because I’ve read more of the dictionary than some people have. That’s a pretty big privilege right there – knowing you’ll be taken more seriously because your communication skills have been polished by years of high school debating, patient history taking and public presentations. A lot of people I know have similar privileges, and many of them don’t realise how lucky they are at all.

See, here’s the thing about privilege – it’s not a zero sum game. It’s not that you either have it or you don’t. Almost everyone is privileged in some way, shape or form, and it’s possible to oppress people along one axis even if you yourself are oppressed along another. I can still be classist or transphobic. People can still be sexist, racist and biphobic towards me. People can and do mock me due to my mental illness, and I can and have mocked people for being unable to match me intellectually in debates. It’s not black and white – in fact, it’s an entire spectrum of grey.

As an intersectionalist, this is something I think about – how feminism oppresses women of colour, how the gay rights movement has marginalised trans* people, how I as a relatively wealthy person have been party to the denigration of those who weren’t fortunate enough to be born into well-off families. I think it’s something we should all think about, not only because self-awareness is important, but because until we truly understand the complex ways in which society positions people above or below each other relative to various axes of privilege and oppression, we’ll never truly advance the cause of true social justice and equality for everyone.

“Intersectionalist” is one of the labels on my soul. It is a philosophy that defines me as an activist – to paraphrase the folks at Tiger Beatdown, my activism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. It is a philosophy that has led me to reconsider my place in society and my interactions with others. It has led to a greater awareness of the ways in which I’ve contributed to the oppression of other people, and the ways in which I can actively work to ensure I don’t hurt people who are already fighting oppression. It has led to new friends, new paths, new ways of thinking, seeing and being. I see the world, now, as a complex web of societal interactions, none of them ever completely black and white. It has opened my eyes.

I am Jay. I am a writer and an intersectionalist.

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2 thoughts on “Labels on my soul: “Intersectionalist”

    • Well, I didn’t mention any names at all, that’s the only reason why. But I can always go back and add them. I definitely wasn’t trying to take credit away from those who brought the idea into public consciousness, and I actually think it’s pretty cool that intersectionality was developed by feminist WoC as a way of fighting against the exclusivity of a lot of feminist theory. Thanks for bringing the point up – now I know what kind of reading to do next. 🙂

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