Intersectionality: It’s Going to Get Harder Before It Gets Better
One muppet on the street taught us empathy; surely we can learn the crossroads
One of my first teachers of empathy was a young amphibian on Sesame Street, a vulnerable companion sharing his lonely greenness. Like millions of kids in 1969, I related to and felt my heart swell with love for a frog, especially after I heard him sing.
Kermit the Frog remains my spirit animal of empathy. Hard to believe he is now, like me, AARP-eligible. A lot has changed since 1969 thanks to Sesame Street, Julia, and The Mod Squad — among the first shows to cast women, African Americans and Latinx in leading, positive roles.
Although diverse representation seems slow to me (one step forward, several back) I’m heartened when I look at demographics in the House of Representatives. Identities have moved beyond a handful of races and binary genders. Identities now include multiple intersecting identities. A good thing, yet reaching agreement is only going to get harder.
Even within the social justice space — a space culturally suited to more listening and less hostility than Congress — it’s getting harder. We hear more voices (again, a good thing) but it can be harder to fully listen, to take the time to reflect and to reach agreement without giving in to the same divisions we are trying to bridge.
I’m not specifically talking about white women coopting feminism. Although that’s definitely part of it. In a larger frame, it has to do with legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality: that individuals may experience multiple forms of prejudice simultaneously.
“I’m a woman so I show up to all the women’s events, but it’s not my place to be an ally to people of color.” Or, “As a member of a racial minority group, I’m extremely aware of the systemic oppression against my people in this country, but LGBTQ+ don’t deserve the same rights as I do because of [some faulty logic].”
Up Close and Personal
Twenty years ago, Sakina trained me to co-facilitate Ethnic and Race Study Circles in Raleigh, NC. After three years of working with Sakina in communities, schools, and local governments, she and I were offered contracts with the NC Episcopal Diocese and two corporations that wanted to move beyond Diversity 101 and build more inclusive cultures.
Sakina is now the top diversity officer at a large university system. She and I live 1000 miles apart instead of 10, but we try to catch up every few months. Two hour phone calls. Last month’s call happened around 2 p.m. on a weekday because Sakina had taken a mental health day.
She was dealing with a lot more than bureaucratic stalls and stops, power plays and politics. More than a refrain of our familiar convos about next career steps and “isn’t it time we make our podcast idea a thing?” This time it was a problem within her own department.
Specifically, push-back from the only white woman (let’s not call her Becky, but Brenna) who reports to Sakina. Brenna is director of the LGBTQ center. Several weeks ago, Sakina heard from several student and faculty allies who felt ‘scolded’ by Brenna.
“I’ve heard her (Brenna) jump on people about pronoun usage, especially after Toni (who is trans), was hired as her assistant. I mean, damn, I’m the first to want to know if I’m not being inclusive but there’s a way to do that. We can’t be turning people off who want to learn and support.”
After Sakina privately relayed her concerns to Brenna and offered coaching support, Brenna dismissed Sakina’s feedback. Brenna also went directly to Sakina’s boss, a VP, to file a complaint about receiving a 2%, instead of (the maximum) 2.5%, merit increase.
She Said, She Said
Of course my empathy lies with Sakina. She’s bright, collaborative and compassionate AF. Yes, I’m biased. And I’m aware (as I was that afternoon) that I can easily chalk up Brenna as another white female who can’t accept and back a Black female leader.
Maybe this is true; maybe it’s not. Perhaps Brenna is an entitled, neurotic mess — regardless of her boss’s race. Perhaps Brenna is only a warrior for non cis-gendered people and she can’t see the social justice forest for the trees.
All I know is that it’s going to get harder. But that’s gotta be okay. Slow progress or status quo? I’ll take the slow road. And try to remember that conflict is the harbinger of change.
Math as Metaphor
I think of set theory as a metaphor for shared social identities. People as circles intersecting to various degrees depending on their common identities, traits, and experiences.
Let’s take Sakina’s and Brenna’s imagined commonalities. Their shared identities, traits and experiences show up as light beige-colored, eclipse-shaped overlap (pictured on left).
Sakina and Brenna surely value social justice (in general); they grew up female, have two degrees, and share a common nationality and organizational membership, for starters.
What does this mean, if anything? Do Brenna’s “issues” with Sakina exist because they don’t share enough common identity, like race or sex?
I don’t think so. First, to assume that shared identities equal a conflict-free zone is about as likely as the absence of dysfunction in families. Second, intersected (overlapping) circles illustrate that we can have any number of common identities — AND within those identities is more diversity, nuance, and sometimes very different meanings.
Intersectionality is different from intersecting identities. It’s about how those with the same identity experience their diversity. We can only try to understand, to empathize with each another’s greenness or frogness. Crenshaw’s one-minute explanation is well worth watching:
It’s hard work. And easy to understand why managers (of all identities) wish to hire those with similar identities, traits, and experiences. But this runs counter to reality: the world is increasingly diverse, regardless of our place in it. Equally important, hiring for homogeneity is antithetical to any kind of diversity— especially if you want an inclusive, engaged culture.
Math Has Its Limits
Let’s suppose that Sakina’s and Brenna’s circles are almost totally eclipsed. Their circles significantly overlap — almost like twins. Looking at identity and intersectionality through the lens of set theory doesn’t account for infinite ways in which Sakina or Brenna might “see” or have experienced their identities, traits, and life in general.
Even if Brenna were Black and born to two professors (Sakina’s experience), she may have still pushed back on Sakina’s feedback; she might have tread the same path to the VP, instead of having a conversation with her manager. Everything could have happened, just as it did, based on neurology, chemistry, personality, and other idiosyncrasies.
Regardless of shared identities, no two people will see the world and their place in it similarly.
Being woke about intersectionality is not just a mindset. It requires disciplined responsibility to have richer, more thoughtful conversations and to create more nuanced possibilities. This usually translates into more time-consuming work. At least in the short-term. Over time, though, trust engenders more candor. Collaboration becomes an easier, more efficient way of working.
It’s Not Easy Being Human
I’d love to tell you that Sakina’s problems with Brenna are over. That through my friend’s continued efforts at trust-building and empathy, Brenna was able to accept Sakina’s coaching. That Brenna is trying to change her approach with allies. That Brenna is taking responsibility.
I don’t know. But I’m learning it’s a sign of progress to be challenged, to hear push-back from others, especially those who work with me in the social justice space. It’s not personal and yet it is. I’m part of the work; my role is important. But, I don’t need to take challenges or criticisms personally. Especially as a white cis-gendered woman it’s essential that I take time to listen. To learn the crossroads. To get better.
Special thanks to my friend and colleague Sakina. I am because you are.