Intersectionality: Where and When do I Enter?

In the words of Anna Julia Cooper, a pioneer in the black feminist movement, us intersectional people are often unsure where and when we enter. We belong to many different communities but are unsure where our voices apply and which conversations we’re "allowed" to participate in without overstepping and where our overlapping identities leave us. As an immigrant Indian gal, I fall under the many different categories of non-Christians, people of color, women, and immigrants. I often wonder if I’m permitted to speak about racial issues given the fact that I’m Indian; although I’m brown, some people don’t consider me to be a ‘real’ person of color. For real-- I was told I wasn’t ‘colored’ enough to join the women of color club at the freshman club fair. I mean, I’m an NC41 when I’m not tan . . . seems pretty colored to me! I also feel like my voice may not belong in the immigrant community because my family is among the more privileged of immigrants.

Personally, I believe that we should be more accepting of people in day-to-day conversations and more formal settings. People similar to me who fall under many identities should be able to speak in conversations about any of their identities without feeling uncomfortable. We should be freer in our self-expression and acknowledge all of our identities simultaneously. As a community, we must acknowledge that people’s experiences will be different, but still include them and not over-divide our society by creating a separate space for every identity. I’m a woman at the same time that I’m a person of color; my experience will be different than that of a white woman, but that does not mean I should be excluded from conversations about women’s rights.

To further explore the subject of intersectionality and see what other people my age think about the topic, I talked to two of my friends, Portia and Chloe. Below, I’ve included their comments on the topic. We are the younger generation: the future. In order for our generation to be effective, we need to acknowledge everyone’s voices and what makes each individual unique. We should all know where we enter.

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Name: Chloe West
Age: 15
Identities: African American Female

Lithium: Is it important to you to celebrate all your identities individually or do you feel torn between them? Do you think some are more important to you than others?
Chloe: I think it is important to celebrate my identities as both an African American and a woman. I am connected to African American culture through the art, the food I sometimes eat, the music I listen to, the traditions I have grown up observingm and some of the values that have been instilled in me by my parents.  These are a part of my everyday life and color my view of the world.  I am also a woman, navigating a world that is set up to ensure the success of men– white men in particular. So my experience is also different from African American men.

Lithium: Do you occasionally feel strange or uncomfortable in certain spaces or discussions, or torn between two parts of your identity?

Chloe: I feel uncomfortable when white women assume that their experience is universal and that it reflects the experience of women everywhere. I am often surprised by their arrogance and lack of self-awareness. More often than not, I don’t bother to correct them. I worry that if I do, I will be shut down and/or accused of being divisive.

Lithium: Do you feel that it’s important to create different spaces for every different identity and intersection, or should we work towards making general conversations more comfortable for everyone?
Chloe: I think we should do both. It is important for each faction or group to have their own space where they can share their experiences with other like-minded people who may share similar experiences. It helps make them feel safer and less isolated. There also have to be spaces where everyone can come together to share and celebrate their unique experiences. When we take the time and attention required to create and respect the need for both spaces, we create a safe environment that can support productive discussions that can move us towards equality.

Lithium: What are your thoughts on certain people saying that highlighting intersectionality and celebrating unique identities singles out white cis straight men and creates more division than unity?
Chloe: I don’t agree. I think it is important to celebrate who you are and to be proud of it. Just because you acknowledge that someone is different than you, does not mean it is a bad thing. It’s the same thing as people who say they’re “color blind." What’s the point of that? If everyone was the same, the world would be pretty boring.


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Name: Portia Hubregsen
Age: 16
Identities: South Korean, Asian, Asian-American, Asian-American adoptee, bisexual, person of color

Lithium: Is it important to you to celebrate all your identities individually or do you feel torn between them? Do you think some are more important to you than others?
Portia: For me personally, it is imperative to celebrate all my identities but I do have trouble celebrating them individually as opposed to together. At times, I feel conflicted between my different identities such as being Asian/Asian-American and also on the spectrum; I feel like if I don’t honor one aspect of my identity, I am being dishonest or disrespectful to myself in some way. I think that all of my identities are equally as important and dear to me. However, there are definitely some parts of my identity that I tend to more openly display. Whether or not that is something I do consciously is up for debate.

Lithium: Do you occasionally feel strange or uncomfortable in certain spaces or discussions, or torn between two parts of your identity?
Portia: Definitely! It really depends on the environment that’s created or the audience that’s there, but I can recall several instances of this type of thing happening. In front of my classmates at school, I feel very self-conscious about being outspoken about my adoption, Korean heritage, and sexuality. It’s not like I have shame about any of my identities, but something about being put on [the] spot like that in front of my peers is incredibly intimidating and scary for me. When we discuss issues about sexuality or race, specifically ones that explicitly mention Asian people, I feel slightly uncomfortable. I think it is mostly out of fear [about] how other people will react to the issues being discussed. I have often been told that I am not allowed to talk about racial inequality because I’m not black or because I’m “only Asian," or that I’m not “really” a person of color because I am not black. I’ve also been told it’s offensive to black people for me to identify as a woman of color and that I don’t belong in that category at all.  In discussions about race and people of color, I find it difficult to figure out when and where I enter in the conversation because I do not want to overstep my boundaries. I want to be a supportive ally to other people of color without seeming like I’m overshadowing their voices or taking away from their own individual narratives.

Lithium: Do you feel that it’s important to create different spaces for every different identity and intersection, or should we work towards making general conversations more comfortable for everyone?
Portia: I think it is crucial to create spaces for all different identities and intersections. I think it is hard to create general conversations that are more comfortable for everyone without also simultaneously having conversations and safe spaces for those [of] all different types of identities. The trouble is that we want to make sure everyone feels like they are welcome and has a voice but I feel like that would be hard if we opened the conservation to everyone. With so many people involved in a general conversation, there is room for voices to be heard over others, which is okay, but some people with different identities may already feel silenced and that makes it that much harder. I think intersectionality should be addressed in more everyday conversations, but we should also be sure to have separate conversations that discuss these issues to help everyone feel more comfortable.

Lithium: What are your thoughts on certain people saying that highlighting intersectionality and celebrating unique identities singles out white cis straight men and creates more division than unity?
Portia: Honestly, I think that people with those mindsets are frustrating. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a white cis straight man, but with that particular identity comes ultimate privilege and they have to recognize that. I won’t invalidate those people’s views because they are entitled to their own opinions and I respect that. However, I think they are missing the point. Highlighting and celebrating diversity and intersectionality is not about creating division; it’s about uniting groups of minorities to create a sense of belonging and community. It’s about creating equality. If we were already at a point in our society [in which] we had achieved racial and social equality, then I could better understand this point of view. Often, I think people like that equate social justice movements or intersectionality with anti-white attitudes and sentiments but that is inherently false. Intersectionality acknowledges the existence of these often oppressed groups of people and fights for their voices to be heard just as much as the mainstream groups that straight white cis men fall under. It should also be noted that racial pride does not equate to being anti-white either. Just as we have celebrated the ideals of the cis white straight men for the past centuries, we should do the same for those with unique identities.

By Isha Chirimar

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