Operationalizing the Theory of Intersectionality

The topic for Class Two was the theory of intersectionality and its use or misuse in today’s social movements.  We discussed the difference between intersectional identities — which we all have — and the theory of intersectionality — which is about how those identities intersect with access to power.

We got there by dipping into the narrative theory tool bucket and mapping characters and traits. Who are the characters — human or otherwise — in, for example, Kimberle Crenshaw’s 2015 article on intersectionality (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/?utm_term=.35da2051a240) and Representative Jayapal’s recent video on the same thing (https://www.facebook.com/NowThisPolitics/videos/1613908225307328/)? What traits do those characters have? Is access to power a trait? Or is Power itself a character? My students understood quickly that power and its operation was the main point of the theory of intersectionality, but wondered how the theory works in practice.

Let’s consider the Jewish lesbians who were expelled from the Chicago Dyke March in June because they were carrying “Jewish pride flags:” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/opinion/im-glad-the-dyke-march-banned-jewish-stars.html?mcubz=0&_r=0.  The organizers’ argument for removing the three women was that the flags they carried called to mind the flag of Israel, which could cause discomfort or even trauma to Palestinian or other marchers opposed to Zionism.

Columnist Bari Weiss argued in the New York Times that there is no more “crisp[] expression of the consequences of ‘intersectionality’ than a ban on Jewish lesbians from a Dyke March.” She goes on to suggest that “intersectionality” leads to a caste system of victims, or what my students called the “oppression Olympics.”

To get underneath that critique, I pulled out another tool of critical resistance: asking “what if.” Although we know quite a bit about the three women who were expelled from the Dyke March, we know very little about who — if anyone — the March organizers were trying to protect.

What if, I asked my students, the person who raised the issue to the organizers was a Palestinian lesbian who had fled to Chicago from Israel, having been displaced by the building of illegal Jewish settlements?  How does that affect the character mapping? What role does power play now in our list of characters and traits? To which one of my students responded, “you had to make it hard, didn’t you?”

It is hard.  So let’s keep asking those “what if” questions.  What if instead of a “Jewish pride flag,” lesbians from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee carried their state flags, to show their pride at being both lesbians and Southerners?

In case you don’t have the flags of the 50 states memorized, here are those flags:

 Alabama  Arkansas  Florida Georgia  Mississippi  N. Carolina Tennessee

And in case you don’t have the flags of the Confederacy memorized:

Should the organizers of the Chicago Dyke March expel lesbian marchers carrying any of these flags? What if the organizers of the March were white, but many of the marchers were African American? What if the organizers of the March were African American? What if the Southern lesbians were themselves African American? Now, what if the march in question were not one for lesbian rights and visibility, but for Black Lives Matter? How do these “what ifs” affect your answer to the question of whether the march organizers should expel marchers carrying one of those flags?

Get out your narrative elements and critical thinking cheat sheets, folks.  This stuff is hard.  And fundamentally, most importantly, contextual.  Who are the marchers? Who are the organizers? What is the event? Where is it happening? When is it happening? Why is it happening? How has it come about? And then go deeper — who are the characters? What are their traits? What is the nature of the event? Its setting? Etc.

Only by digging in to the context and narrative realities of a situation can we understand that situation well enough to begin to explore the true nature of whatever intersectional conflicts might arise.

What does all that mean in practice? We have all been to marches, and will no doubt be again — maybe even today!  What would you do if you saw flags or signs that gave you pause? As an organizer? As a fellow marcher? What if you yourself were confronted by someone who had concerns about a flag or sign you were carrying?

And let’s not kid ourselves into thinking any of this is about flags and signs.  Someone at your office, place of worship, school, neighborhood, bus stop, local watering hole, birthday party, uses a word or makes a remark that might be seen as potentially oppressive to someone else.  What do you do? What if you are the person potentially oppressed? Or the potential oppressor?

As a tool of critical resistance, the theory of intersectionality depends on our ability to engage in humble self-reflection about the intersections between our own multiple identities and those of the people and situations around us.  Only then can we assess our role in resisting, mitigating and avoiding — or perpetuating — inter- and intra-identity conflict.

Because like it or not, our liberation IS all bound up together.  Injustice for one IS injustice for all.  We may not know what to do on the ground, and we certainly do not have all the answers.  But friends, we know how to ask questions.  And if we don’t want to devolve into simply ranking each other for entry into the Oppression Olympics, ask we must, with humility and self-awareness.  Even if the answers we get are complicated, or not be the ones we want or anticipated. Even then — especially then — we have to keep asking.

Tools for Critical Lawyering

First class was yesterday.  (If you’re just joining us, catch up by reading my last post here:  http://profgrose.com/critical-lawyering-in-todays-world/.) I called it the “tools” class.  We explored and played with three of my favorite tools — narrative theory, critical reflection, and cross-cultural competence.  My theory is that if we critical lawyers, resisters, citizens use the tools offered by narrative theory, critical reflection and cross-cultural competence, we do a much more authentic and effective job of deconstructing and reconstructing the institutions and people we are critiquing.  Sounds pretty heavy, huh? The secret is:  it’s not.

For our purposes, let’s say narrative theory means breaking a situation or event down into its narrative elements.  As described in the assigned reading (this awesome new book by me and Margaret Johnson from the University of Baltimore School of Law. http://www.cap-press.com/books/isbn/9781531003845/Lawyers-Clients-and-Narrative), those elements are:  Character (including traits); Events (including timeline and setting); Causation (cause & effect); Normalization (gap-filling); Masterplot (stock story or stereotype); and Closure (disruption & resolution).

And for our purposes, let’s say that critical reflection means the process of asking questions.  My students found this “cheat sheet” really helpful: https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/critical-thinking-skills-cheatsheet-infographic

And finally, cross-cultural competence comprises a whole field of theories and tools, but again, for our purposes, the theory of cross-cultural competence requires each of us to identify, consider and recognize our own cultural identity; and to do the same for others’ cultural identities.  Coupled with narrative theory and critical reflection, consideration of culture as an important identifier can result in richer and more effective communication and relationship building. In addition to that awesome book described in the previous paragraph, consider the exercises and tools developed by Sue Bryant and Jean Koh Peters, and described here:  http://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1257&context=cl_pubs

So those are the tools.  What did we do with them in class, and how will we use them going forward?

After introductions and development of discussion ground rules (both of which deserve blog posts in and of themselves, but that will have to be for another day), we jumped right in to trying our hand at using the narrative elements to listen to and deconstruct a clip from “74 Seconds.” https://www.mprnews.org/topic/philandocastile.

Each student took one of the elements  — Character, Events, Causation, Normalization, Masterplot, Closure — and listened to “Coming Soon” with that element in mind. http://one.npr.org/?sharedMediaId=528753593:528753595. We then reported back — what Characters were mentioned? What events? What cause and effect? Did the running of the plates cause the traffic stop? What Normalization? What kind of gap-filling do we have to do? There must have been something to make the officer pull him over? What Masterplots or tropes — small town disrupted, black man v. cop, viral video leads to revolution. What Closure is suggested — the end of the 74 seconds? The indictment of the officer? The trial?

Try this yourself– it’s a four minute clip.  You will be amazed at how much more you learn from those four minutes — about the choices the storytellers (reporters, producers, editors) made; about your own perspective/biases; about the various currents running through the narrative.  And this is just the teaser for the actual narrative or narratives that are “coming soon!” Imagine how powerful this tool can be if we apply it to the events and narratives all around us.

Moving from the narrative elements of the “74 Seconds” clip, we turned our focus back onto ourselves by practicing Habit One of Bryant and Peters’ “Five Habits of Cross-Cultural Competency:”  making a list of similarities and differences.  I paired the students up and had each team write such a list, directing them to try to make the two lists roughly the same length — to look for more similarities if that list is shorter; and more differences if that list is shorter.  Each team struggled in different ways:  one team found it challenging to come up with similarities; another to come up with differences.  Some teams identified the similarity/difference of race, gender, sexuality, religion right up front; others did not.  We agreed that a whole class could be spent on just the question of how each team decided (unconsciously? consciously?) what traits to include and what traits to ignore or leave out.

I had a whole additional hour of material planned, but time was up.  We — seven quite similar and quite different people in St. Paul, Minnesota — have embarked on this project together.  Yesterday, we all committed to that. Next week, we take another step together by exploring the critical theory of Intersectionality, using the tools from yesterday, and maybe some new ones.  I told my students at the end of class that I don’t have anything in particular planned for class yet, so please feel free to send me suggestions.  That goes for all of you too.

I know that whatever I do prepare will teach me more than I know now; and that whatever we do in class will teach me even more.  This project is not about deconstructing one theory and then moving on to the next; it’s about identifying and learning to use tools that will allow my students and me to dig even deeper into what it means to be a socially responsible, critical thinking, authentic member of this society.  So whatever we do, it will be challenging and intense and exhilarating.

Critical Lawyering in Today’s World

My pledge on July 4th was, in addition to continuing to pay attention and “seek accountability from those who have attacked and undermined our democracy,” to “work to shore up systems – and create new ones – that protect and empower our Democratic ideals; not only to protect against further erosion, but also to work, always, toward a more perfect union.” http://profgrose.com/this-fourth-of-july/.  So that’s what I have spent the last month trying to do.

In particular, I have designed and am preparing to teach a law school seminar called Critical Lawyering in Today’s World.  As the syllabus describes:  “Students will read and discuss a cross-section of writing on narrative theory, intersectionality, critical race theory, gender theory and critical lawyering theory. The principal focus of the class will be to determine how these theories bear on the real-world work of lawyering in today’s world.”

In other words, the course is my way of trying to figure out — with my students and for myself — what we need as critical lawyers to do our job in these times.  And, even more broadly, what we all need, as critical resisters and guardians of democracy, to do our jobs in these times.

I hope we will discover some answers together over the next few months.  I will post every week about the assignment and materials covered for each class, as well as the discussions we have in the classroom.  I know some of my students subscribe to this blog (thank you!), and hope that they will feel empowered to contribute to the conversation publicly, if they are so moved.  And I invite all of my blog readers and muses to jump right in as well.  If you want to follow along, here is the syllabus: Grose Syllabus FA17

The course will, in part, revolve around a podcast, called “74 Seconds,” produced by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), that reports on and analyzes the events surrounding the police shooting of Philando Castile in July, 2016.  You can subscribe to the podcast here.  https://www.mprnews.org/topic/philandocastile.

In next week’s inaugural class, we start with my two favorite tools of effective critical lawyering (and resisting):  narrative theory and critical reflection.  We will develop discussion guidelines and ground rules, because any good consideration of critical lawyering must be based on a foundation of trust and respect.  And then we will jump right in.  Hope you’ll join us.