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.