What is Intersectionality?

This is one of these new terms I had known about, but couldn’t refer to it by a name until recently.

So here is my definition: Intersectionality is the belief that one person can have many different identities that don’t exist separately and have an effect on how that person is viewed in society. This theory was first developed by race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Identities could include, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, class, nationality, sexual orientation, and disability.

For example, I am a middle-class, first-generation Jamaican-American, college-educated, black female. All of these identities have an effect on how society views me, for both good and bad. I am using my friend, Janine, who is a working-class, fourth-generation Irish-American, white female with a GED and uses a wheelchair. We both face discrimination for being female; however, because I am also black, I face both racial and gender bias. I am an entrepreneur and live in a house and can afford a better standard of life compared Janine who lives paycheck to paycheck at her office manager job. While being a white female in America still hold high privilege, Janine faces discrimination for her disability.

Believe it or not, Sojourner Truth was the first advocate who articulated intersectionality the best during the 1851 Women’s Convention in Ohio:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

Sojourner Truth was the truth!

This is a very complex discussion. So here is a video of Crenshaw discussing intersectionality.

Why More Books by Authors of Color Are Needed

We Need Diverse BooksRecently, the Duluth, MN public school system decided to drop two American classicsTo Kill a Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – from its required reading list because of their liberal uses of the n-word.

I agree with the books getting dropped, but not for the same reasons.  Quite honestly, there are many classic books by black authors that also drop the n-word a lot, like Invisible Man, Native Son, and Their Eyes Were Watching God and many others.  The two books in question written by Harper Lee and Mark Twain shouldn’t be removed because of the racial slur, but because they are outdated with problematic themes written from a white perspective.

When To Kill a Mocking Bird was published in 1960, it was groundbreaking because it was really the first book to address racism from a white liberal perspective. It became a symbol for white people who didn’t want to be lumped in with the KKK, Nazis and other white racists of the day. TKMB was like an earlier version of the #MeToo movement for white liberals.  However, the book did jumpstart the white savior complex genre, which is when a book or film that is supposedly about racism really centers around a good-hearted white protagonist and the issues of people of color are an afterthought.  The book should really be about Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, but it is entirely focused on the feelings of Atticus Finch, the good white liberal who has to save helpless black people from themselves.  We never know if Finch uses his white privilege to challenge the racist status quo beyond defending Robinson, but apparently, he turned out to be a racist in Go Set A Watchman.  You can read more about white savior complex here.

As for Huckleberry Finn, while Twain was a brilliant social commentator, the portrayal of Jim and Tom are problematic and just downright offensive near the end of the book.  If anything, the book reinforces some of the racist stereotypes of black people during the late 19th century.

Because these two books are still considered great American classics, they are still viewed as the best books for discussing race in the classroom.  But in reality, they are not.  It is hard to have meaningful discussions about race with these books in a classroom in 2018.  I remember reading both of these books when I was high school 25 years ago, and my well-intentioned, white liberal teacher found it difficult to really have a thoughtful conversation about it because she didn’t want to talk about slavery or black men accused of raping white women.

The solution to this is not just hiring more teachers and administrators of color (which is a whole other conversation), but to also include more books written by authors of color in the curriculum.  As the country becomes more multicultural, in order to truly address the racial realities in America, students need to read more books from the perspective of people of color.  There are statistics to back up this problem.  According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of 3,500 children’s books in schools surveyed in 2014, only 180 were about black people.  The numbers are even worse for books about Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.  In 2016, out of 3,400 required reading books from around the country, only 441 of them were written by authors of color (This number is black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American writers combined).  And this is in a country that will be minority-majority in 2050!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my friend, Reginald, who is a gay, black man who works in a publishing firm that puts out young adult books.  He had an even more radical take on diverse reading than even I was thinking: “Schools should put a moratorium by dead, straight, white guys, at least at the high school level.  High school is a great time to expose students to diverse ideas and views since teenagers are beginning to develop their own identities and perspectives.”

As for his own reading habits:  “I don’t read books by white guys anymore. Those books don’t reflect my life, my color, my culture, my masculinity or my sexuality.”

It would be great if school districts included Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give as required reading, but that is me thinking out loud. Again, I am not for removing or banning all books from a white perspective, but it is time to include more books from diverse perspectives.

Re-Read Book Club: Invisible Man

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I like re-reading certain books, usually masterpieces, because I get a different perspective as I age and gain more life experience.  I have read Invisible Man at least five times, and I learn something new about it and myself in every re-read.

When I re-read it again last month, I began to think about my own invisibility.  In the book the narrator is recruited by the Brotherhood, an activist group mostly run by white people that recruits him to give speeches and become the next Booker T. Washington.  It was clear that the narrator was being used by this organization and he was expected to not have his own opinions because they knew what was best.  This reminds me of my own time working for a particular organization I worked for and felt invisible.

Similar to the Brotherhood, the organization I worked for was run by white people but most of the underlings were people of color like myself.  Even though the organization mostly worked on issues that directly impacted people of color, the white leadership thought they knew better than their black, brown and Asian co-workers because of “their history in progressive politics.”  Most of the white folks in this organization were 1960s hippies who were involved in the civil right movement.

Needless to say, I didn’t work there for very long…

They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their own voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves and I’d help them. I laughed. Here I had thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see either color or men . . . For all they were concerned, we were so many names scribbled on fake ballots, to be used at their convenience and when not needed to be filed away. It was a joke, an absurd joke. 

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Ralph Ellison was a genius and you can listen to more of his thought process on invisibility: