What is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality explains how distinctive forms of oppression experienced by certain people are overlap. It is critical to understand gender discrimination through an intersectional lens. Intersectionality moves beyond the exploration of which marginalized group has it worse. It allows people to frame their circumstances and life experiences in order to fight for their visibility and inclusion. For this project, I conducted a series of interviews to explore how an intersectional framework (as illustrated below) could help me better appreciate the experiences and challenges faced by two teachers at my school, both of whom are women of color.
Insight on Intersectionality Theory
In the journal article “Intersectionality: Multiple Inequalities in Social Theory” Sylvia Walby, Jo Armstrong, and Sofia Strid introduced the idea of three different approaches to the study of gender, race, and class: unitary, multiple, and intersectional. Unitary means that one study is more dominant than the others. Multiple describes that the studies have a stable relationship, but on the contrary, intersectional means all the studies matter equally and connect. All three studies are contributors of certain problems people face and the challenges of one, cannot be solved without acknowledging the other tenants or without the context of other categories of identity. Intersectionality theory suggests that oppression does not exist in a vacuum. Oversimplifying how identity is understood runs the risk of devaluing the nature of oppression and its relevance in certain peoples’ lives. This is why I chose to explore how intersectionality theory could be used to better understand my school community.
Personal Narratives & Reflection
With this project, one of my main goals was to interview faculty members who are ethnically diverse. I chose to do so to acknowledge and bring light to the stories of these women, who know better than we do about their realities.
One of these faculty members happened to be an influential character in my life and lives of many students in the Head-Royce Upper School (HRS). As my Sophomore advisor, Asia Club teacher advisor, Junior and Senior English teacher, Margaret Yee shed light on stories about her unique positioning in society that is determined by certain classifiers like race, gender, and ethnicity. She opened up about being a Chinese women in a predominantly white community and the challenges of this reality. While I was previously aware that some white women specifically marginalize women of color and distinct races and fail to give them a proper voice or platform, Mrs. Yee’s intellectual yet personal approach to the topic broadened my horizons. She laid it all out on the line and acknowledged that some women can’t connect the similarities between gender inequality and racial inequality. And that this plays a role in why women find it so hard to come together. In her opinion this will always be a problem. The lack of experience that people face with interlocked oppressions across the borders of race, class, citizenship, identity, and sexuality will always prove to be an obstacle. Mrs. Yee connected these ideas to her own life and the struggles of comparing her privilege to others every day; it is fairly easy to get caught up in the daily ritual of waking up, going to work, and coming home. A momentous portion of the interview that I found was Mrs. Yee’s ability to empathize with other women. She noted that our success in feminist discourse and the American journey as well would simply not be possible without the generations of disabled women, transgender women, women of color, bisexual women, etc. In her eyes, the successive waves of women with interconnecting identities has kept our country in taking the right steps towards progressivism, has enriched our culture, and has enhanced our influence on each other. Below is an audio clip from our interview where Mrs. Yee expands on the ideas presented:
It excites me to say that the AIWA (Asian Immigrant Women Advocates) had been formed in Oakland and San Jose, California. Although this was nearly three decades ago the progress made is a “paradigm shift” from the normal organizations; they go above and beyond giving a voice to the voiceless. Their core value is to allow immigrant women who bring positive change by being proactive and being a driving force in catalyzing change. Intersectionality and the AIWA brings individuals together in particular groups with shared history and shared fates. Their collective political struggles requires that they create coalitions while always remembering that all dimensions of a person’s identity will be encompassed. Organizations like these emphasize the concept of unity but differentiate it from uniformity and the demand that women be identical. I find it to be crucial that more of spaces are created in which women can share the nature of their lives as, workers, mother, immigrants, widows, friends, wives, and etc. Showcased are themes of support, love, acceptance, and the need to always keep the conversation going, all of which I hope to see even more of in my HRS life. Below is another audio click featuring Mrs. Yee:
My next interviewee was a prominent member in the Head-Royce community Luz Diaz, a Spanish III, AP Spanish, and AP Spanish Seminar teacher. Being in a subgroup that is largely underrepresented in many domains of modern life, Mrs. Diaz gave insight on life as a Peruvian immigrant women and her story is incredible. As explained through the interview, Luz shared about issues as a Latin American women are seldom highlighted in the feminist discourse. We bonded over the lack of appreciation of privilege that some HRS members have. I admitted my previous narrow-mindedness and she, her use of intersectionality. Instead of only magnifying her own narratives of oppression, she took a step back to recognize the privileges available to her are the very privileges that aren’t available to others in the Head-Royce community. She discussed her advantages and disadvantages and how they could be applied to different categories of people like: transgender and bisexual women, which is essential to recognize. Furthermore, I was able to empathize and connect with her to address topics like gender identity, class, and race and the bias, oppression, and the systems of power who undermine the voices of minorities. At one specific moment, she talked about fear. We all fear something: the unknown, death, failure, heights, spiders, etc. Mrs. Diaz on one hand finds fear in the possibility of being physically harmed due to her immigrant descent. Specifically, Mrs. Diaz emotionally connected the Women’s March this year to her childhood in a poverty stricken community where the government suppressed the voices of the people by instilling fear through violence. The days leading up to the Women’s March, Mrs. Diaz was prepared to go and advocate, yet the morning she woke up she felt frozen in place and unable to move. Calling her mother in tears, Mrs. Diaz reflected back on the times where the voices of her marginalized people were refused and the fear creeped in that the Women’s March could bring it all back. Speaking up against the government was taboo back then and Mrs. Diaz had a paranoia that the possibility of the police arriving at the march and suppressing women of color, specifically her once again. Below is an audio clip from my interview with Mrs. Diaz:
Zooming Out – Policy Making
Beyond my HRS community, policy scholars and decision makers have yet to recognize the importance of an intersectional perspective and how the next step in making concrete plans of incorporating the theory into into policy development, implementation, and evaluation needs to be made. “The matrix of domination”, a coined term from Olena Hankivsky and Renee Cormier is still well alive and describes the multiple systems of power that oppress people across multiple institutional domains. The “additive approaches” taken so far to reinvigorate intersectionality in policy making have proven to be inadequate. The layers of interrelationships between social inequalities and individual experiences of discrimination are not reached or represented. A result in not appealing to the masses who need reform, are in my eyes detrimental. We are shown examples of this in the “Oppression Olympics”, another coined term from Hankivsky and Cormier, where marginal groups compete with each other for resources and spotlight attention instead of cooperating with one another to work for systemic change. A change in politics needs to be reached, specifically how these problems are defined and how solutions need to be developed and implemented. I want to emphasize that the voices of the vulnerable and marginalized individuals must be represented within the policy-making process, agenda setting, implementation and evaluation stages. There is so much that is under-explored within intersectionality and because there has yet to be any effective methods that capture all tenets of the theory, it is our duty to push for it and educate those who lack a clear definition of intersectional methodology.
Call To Action – How can we help?
Throughout this process I often questioned my helpfulness and if my small project was possible to catalyze change. But this catalyst project has ultimately taught me that action is the only way we can affect change. I sincerely hope that my findings have given you insight on how to be more aware and knowledgeable about how oppression operates and how to be an ally. I leave you with these notes to remember and the hope that you want to fight for the equality of the marginalized groups around you:
- Continue to understand your privilege and the experiences in life that others may not have due to their color of skin, self-expression, race, disability, ethnicity, etc. True awareness comes in the form of self-examination and realizing how different or similar we are to the people around us. Here is an example: a white woman might take her everyday experiences of sexism and apply it in becoming an ally to women of color.
- We are in the 21st century with a plethora of resources. Use the internet, read blogs, watch videos, read tweets, and talk to people to stay updated and notified about policy making what happens in the communities you can reach out to.
- Use your voice, but be mindful how loud it is. Speak up, but never over someone. Say less, listen more. Those are all the same things said differently, so I hope my message is clear. Never believe that you can speak of the behalf of the less privileged.
- Be open to being uncomfortable. Simple as that. You may feel like the odd one out, but that is the point – to place yourself in somebody else’s position.
- Lastly, be active! “Allyship” is not a self-proclaimed title. Ally is a verb and not a noun; you have to do the work and the work must be done constantly. Work to dismantle those oppressive systems, work to help others, work to do what is right. It takes commitment and initiative, especially in making connections with those you want to help. Don’t play a role in dismantling the meaning of intersectionality and flattening it down to a label.
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