Intersectionality in an Identity-Rich World - Thee Sim Ling
What is intersectionality? It’s the “complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups”, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s the vague word featured in every activist Instagram post. It’s also partially the name of this very literary magazine you’re reading — Intersections. It’s a complicated concept that just can’t be summed up in a simple sentence.
In the world, we all hold many labels and fall into different categories based on who we are. We call these identities, and everyone has multiple. We can split identities into two groups: advantaged or targeted. If you’re in a group that is the majority, such as identifying as male or white, then you enjoy certain privileges that others do not have, as well as consciously or unconsciously perform hurtful actions to those who do not share the same privileges. If you belong in a group that is marginalized, such as identifying as LGBTQ+ or disabled, then you have a high risk of facing discrimination and may even be unable to obtain basic human rights.
Having said this, can we categorise individuals as advantaged or targeted? No. As human beings, we are not just defined by one aspect of ourselves. We hold many different identities that all interact and intersect with each other, influencing how we look at the world. For example, a white man may still face discrimination because he is gay or from a low-income background. Likewise, a rich, straight woman may also face discrmination because of her gender and Asian American ethnicity.
Some self-proclaimed “activists” who focus on one particular cause may end up working against the fight for their cause simply because of the other privileged identities they hold. For example, in the 1800s, white upper-class suffragists may have been pivotal in the fight for American women’s right to vote, but they ultimately only fought for the rights of women like them, instead of every female-identifying individual. Unlike them, there were also many women of colour fighting for universal and inclusive suffrage at the time, but they often are forgotten because their work is deemed “less impactful”.
Intersectionality is the understanding that all oppression is linked. Whether you may be targeted based on your race, gender, sexuality, nationality, indigeneity, religion, socio-economic status or disability, all of these challenges and discrimination influence your outlook on the world. All our experiences of discrmination and oppression are unique. A Black man’s experiences of discrimination will be different from a Black woman’s or Black nonbinary person’s experiences of discrimination, and so on. Without viewing discrimination with intersectionality in mind, the work that we do to dismantle systems of oppression are only going to perpetuate more inequality in society.
How can we apply this knowledge of intersectionality to our daily lives? When reading the news and thinking about the world we live in, we should consider simply looking at it from different perspectives. How would global events such as sexual harassment, police brutality and the Covid-19 pandemic affect people who are different from us in terms of race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, and so on? As writers and artists, we can also apply diversity of perspectives to our work. How often have you seen the tokenistic marginalized character who was only there to tick off boxes? These “tokens” of diversity often only focus on one aspect of targeted identities, when, in reality, there are so many different identities people hold. Thinking up characters with different oppressed identities and showing how they intersect makes for a much more interesting (and creative) narrative.
Linda Sarsour, a political activist who recently took part in the Women of Color Conference 2021 as a keynote speaker, perhaps sums up intersectionality best: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives… If it’s not intersectional, it’s not progressive.”
**Cover photo found on iwda.org (International Women's Development Agency)