When Intersectionality Obscures Difference: Reflecting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”

Black History Month just ended as I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Published in 2015, Coates’ book has thrust me into some disturbing and worthwhile self-reflections on the different and non-unified realities faced by Blacks, people of colour and gender-oppressed groups. This feels especially relevant to examine given the recent fatal attacks and threats targeting Muslims in Québec and Canada, and the predicted upsurge of immigrants escaping unsafe homelands, and now Trump’s America. It strikes me now that the theory of intersectionality as a way to understand our different lived identities has occupied a space within Feminism similar to queerness, where it becomes a catch-all term signifying our shared agreement-to-disagree on the personal level of what identity-specific oppression means, and yet still unify us in this awareness of thematic links. “Yes,” we nod, “our identities and oppressions are all intersectional.”

Globally building and uniting social movements based on thematic oppressions has also worked to strengthen isolated groups and geographies, recognizing the larger picture and the multiple contemporary locations of people fighting the same antiquated ideals of homogeneity and feudalism. But our individual realities still differ hugely from these shared theories and movements.

Coates’ warning letter to his young son centres and continually returns to the experience of his Black male body: starting from childhood; to his youth in the violent streets of Baltimore; to his illuminating self-education about Black enslavement, power and beauty; right up to the current moment of writing his letter. Living in the United States, Coates’ experience of his Black male body is rooted in mortal fear. He describes a youth shaped or stunted by violence, whether at the hands of authorities “who believe they are White”[1], at the hands of other young Blacks seeking control of the streets, or at the hands of family who loved him enough to teach him to fear for his life within the unspoken racial order that keeps his people in line, out of trouble, and makes any of his errors within this order unforgivable or penalized by the removal of his life. He describes his fatherly fear of failing to submit at times, of failing to demonstrate to his son his knowledge and precaution of the unspoken racial order of his country, the natural laws of a land where Blacks have been enslaved longer than they have been free.

“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful — the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements… You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.” [2]

This is an oppressive reality and trauma that I cannot know or remember. I am female, my skin is light brown, colonization erased my Black and Indigenous heritage, and I live in Canada, where the death-penalty was abolished and where the authorities are statistically less murderous than in the U.S. I was lovingly, or violently, taught different fears; I live out different anxieties. And while my life story is born of the African diaspora, I am learning now to recognize that my own locations of trauma and oppression are rooted most strongly in poverty, Whiteness, and predatory sexual assault.

Living in majority-White Canada, I am othered as a woman of colour. 
But I cannot call myself Black: of British and Afro-Caribbean descent, I am ‘only half-Black.’ And I cannot call myself gay: my pansexuality places people before gender, queerness dislocates my own perceived gender at times, and racial power dynamics are never divorced from any of it. Located at neither supposed extreme within the hierarchies of these oppressed groups, I am hushed and hidden instead.

“Brother Prisoner” performance documentation, 2015. Volunteers were invited to unscroll and read texts embodying the hidden experiences of ‘otherness’ and ‘erotic space’. The artist and participants then fed one another cake. More at: http://claudiaedwards.info/brotherprisoner

And this explains why I am never at ease within a roomful of people, unless I already know all of them. Even when I do, I may still not be at ease. Performance is my survival. All of my life I have been obliged to observe, obliged to translate, obliged to perform, or else run the risk of being ignored and misunderstood. Today in this room, I ask myself, am I being misunderstood because I am half-Black, or half-White? Because I am femme, or female? Because I am queer? Or is it because I see through the lens of an artist and writer?

PARALIX lyrics, Slut Island Festival 2016. Artwork by Claudia Edwards, photo by Samantha Garritano. More at: https://paralix.bandcamp.com

I am not Black, but my father is Black, because the first Dutch colonizers brought African slaves to Guyana, so they could have more time to rule.
I am not White, but my mother’s British ancestors overpowered the Dutch to dominate this same Caribbean nation, bringing Indian slaves two centuries later (since Black slavery had been abolished by then), so they could have more time to rule.
I am not Indigenous, because my paternal family tree cannot be traced farther back than my great grandparents.
I am not enslaved, because all traces of my ancestor’s enslavement have been destroyed.
Not being any of these identities, and definitely not being allowed to be them in the presence of those who can authentically prove that they are them, it is a daily wonder to me that I actually exist.

And yet most evidently, in Montréal, Canada, I am still not White. I can speak, dress and play White, but in rooms when ‘the race topic’ is breached, Whites either look to me or look away for guidance while silently emitting anxious pheromones. With jealousy I have observed others with confident outcast personas, but always I recall that the choice to truly ‘not give a fuck’ has never been a safe option for me. Such a choice could render my being invisible, could repeat or trigger past traumas, or could pose physical danger to my small female brown body. I have learned from experience that this risk is real, not imagined: that walking down certain streets alone results in being called at or followed, that wearing certain clothing results in being sexually harassed, that being uncommunicative results in being assaulted or worse, and that being unable to ‘speak White’, Academese, or French results in being silenced, which is as good as approval, and means business as usual.

Coates’ Between the World and Me is tough love, but it is teaching me to own my dis/locations, to own my hybrid experiences of Black-and-Whiteness amidst the continual search for heritage and belonging, to pass on my knowledge and precautions of the orders controlling these dis/locations, and to keep learning about those of others. So that I do not run the risk of superficially absorbing any other body’s trauma. So that if the time comes to write my letter to a child, it will not misdirect them, but will guide them through this life.

[1][2] Coates, Ta-Nehesi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

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