Intersectionality is a Way of Thinking Bigger

Here’s something we can probably agree on: No one likes to be minimized or reduced.

We understand ourselves as unique, complex individuals with varied perspectives, needs, dilemmas, and pain points. And yet, when it comes to conversations about (and within) society, we often find ourselves reduced down to one or two visible identities.

Take a look at the chart below, and play with various ways in which two identities (race + class/socioeconomic status) might come together to create either more or less power and advantage. Which two factors would you personally combine to create the maximum power/advantage? Which two would you combine to create the least amount of power/advantage?

What happens to those combinations if you add more intersections, like gender, education, [dis]ability, age, or sexual orientation? Can you increase power/advantage? Can you decrease it?

Shoving people into a box that contains only a fragment of who they are is frustrating and painful because it lops off other meaningful parts of who they are, often while reinforcing stereotypes about one or two highlighted identities. In addition, it can create a false sense of polarization, as if every basic identity is a single point on the map, and you are either one thing or the other.

As Maureen Linker notes in her powerful book, Intellectual Empathy:

What is left to be seen is an oversimplified set of either-or categories that is supposed to capture our experiences in opposition, male or female, white or black, straight or gay, Christian or other religion (or none), able or disabled, middle class or poor, educated or uneducated, Republican or Democrat, American or other nationality. This set not only narrows the range of possibilities for describing our experiences but also positions one side of duality against the other.

When we insist that people must be this OR that, and when we don’t leave space for the plethora of all the rest of their humanity (or our own, by the way), we set ourselves up for an interaction that is likely to be fraught with oppositional tendencies and defense mechanisms utilized by both parties. Once I’ve defined your single factor (gender, race, political party, etc) I automatically (consciously or not) understand who and what I am in relation to that. From there, it’s all too easy to take up arms and defend our positions.

You’re a man? I’m a woman.

You’re Black? I’m white.

You’re Muslim? I’m Christian.

You’re this? I’m that.

Let the sparks fly! We’ve been raised to understand so much of social discourse as being combative, usually resulting in winners and losers….and we all want to be winners. In a September 2020 opinion piece on political discourse written for The Shorthorn, Jonathan Demarest notes:

Rarely do we first pause to consider why a person believes something. Instead, we often search for ways to contradict them. Understanding comes second to the ambition of winning a debate. There is no possibility for discussion when it is founded on competition.

It’s much easier to feel that we’ve “won” an argument when we’ve reduced others down to their most basic (usually visible) identity, contrasted ourselves against that in a favorable way, and ignored complexity in favor of stereotypes and easy answers. Often, this also means reducing modern politics, all of history, and the majority of our society down into something less complex and more basic as well.

Rather than delve into the complicated personal intersections, historical frameworks, and social constructs that impact us all, we grasp tightly to a simplicity that lets us be right….regardless of what point we’re attempting to make.

In Intellectual Empathy, Linker goes on to advocate for a process by which you are given “the opportunity to understand how your beliefs about social identities exist not apart from social contexts, but within them.” After all, every single human you’ll ever interact with lives in a specific moment in time, and that moment has been shaped by the history of all that has come before. The amount of power we hold, the norms we live by, the way we understand the world, the confluence of intersectional identities that impact our lives: they’re all shaped by social context.

Why wouldn’t we want to take that into account?

Intersectionality does not make things “easier”, because it refuses to give way to reductionist thought and oversimplified ways of understanding others. In fact, sometimes intersectionality makes things seem sort of…hard. That’s fine — it’s all part of the journey, and it’s not a sign we should run the other way. The scholar and activist who coined the term intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw, says it like this:

The other issue is that intersectionality can get used as a blanket term to mean, “Well, it’s complicated.” Sometimes, “It’s complicated” is an excuse not to do anything.

If things are feeling complicated, stick with it! Keep learning, keep asking questions, and challenge yourself to grow beyond wherever you are right now, in this moment.

I hope to provide thought-provoking resources that will help us understand more about our own personal intersectional identities within the current historical + social context we find ourselves in today.

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Hannah Hassler

Hannah Hassler

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Hannah is a writer, scholar, creative, and course strategist.