How do you know who you are?
Is it the food you eat? The languages you speak? The clothes you wear? Where you were born? The years you’ve lived in a country? The god you worship (if you worship)? The way you pray (if you pray)? The color of your skin? The texture of your hair? How much money you make? Where your home is (if you know where home is)? Who your parents are? Who you love?
Some of us feel the identities in flux and stirring within us long before we have a name for them, but when you don’t have a name for yourself the world provides you with plenty that shape the course of your self-discovery. Our identities have come to be classified by the following terms: race, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, age, sexual orientation and others that include physical/mental disabilities and illness.
My Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an American civil rights advocate, coined the term intersectionality to describe the intersection of various identities in order to make our socio-political movements reflect those intersections. Crenshaw says that, “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices.” By mapping the avenues that discrimination may travel down for people with hybrid identities, we can better understand and recognize the way “intragroup differences” affect the lived experiences of certain groups. The intersection of social identities contributes to differences within groups that if ignored, contribute also to systems of oppression that exists to exclude, marginalize, and disenfranchise groups.
In other words, in order to aid the movement toward racial, social, and economic equality, Crenshaw emphasizes the importance in understanding that our battles as women and our battles as all other things we identify with are not polar positions or mutually exclusive. So much suffering and violence is experienced at the nexus of our identities. They should exist in our fight the way they exist within us, not with an “or” but with an “and” because as a woman of color and even more as a woman of color belonging to the LGBTQ community, when women of color or a certain religious affiliation are marginalized by every aspect of their identity, choosing one fight is futile.
Discrimination faced by a white woman in America is incomparable to the experiences of a Lesbian Black woman, or a Muslim immigrant woman. It is however important to note that Crenshaw intention was to make the black female community the starting point from which intersectionality would branch, because as Malcolm X so eloquently put in a speech delivered on May 5, 1962 at the funeral service of Ronald Stokes (a black man killed by the LAPD), “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman.”
Some of us try to make sense of all the disorder, the pieces that seem as though they will never fit together until we find that they are not puzzle pieces at all. We are a mosaic of identities, works of art, the tools and materials of which are given to us in small shards, fragmented mix match piles that we piece together in no precise or informed way.
It’s crucial to understand that every socio-political movement addressing certain groups be they by race, sex, or ethnicity, extend their discourse and fight to be inclusive of the LGBTQ members of their groups. To be inclusive is a revolution in itself. Baldwin says these ideas join, “The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined, you know. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.”
We would like to think that our generation is a forward thinking generation, one that fosters a space in which we can learn and educate one another as to what our identities are in a open and positive tone. We still have a long way to go. Though there is some truth to our progressiveness, people still trying to lead their lives that give a subtlety to their identities, and thereby their existence so as not to offend, is an indication that there is more work to be done.
How do you identify yourself? For a moment have you ever thought you were from everywhere at once? Have you thought you were from nowhere? Have you thought you were everyone and then no one? For a multitude of reasons, people belonging to multiple identities often have a difficult time identifying with either identity. Earl Sweatshirt rapped the plight of many, “Too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks.” Or, if you’re a black lesbian, you’re not woman enough, lesbian enough, or not conforming to cultural norms that make you a woman in the black community, or many other communities for that matter. People at the intersection of identities often experience feelings of being cheated, invisible, neglected, alienated, unsafe, dehumanized, and alone.
How do you identify yourself? For a moment have you ever thought you were from everywhere at once? Have you thought you were from nowhere? Have you thought you were everyone and then no one?
What does it mean to be a young black woman in America? As a woman of color in the world, we bear our identities in mind whether they be that we are women who identify with the LGBTQ community, Black, Muslim, Hispanic Asian etc., or any form of hybridity as used in discourses about race, religion, sex, ethnicity, etc.
When you choose to be yourself, not to mask it, not to veil the person you are to comfort those around you, because the alternative would have been worse, that being throwing away the most indispensible parts of yourself; That is where change begins. But first, in order to have this insight and acceptance (as opposed to a mere tolerance) of counterparts everyone must gives themselves the inclination to want to understand and to empathize with their differences inside and outside of their identifying groups.
There is a lot of distancing language on behalf of many women in the black community; this includes members of the LGBTQ community when it comes to identifying with their blackness. It may have been a result of often being the only black girl in the room, or being rejected by their black counterparts. On one hand, we may consider this a rejection or a denial of ones own identity in order to close the gap of proximity between their rejected identity an the socially accepted identity often being equated to whiteness. Searching for the validity of our identity. If we become the exception to the stereotypes prescribed to that with which we identify, if we are accepted despite our race, class, gender or sexual orientation than there is hope for us yet. For many, that may mean that denial of pieces of themselves to fit in. Straighten your hair, act less like your identifying culture, pretend, and quietly take the discrimination and the obstacles that come in stride. These changes however are not always made for validation of oneself but as a coping mechanism, a way to navigate potentially oppressive and discriminatory spaces. Those spaces are not even always created by the people you expect it from, like white people or corporate America. Sometimes, our family members and friends create the spaces I am referring to.
What social pressures foster unhealthy ideas and relationships with ones own identity?
When is it convenient to identify with one self or the other, both, or neither?
_____________ and _____________
_____________ or _____________
_____________ / _____________
Thando: I’ve felt in the past that I have to tone my blackness down. I had an interview and I wasn’t sure whether I should wear my hair out or slick it back. I can’t hide my womanhood, but I can at least try to make myself as “non-ethnic” as possible.”
Shanelle: “I couldn’t be black AND gay. Black people aren’t aware that they traumatize young gay people. I can’t help that I like women. Maybe, I can help how black I act. So I was no longer black. I had to remind people I’m half white, or that I got Caribbean in my family, anything to neutralize the blackness. That changed though, when I fully came out, I was more myself and I started to see people like me. But here again, within this gay black community, I’m not masculine enough. My jeans are too tight. My hair is too long… I just deserve the chance to blend these bubbles I exist in.”
James Bladwin explains, “A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, minced and marked because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual questions comes after the question of color; it’s simple one more aspect of the danger which all black people live… The gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”
I’ve only just begun to identify myself as an Afro-Dominican-American woman. The insertion of the prefix “afro-“ is pivotal in the development of my identity, because for a long time blackness in the Dominican community made me repress parts of myself. I avoided the sun so I wouldn’t get darker. I tried to cover my hyperpigmentation with layers of makeup. My curly hair had to be regularly straightened or brushed and pulled back so tight into pigtails, there was no trace of a curl pattern.
The American was also invited to the identity party very late on, in fact very recently. When people asked me what I was, I simply said Dominican. I was who my parents were. I was born in America but the Dominican pride that swelled my parents’ chests informed my sense of self. I didn’t want to be American. I didn’t even know what it meant to be American but I knew I didn’t want to be it. As I grew older, American meant someone else has dibs on life before me. I didn’t want to identify with a culture that made me an afterthought. I came to terms with being American when I knew I had to change what it meant to be American. Now, my words they don’t just speak for the woman in me, the Afro-Dominican in me, the blackness of a friend, the womanhood of a friend, or the sexual orientation of a friend, or the religion of another friend. The cards keep getting dealt and the dealer keeps giving someone else the upper hand, do you play the game and hope for the best, do you fold and walk away from the table, or do you change the game? I’m going to change the game, fight for every dimension of the women I love to love.
Intersectionality is about encapsulating more, understanding more, to fight discrimination from another more empathetic and informed position. President Barack Obama declared gays and African-Americans comrades in arms, in their parallel fight for equality. Members of the lgbtq community should not have heir entire lives reduced to their sex lives or their coming out story, they are human beings with lives and experiences that just like their identities, intersect with our lives. Human beings who we should not be tolerant of, but accepting of as cohabitants of this earth.