Recently I have learned a new word: intersectionality. The first time I heard it I thought, “Huh?” It came in the context of discussions about the United Methodist Church’s debate around openness to the LGBTQ community and it was like a foreign word to me. I gradually came to understand that stating that a church welcomes gays and lesbians also means it affirms people of other races or types, though the word itself still didn’t quite click in my head.
Come January, the Sunday night racism study group will be discussing a book called So You Want to Talk About Race. As I have read the book in preparation for that class, I came across a definition which helps: “Intersectionality, the belief that our social justice movements must consider all of the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective.”
Sometimes intersections are busy, crowded, and confusing. Imagine this intersection of Mill Plain Blvd. and 164th. As these two major streets come together, there are four or even five lanes of traffic on each street so that the corner where they meet has twelve plus places for cars to be and ways they can turn or move through the intersection, going four possible directions. Some intersections are quiet and clear, like the intersection of two country roads where there is little traffic.
Like the intersection of Mill Plain and 164th, each of us brings to any encounter with another person a wide variety of things: our racial make-up, our ethnic and cultural back ground, our socioeconomic status, our gender, our sexual identity and so much more. I am a white female whose understanding of my sexuality has always matched the body I was born with. I was born into a middle-class family who never lacked for food or shelter. All of those things make me who I am in such a way that I don’t even think about them consciously. They are like the country roads. Except when I meet someone else who has even one difference from me, suddenly the intersection gets a bit more confusing. If I meet a white, middle-class person who grew up in the US like me, whose understanding of sexuality matches their body, and who is attracted to people of the opposite gender, it is like adding another lane to the roads. Add in someone who grew up in poverty, or someone from a different race, and suddenly it gets a lot more complicated.
Quiet country roads can be peaceful and comfortable. Not much happens. Busy intersections are much more complicated. They also bring interesting and even enriching possibilities: a restaurant, a store where I can buy something I need, people to watch, a church to attend just a few blocks away. With all those cars and the multiple things they might do, there is always the possibility of a crash, or the chance that I will meet someone I might really enjoy standing on the corner.
When we think about social justice, we need to remember we are at a complicated and busy intersection, like Mill Plain and 164th and not at the country crossing. A lot of us remember the country crossing nostalgically: life was much simpler then! Or so it seemed at the time, though it may have been that some people at the crossing still got stuck in the mud, or attacked by a vicious dog. It’s just that few people noticed at the time. And that is not the world we live in. We live at the busy corner. We need to learn about intersectionality. That starts with recognizing the things about myself that I take for granted, and then it moves on to opening my eyes to the needs of all those people who are at the intersection with me. In order to be just and effective, I can’t just work on justice for one group (say poor people), I have to also recognize that race, gender, and culture all come together and I won’t ever bring lasting change to our world until I address all of those issues. Yes, it is complicated and confusing. It is also rich and promising.