For those who are not familiar with the terminology, intersectionality is when different forms of diversity intersect, often resulting in forms of oppression that build on each other and are greater than merely the addition of the oppression generated by the different categories. So, for example, an African-American lesbian has intersectionality with race, gender and sexual orientation that cannot be fully understood from just adding up the oppression for each category or addressing one at a time.
As a culture right now, we are struggling with trying to figure out how to deal with challenges that arise from having diversity and trying to also have some form of unity. Clearly the tremendous problem with state violence against minorities, in particular African-Americans, is especially pressing and has people on edge...where frankly we all should be, given the severity of this crisis. I would rather be deeply upset and struggling with white privilege than blind to these atrocities.
However, I don't think there are good roadmaps about how to really address these issues, so it is a struggle...one of the most important (along with things like how the hell to address climate change and wealth disparity) but it is difficult to know how to proceed, even if you do have a good heart. One of the problems that I have is that although I attend numerous diversity-oriented trainings in the hopes of getting some better tools to help me move forward as a conscious ally, I almost always find them singularly unhelpful. Usually the reason why is that they tend to do one of two things. First, the examples are so egregious...Donald Trump style comments...that it is highly unlikely anyone who is at the diversity training of their own free will is going to fall into that category. The other pitfall is that everything is *too* theoretical. I know the theory. I get the theory from reading. The question is how to use the theory in circumstances that are real.
So, I am going to offer a real experience in which intersectionality became real to me and I had a real understanding of some of my own challenges. As I have said on numerous occasions, part of the difficulty with life in general that tends to get highlighted in diversity issues is that we are all walking around "in media res." We are all in the middle of our biographies and react and see things through lenses that come from prior experiences...and those experience are generally invisible to everyone else.
About a year ago, so not long after the slaying of Michael Brown, my sister and I were riding with a friend through our neighborhood. There was a loud altercation on the sidewalk outside of the Safeway. At the center was an African-American woman and a Hispanic man who was holding onto her and she was struggling to get away. She was screaming "Get your hands off me, stop touching me, I don't want you to touch me" and similar. This was REALLY upsetting to me. I saw a police officer who was probably already headed there, but I told him that he needed to go break it up. Right after I did that, I looked over to my right and another African-American woman in the next car was looking at me with horror written all over her face. I was completely taken aback and then I realized that in her eyes I was the bad guy, because she thought I was sicking the cops on a black woman.
Now, it is not that I didn't realize that the woman was black. I am not "colorblind." Of course, I realized she was a black woman. It's just that at that moment, race had exactly no saliency in my mind. Coming from my own biography I was 100% reacting to the fact that there was a woman who was screaming that a man was touching her, that she didn't want him to touch her and that he wasn't stopping. I wanted someone to make him stop. That was literally all I could process in that moment.
So, then I said, "I hope she's okay," because I was still really worried about the woman. At which point my sister said, "what are you talking about?" And when I told her that that man was touching her when she didn't want to be touched, my sister pointed out that he was an employee, he had an apron on and that probably what had happened was she was stealing...all of which, I didn't even notice.
Who knows what was right to do in that circumstance, but it certainly indicated to me that in those kinds of situations, I quickly only focus on gender and that may be the wrong reaction. I can't say that in an adrenaline charged moment, I won't do the exact same thing again...but it was a really good example of three different immediate perceptions of the same incident.