By Elroi J. Windsor
What is intersectionality, and what does it look like in real life?
Sociologist Zakiya Luna explored these questions as they relate to the national coalition, SisterSong. For this collective of reproductive justice advocates, intersectional praxis was more than putting diverse groups of people in rooms together for meetings and events. Luna’s research described activists working in coalitions where “constructing identities and alliances is an iterative, never-ending process.”The participants in this women of color collective had similar experiences based on belonging to marginalized race and gender groups. Yet they also experienced challenges in their work due to intragroup differences based on ethnicity, ability, and citizenship. For SisterSong, the practice of intersectionality in real life is “ongoing” and “multidimensional.” It’s not always easy, and even woke folks have learning to do.
In the last few weeks, I’ve asked students in my Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class questions about intersectional feminist praxis. We’ve been reading Black Girl Dangerous,by black queer writer Mia McKenzie, and thinking about how intersectional politics play out in everyday life. My students and I currently live in North Carolina, a state that has made national news this past year. Our time and place is ripe for some intersectional analysis and praxis.
In February, the city of Charlotte passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that expanded protections to LGBT people. A month later, the state government overturned it, and passed the controversial House Bill 2. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts called HB2 “the most anti-LGBT legislation in the country.”But the so-called “bathroom law” went beyond LGBT issues by prohibiting workers from filing race-, gender-, and religion-based discrimination claims in state courts. HB2 affected multiple groups. Consequently, its passage resulted in countless community protests and public statements of opposition. HB2 was never just a bathroom issue for trans folks; it was connected to systematic oppression, and so was met with resistance from many groups of people. From celebrity entertainers to sports associations, the boycotts of the state of North Carolina keep coming. Last month, Business Insider reported that HB2 has cost the state nearly $400 million in economic losses.
North Carolina has been in the news again more recently, with protests erupting in Charlotte over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man with a disability. The reality of police violence against black and brown people is well documented, and its effects are far-reaching. One research study focused on the emotional labor of black middle- and upper-middle-class mothers. For these women, mothering involved teaching sons how to stay safe when dealing with the police. In her descriptive study, Dawn Marie Dow describes how mothers carefully worked to ensure their sons were not perceived as criminals. These moms contended with the controlling image of the “thug,” teaching their sons strategies to survive gendered racism in everyday life. In Dow’s analysis of intersectional practice, the benefits of class did not mediate against structural racism. These economically advantaged black boys “were not immune to a social system that required them to police their behaviors, emotions, and appearance to signal to others that they were respectable and safe middle-class African American males.”
Back in class, I asked my students what intersectionality looks like in the activism that has been happening in our state this year. A few people noted that the protesters represent people of diverse genders, races, sexual identities, and religions. But beyond embodying differences in the spaces, students struggled to identify how activist strategies framed issues through an intersectional lens.
One student mentioned seeing a photo of a protest where someone wore a shirt that read: “Latinos for Black Lives.” So it seems like someone is connecting the dots across racial lines.
But overall, some people still struggle to see intersectionality in practice, in real life. We need more research like the studies above. And we need better examples of making these connections apparent in our everyday lives and communities.
As Audre Lorde preached in her 1982 address at Harvard University, ‘Learning from the 60s’:
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Elroi J. Windsor is an Assistant Professor who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and teaches about intersectionality in every course. As a sociologist, Windsor studies the body and embodiment, gender, sexualities, and critical medical sociology. Elroi is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.
Photo #1: http://wisdompracitioner.blogspot.com/2015/12/all-oppression-is-connected.html