When Intersectionality Becomes Paralyzing
Intersectionality is the concept that we have many different aspects to our identity that intersect. For most people, some of those elements are societally-dominant (white, male, wealthy, straight, etc.) and some are societally-oppressed (black, female, gay, poor, etc.). I know I’m in the dominant group in almost every category imaginable. I do have narcolepsy, which can lead to some problems when others don’t understand why I don’t have the energy to do something, or why I really hated losing an hour to Daylight Savings Time because it was a struggle to keep my muscles awake the next couple of days. But even that is an invisible condition, so I can sometimes hide it at least for a bit, unlike many other disabilities. I’m also not wealthy, but I’m not poor either – pretty firmly in the middle class Canadian income range. Beyond that, I’m a white, straight, married, cis male. I find the concept of intersectionality valuable for remembering these things and making a point of hearing voices different – particularly those less-privileged – than my own.
Where I start to find intersectionality exhausting and sometimes even paralyzing is when we spend so much time making sure every justice initiative services every oppressed group that we are never able to do that justice initiative.
A recent example of this is #TheDress campaign from Salvation Army. For those who weren’t on the Internet that day, there was a meme of a dress that some people were absolutely convinced was white and gold and others were absolutely convinced it was black and blue. By the way, it’s actually black and blue but there are some interesting factors at play that make it common to not see the blue wavelengths. It’s also a great demonstration of soft postmodernism, but that’s another discussion.
Salvation Army released this ad very soon after:
Tasteless to capitalize on a meme? Maybe, but I thought it demonstrated the point very well. They also did the lighting perfectly so you might not even see her bruises at first look.
Some have criticized it for a different reason, though: having visible bruises is only possible when you’re white. Seeing black and blue of bruises isn’t really an option if you’re black. Therefore, this ad is racist.
My immediate response when I see criticisms like that is “what can we actually say?” If I worked at the Salvation Army that came out with this ad, I would be so discouraged. I would be hesitant to put out anything else until I had screened it past a few hundred people representing every possible oppressed group. And in this case at least, the ad would have lost its impact because everyone would have forgotten the meme by then. Of course I say this as a white man, but I don’t think this ad is racist – maybe it doesn’t target non-white victims, but I don’t see how it’s hurting them either.
My basic question is this: is it wrong to help one group if you aren’t helping every group at the same time?
Of course I don’t want to accidentally harm one oppressed group as I help another. More than that, I want to help as many as possible. Of course I want to learn from criticisms. But at the end of the day, I also want to be able to do something for people in need without knowing there’s a good chance a significant portion of that work will be dismantled because it wasn’t a big enough target audience.
Another example I saw a little bit of discussion about not too long ago was from an organization that works for gender equality in the church. A few people crossed my Twitter who were seriously mad that they shrugged off questions about LGBTQ persons by saying that it wasn’t their ministry focus. Since I didn’t see their wording myself, maybe they didn’t choose their words well, but I’m still stuck on the question: is it wrong to have a ministry focus instead of trying to do everything at once?
If you can’t tell, I definitely think we need to cut some ministries some slack when they fail to be all things to all people. It’s different if they are actively harming one group in order to help another. I for one am glad that some organizations focus on gender equality, some on LGBTQ equality, some on racial equality, and some on class equality. They must be aware of how the other categories intersect their own, but they probably won’t succeed if they try to solve all of them at the same time. Can we let different ministries provide different parts of the whole Christian body? Can we work together, providing different functions, instead of pushing off others with an “I don’t need you”?