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:

Salvation Army dress campaign

Text: Why Is it so hard to see black and blue?

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”?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • there is a non-profit i really admire that does housing renovations for low-income elderly people as well as after-school programs and the like for underprivileged kids. they could tell a million and one inspirational stories about the remarkable, transformative work they do in the community–but a central tenet of their fundraising is to uphold the dignity of the people they serve and not exploit their stories or lives as fundraising props.

    i didn’t read any race-based criticisms of this ad, but i can definitely see how the spectacle and shock value of her bruises could be construed as objectifying or in poor taste, even if their intention was good. and i don’t think it is a bad idea at all for PR to take the time to consider the insights of marginalized groups–particularly those they intend to serve. rushing a job so that it’s timely and memeworthy is just careless.

  • Great food for thought, Ryan. Thank you!

  • Ryan,

    I agree that different groups have different focuses and that’s alright sometimes. As I have experienced useful conversation around intersectionality in Christian Peacemaker Teams, it’s been less about being all things to all people and more about how to recognize the way our organizational culture assumed whiteness or patriarchy or heterormativity.

    When I see your basic question: “is it wrong to help one group if you aren’t helping every group at the same time?” I immediately think of this quote from an Aboriginal activists group in Queensland in 1970s: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This connection between our own liberation and that of the marginalized other is key.

    For me, intersectionality often means stepping outside the “helping” paradigm. It’s not that helping is wrong, but an intersectional framework invites us to work to challenge systemic oppression that are often invisible. I think Jesus modeled this from his manifesto in Luke 4 all the way to his powerful social change soundbite when he cleanses the temple: “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But(E) you have made it a den of robbers.” Here his is indicting both the personal and social sins of the temple state by referencing Jeremiah 7:5-11 (Den of robbers) and casting a vision of liberation that specifically welcomed the eunuch (and other sexual minorities) and the foreigner in 56:4-8 (a house of prayer for all nations).

    For me, Jesus’ shalom way is about making the connections between our own liberation and that of others in the same way that the Aboriginal activists group in Queensland describes it. It’s sometimes hard to see the connections because of the way so much of Jesus’ parables and sayings around justice, debt and liberation have been sunday-schoolized in our minds to the point where we site of their radical, liberationist roots.

    I’d also note that I think intersectionality work is done best in long term relationships in small groups of people that know each other well, not through highly public Twitter and FB exchanges between people with minimal to no relationship. But we all have to figure out some where to start and sometimes a prophetic, public word in the context of a high profile ad campaign is a way to get people to listen who otherwise wouldn’t.

    Finally, one of the reasons that an analysis and practice of intersectionality is important is because it helps avoid one group being pitted against another.

    Thanks for raising these questions. You certainly got me thinking.