How Intersectional is Intersectionality?

I’m not into jargon. I’m really not impressed by made-up terms used to describe something that could have been described more simply using existing words. In fact, I think that any conversation about social justice that invokes big words is going to be patently unhelpful since it makes the whole process very cerebral. So when the term “intersectionality” started popping up on my Facebook news feed, I became very curious…in a suspicious kind of way. I wondered, why are all my social change friends suddenly throwing around that word like it’s confetti at an activist party? It seemed like the newest fad concept, the same way environmental justice is still a fad concept – not everyone knows what it means, but enough people know about it that it’s creating buzz. I did some digging and learned that intersectionality is not so new, but it’s not so old either. It’s been around since 1989, when it was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a pioneer intellectual behind Critical Race Theory, to understand the experiences of people with multiple social identities that cannot be adequately understood by analyzing each identity in a vacuum. For example, a gay Asian man is going to have a unique set of experiences that can only be described using a holistic perspective rather than using a purely racial or sexual lens.

It’s 2013. Twenty-four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things (I mean, the term is younger than I am!) but I think that’s enough time for a concept to grow and mature, at least on the conceptual level. But that’s not the sense that I’m getting. Back in 1989, intersectionality was used to describe the experiences that arose from the intersection of race, gender, and class. Somehow, after twenty-four years, it has only managed to add sexual orientation to that list? Hmmm, I’m not impressed. Here is my 3-point criticism of intersectionality and why I think it’s a sham term.

How intersectional is intersectionality? What bugs me the most about this term is how it’s being implicitly credited as elevating the social justice work of intellectuals and activists. But how elevated is it really? When I hear my colleagues use intersectionality to describe their “innovative” work on the connections between race and gender, or gender and sexuality, or ability and race, all I can do is yawn in my head and ask rhetorically, “That’s it?” You do know that ecologists and physicists have shown for over a century now that the whole universe is interconnected, right? You do know that ancient spiritual teachings have been telling us for millennia that we are all one and that the action of one affects everything else and vice versa, right? And speaking more practically, that all the issues we are faced with today from animal abuse to the abuse of women, from the exploitation of people as slaves to the industrialization of our food, and from the financial crises to the wars in the Middle East are all influencing each other and come from common underlying philosophies of greed and a profound of sense of alienation, right? So please, if all you are researching is race, class and sexuality or what have you, then do not call your work intersectional. Your work is at best bisectional or trisectional. To be truly intersectional, you would need to drastically expand your notions of the issues that matter and dare to approach unfamiliar subjects like mathematics and indigenous science and see what those ways of knowing have to say about your work.

The term is ignorant and disrespectful to activists who have been doing intersectional work way longer. Just because you created a new term to describe your work doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is new. You stand on the shoulders of giants who have long been doing this stuff and they never needed to come up with as unapproachable a word as intersectionality. I mean, my god, the word is seven syllables long! The history of America is replete with stories of indigenous, Native American societies, black slaves, Asian and Latino immigrants fighting to protect their homelands because they knew that maintaining a connection to the land was the key to ecological integrity, economic prosperity, community health and happiness. American history is replete with brave women protesting for the right to vote and the right to enter the workforce because they knew that voting and employment were tied to their own liberation and to the wealth of their family. Today, thousands of truly innovative activists and social entrepreneurs are creating organizations around the world that tie sustainability, economy and equity into a single mission. This type of work is what I consider truly intersectional. It is intuitive. It is visceral. It is not at all cerebral. If you’re going to describe your work as intersectional, it would be great if you could acknowledge your place in the long line of truly intersectional people that came before you and give credit where it’s due.

The term ironically perpetuates the Western worldview. The funniest thing about the concept of intersectionality is that it simultaneously tries to defy the Western mode of compartmentalized thinking and perpetuates it at the same time. To most non-Western societies, especially indigenous societies who are in tune with the cycles of the earth, the interconnectedness of life is pretty much an accepted reality. It’s so obvious that it’s not even a thought to be had. It’s in the people’s subconscious, their worldview. It is a peculiar characteristic of Western civilizations to try to understand life by breaking it down into different pieces and analyzing each piece in isolation. Thus you have the study of racism in a vacuum, and the study of economics in isolation, and the study of environmental problems as their own discipline apart from sociological issues. Intersectionality was born out of the 1980’s feminist movement in an attempt to shine light on the fact that white women were not a representative voice of the feminist movement and that women of color had experiences owing to their race that were different from their white counterparts. The irony of the concept lies in its double-edged nature. If your understanding of intersectionality only applies to the intersection of two to three different identities but leaves out all the other forces in the universe, then you’re essentially still thinking in linear, compartmentalized terms. If you’re going to use a term that aims to decolonize our minds of Western values, then please make sure that the term doesn’t sound so academic and that it actually teases us with the possibility a fresh, new way of experiencing the world. In fact, it’s best if you avoid conceptual terms altogether. Write a poem instead.

Lastly, you don’t need more jargon to have people understand what you’re saying. In fact, you’re probably confusing people more by using jargon. As Albert Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Make your work and your knowledge accessible. Keep it simple and I promise you that your words will become more profound.


Active Reading for Social Change (Or How to Leave Comments That Make a Difference)

This blog post is inspired by and written for those millions of anonymous people who leave comments on blogs and online newspapers.

I facilitate a lot of meetings. That is what I do as a social change consultant and community organizer. Many of the meetings I’ve been in often turn into emotionally vulnerable conversations about identities, values, beliefs and all that mushy stuff that can be the source of conflict. One of the key tools that facilitators have in their toolkit for ensuring a successful conversation is the practice of active listening. You probably heard of it at some point. Active listening is the pure and beautiful act of fully receiving a speaker’s words and emotions with undivided attention. The active listener is emanating empathy and does not aim to interrupt or analyze what the other person is saying. Active listening is the practice of being fully present. Therapists also use active listening when they counsel their clients. Active listening promotes empathy among people and builds peace and solidarity in conversations.

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Ambivalence about Identity-based Groups

I have been ambivalent about joining identity-based groups for as long as I can remember. I’m actually disappointed in a sense by my ambivalence because, boy, do I have an abundance of identities that I can join a club about. First, there’s my generic Asian identity, which can be further filtered down to my Chinese identity, and more specifically, my bicultural Chinese-Burmese identity since I’m a person of Chinese descent born in Myanmar. Then, there’s the fact that I a man. More than that, I’m a gay man. I’m also deeply spiritual, having dabbled in a whole bunch of religions including my raised-as Buddhism, Wicca and more generally European-style paganism, Hinduism, Native American spiritual traditions, Taoism, and a few other ones from my teenage days that my memory can’t conjure right at this moment.

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Rituals for Living

Geez. I haven’t posted anything on the blog since January. Maybe I’m not so good at this whole maintaining-a-blog thing. Oh well. Anyway, rather than explain why I haven’t posted something new for over eight months, I’m just going jump right into it. After my uncle died last week, I found myself largely unable to process the significance of his death. The main thing I could understand was that it represented a new chapter in our families’ lives. This got me thinking back on the many significant events I’ve experienced in my life and I realized that I don’t know a lot of rituals that can help me process the meaning of big life changes. The traditional rituals that my parents practice and want me to practice are not that meaningful to me as a 21st century young person but I strive to learn what I can.

So I took some time to sit down and list rituals that I want to start practicing or improve at and that I want to teach my kids in the future. I want to practice rituals that help me feel a sense of belonging so that I don’t let the fast-paced, modern life sweep me away.

Rituals of Change:

  • Ritual to observe death (funeral?)
  • Ritual to acknowledge puberty/transition into young adulthood
  • Ritual to enter adulthood
  • Ritual to establish union (marriage?)
  • Ritual to enter parenthood
  • Ritual to enter grandparent/elder status

Rituals to Renew Our Agreements with the Web of Life and Family:

  • Ritual to honor the highest sun (summer solstice)
  • Ritual to honor the lowest sun (winter solstice)
  • Ritual to celebrate the earth’s life-creating powers
  • Ritual to strengthen our sense of place and ecological home
  • Ritual to remember our ancestors
  • Ritual to experience the ultimate mystery
  • Ritual to experience newness/rebirth and to purge oldness (new year?)
  • Ritual to reconnect whole families (family reunion?)
  • Ritual to acknowledge connection to society (community development events?)
  • Ritual to honor parents and elders
  • Ritual to honor children

As Within, So Without

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely re-arranging their prejudices.” – Edward R. Murrow

2012 is the year of the Water Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac and my first blog post of the new year, pleasantly enough, reflects one of the main themes of the Water Dragon, which is taking action with wisdom. As I think about what it means to take action with wisdom, I recollect the many observations I have had over the years that led me to write this blog post about the role of  spiritual transformation in social change movements. The most recent observation is of Occupy Wall Street and the question arising from it, which is, Will the 99% create the new 1% or will the protesters create a world that works for all? This question lingers unanswered in my mind because I have witnessed situations in the movement that lead me to suspect that what the protesters really want is not sustainability and democracy but simply their own access to the wealth and power that the 1% currently hoards. At the mass student protest on N17 (the highly successful two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street) at Union Square, NYC, I saw a young, white male protester aggressively pushing his way towards the speaking stage, ultimately engaging in a fist fight with another male protester just because he did not want to wait in line to speak like everyone else. The first thought that came to my heart when I saw this unfold in front of me was that if what the guy wanted ultimately was to exert his own privilege and power over others then the Occupy movement was not for him. I was further disheartened by the movement a few weeks later when I read a story on the blog, Microaggressions, posted by a woman protester about how an idea she introduced at an Occupy meeting was completely ignored but was embraced minutes later when it was identically introduced by a male speaker. Is this what we had to look forward to in the movement – a new group of people to perpetuate the same systemic silencing and exploitation of other living beings?

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Love Is My Political Strategy

The liberals and conservatives in my life have been acting a bit crazy recently. When I went up to Vermont a few weeks ago, I found out that two of my friends, one a conservative and the other a liberal, have gone out of contact with each other. The conservative friend speculates, and I agree, that our liberal friend can get a bit zealous and probably couldn’t “tolerate” my conservative friend’s political beliefs any longer. A couple of nights ago, I concluded a week-long conversation with a self-described conservative individual on an Asian American/Canadian issues blog, who was sure that Occupy Wall Street was just more leftist noise that did not represent a single conservative interest, even though I pointed out many cases in which it did.

I was flabbergasted. How could my liberal friend and the conservative blogger simply cease all attempts at reconciliation with someone from the other end of the political spectrum? How could they be so solidly confined to their own set of beliefs? The liberal-conservative spectrum has always been more fluid in my experience. When I compare liberal and conservative beliefs, I’ve seen more arbitrary, and often contradictory, acts of jumping around than a clear and consistent dividing line. In the United States, many conservatives easily point to their Christian belief in the sanctity of life when they rally against abortions but just as quickly drop Christian values of care and compassion when confronting people in poverty and without healthcare, invoking instead a contradictory American value in rugged individualism and self-reliance. Liberals I have met pride themselves in being open-minded and throw around rhetoric of equality for all when in practice they stay along issue lines and fall victim to the power of privilege. White men are the face of the gay rights movement which marginalizes LGBTQ women and people of color. Black rights organizations ignore racism against immigrants and Asians. The environmental movement excludes social justice issues altogether and vice versa. Obviously, conservatives and liberals equally hold many beliefs that, upon inspection, are better suited for the other party.

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Daily Life of an Occupier

Images of Occupy Wall Street are few and far between in the media; most of them are shots of protestors in action. I wanted to capture the life of the occupiers when there are no marches or specific protests happening.