I remember the first time I picked up Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and fell in love. I contemplated writing her a letter to thank her for changing my life, only to realize that she had lost her battle with cancer years before. A black queer feminist warrior poet, she wrote about intersectionality back before my generation started name-dropping it on Facebook statuses and blogs like a Timbaland beat—if the word was in the status, the status had to be dope, regardless of what the post actually said or meant. As a self-proclaimed feminist and anti-oppression advocate who had never taken an academic course in feminist theory or critical race, I was confused by the word intersectionality when I first saw it on the internet. It was a piece of jargon that got finger snaps and head-nods from the people who understood it, but left the rest of us out of the circle.
It’s that word, Intersectionality, that was a main theme of the Teacher’s College 32nd Annual Roundtable, held on February 13-14 of 2015 on the Teacher’s College Campus, titled #hoodiesup2015: breaking cycles of violence, building alliances, mobilizing resources. The conference was a whirlwind of psychological, educational, and health perspectives on marginalized identities. The speakers and workshops highlighted an often-overlooked issue in the public health field: dividing people into simplistic categories and social constructs without considering the interactions between them can result in initiatives that either fail to address or exacerbate ill-health in marginalized populations.
So what is intersectionality exactly? From my semi-layperson perspective, intersectionality refers to the reality that every person who belongs to a group or community has varying levels of privilege and disadvantage tied to the different aspects of their identity, such as identifying with a particular racial or ethnic group, sexual orientation, or religion, just to name a few. A person may have privilege tied to one aspect of their identity, and disadvantage tied to another. For example, a Caucasian man with a physical disability faces both the privilege of being white and the disadvantage of living in a society that favors able-bodied people. These identities help shape that person’s experience and are not necessarily separate from each other. The idea of identity is dynamic, and most people access different parts of their identity in varying social or professional settings.
Having multiple disadvantaged identities can increase a person’s exposure to violence and trauma and inhibit access to education, employment opportunities, and avenues for maintaining good health. In light of the publicized and politicized murders of black men, less recognized murders of black women and transgender individuals, and the most recent murders of Muslims, the topics discussed during this conference felt especially timely.
As Lillian Comas-Diaz highlighted during the conference’s Janet E. Helms Mentoring Award Lecture, an integral component of processing a traumatic event such as race-based hate is to identify, re-frame, and reclaim the part of one’s identity that feels impacted by the trauma. If you extend this notion to the community level, the implication is that communities facing violence against integral parts of their identity need a space to connect with, and redefine, that identity, in a way that does not allow the trauma to remain paramount or overshadow the positive associations that the community attaches to that identity.
In order to address structural violence against African-Americans in the U.S., there needs to be a space where African-Americans can define and connect with their racial identity that removes the centrality of stereotypes that promote the violence and systematic dehumanization of black bodies. Spaces for other marginalized identities are also a necessity: grassroots organizations, such as the Audre Lorde Project in New York City, are working overtime to try to create and protect these kinds of spaces.
Institutionalized prejudice is insidious, and even people within marginalized groups are guilty of ascribing to prejudicial beliefs—misogyny and homophobia amongst African-American men; misogyny, racism, and transphobia amongst gay or queer men; racism and Islamophobia amongst women; and anti-blackness amongst Muslims, just to name a few. In a workshop held at the roundtable on telling one’s own story, the facilitators challenged conference participants to consider and interrogate the assumptions we make about others. It is almost impossible to be a perfect activist or anti-whatever-ism-ist at every moment of every day–that is precisely why issues affecting marginalized identities need to be discussed and mobilized by people working at all levels to produce forms of societal change.
There are some tough issues to be worked out in regard to intersectionality. In a call for collaboration between health professionals and legislators when addressing issues of mental illness and violence, Margaret Farrelly, Michael Awad, Peggy Brady-Amoon, and Michael Filiaci, highlighted that referencing mental disorders for violent offenders often serves to stigmatize rather than clarify. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, but mental illness is often listed as a motive for committing violence in popular media. Farrelly et al stated that environmental factors are more significant risk factors for violence than mental illness. For instance, a person who happens to have mental illness is also likely to have been exposed to other factors such as child abuse, homelessness, and joblessness, which may cause them to be more likely to commit a violent crime.
Another student in the audience mentioned that there is a scale of “acceptable” mental illnesses. Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are better understood by the average American as opposed to disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or multiple personality disorder, which are highly stigmatized. Only 7.5% of violent crimes are committed by individuals with mental disorders, which indicates that the continuous efforts to strengthen gun control by limiting access to guns for people with mental disorders, if successful, will likely to do little in staunching the gun violence epidemic in this country.
This problem can be compounded when the perpetrators are black or Muslim. Such offenders are often painted as “thugs” or “terrorists” without a deeper search for motive. A person’s mental illness being considered as a “motive” then becomes a kind of privilege, with the underlying assumption that there must be a valid reason (i.e. psychological cause) for a white person to commit a violent crime. The implication is that violence is an inherent part of Black and Muslim identities. And, as was mentioned by professors Farrelly et al during the conference discussion, for individuals who have a mental illness and identify with an ethnic or racial minority group that is portrayed as violent in popular media, the intersection of these identities creates a “double-marginalization.”
For those of us seeking to de-stigmatize mental illness, the issue then becomes how to untie the misconception that mental illness is a cause of violence without unintentionally reinforcing the narrative that some racial and religious minorities are more prone to violence than others. As public health advocates, we need to focus on how our own field can avoid further marginalizing certain groups as we seek to improve population health.
Unfortunately, prejudice and violence towards marginalized groups, and their very real health effects, are often ignored or denied until people from a more privileged group give validation to their plight. As Professor Joseph White said in the #blacklivesmatter breakout session of the conference, “the truth isn’t enough.”
The truth alone without action will not bring change, but there is also this: there are some truths that people do not want to hear. I am reminded of this almost every time I open my mouth in a majority-non-Muslim circle and talk about being a Muslim woman—the blank faces, the silence, even sometimes the irritation that I would have the audacity to “force” my experience on someone who does not want to have their world made uncomfortable by my truth. One of the challenges for the many people whose lives are “othered” by mainstream American society is to live and honor their truths in spite of the summons to silence, and to understand the areas in which all of us can use the power and privilege we do have to recreate the narratives which affect us. Another is to acknowledge that oppressive structures affect people that identify with marginalized groups in different ways, and that advocacy is a lifetime of learning about and defending the rights of others to speak and be heard. A challenge for every person in this country is to challenge oneself to be uncomfortable, to try to understand someone else’s truth, and to give space or voice for their truth, even if that means you need to shut up and just listen.