…limitations of intersectionality
…so earlier today i was interviewed for an upcoming podcast for queer people of color. it was great! i spilled my guts all over the place in a rather embarrassing way and it’ll be available for your amusement in the near future! but now i feel a need to unload some disjointed, messy feels about intersectionality.
tl;dr: it’d be nice if intersectionality could happen on more than just two (occasionally three) axes at a time, but that’s unlikely to ever happen.
i know that i’m about to state the obvious, but people are complex. life is complex. every single one of us is a living work of art or an intricate puzzle comprised of a million different pieces that make us who we are, all contained within deceivingly similar packages of flesh and bone. all of the things that we’ve inherited from our family, every second of life that we’ve experienced and all of the things that we’ve witnessed and learned along the way, combined with a million other things contribute to who we are today.
and yet, whenever we talk about ourselves we always have to essentially gloss over that complexity. we pick and choose specific tidbits using specific nuanced words to try and paint a very basic picture of who we are to present to others. based on the colors, shapes and tools that we use to paint that picture or the pieces of the puzzle that is our life that we allow others to see, we are able to communicate who we are and find commonality among others. based on that commonality, we’re able to discuss a complex array of topics and relate to others’ experiences because even if thy aren’t exactly the same color, shape etc as ours we can still relate to the image being painted or pieced together by others’ words.
however, there are limitations to this.
as long as we restrict the colors, shapes and tools that we use or the pieces that we show when painting our picture or piecing together our puzzle, things are alright. what we are trying to convey about ourselves or any given experience that we’ve had is just palatable enough to be considered understandable, relatable and/or relevant to others or the topic at hand. however, the more colors, shapes, tools or pieces that we use, the more complex our picture or puzzle becomes. the more complex and intricate the picture or puzzle becomes, the more difficult it becomes for people to understand or relate to what it is that you are trying to convey.
in other words, the closer the picture or puzzle comes to completion or to being representative of the larger picture that is the complex reality of who you are as a person and what you have to say, the more it becomes an “abstract” work of art that others may be able to look at and appreciate, but few can actually find relatable or understandable.
when we are among others, it’s natural for us to focus what we do or say on whatever topic(s), identity(/ies), struggle(s) that others present are known to share and find relatable. that is to say, we pick and choose what parts of ourselves to uplift and share based on relevance to those around us.
to use myself as an example, when i’m among aces, i have a tendency of uplifting and focusing on my identity as an ace and the experiences that pertain to that identity. when i’m among trans and/or non-binary people, i uplift and focus on my identity and experiences as a non-binary person. the same goes for being among LGB people and uplifting my bi / pan identity, being among foreigners* and uplifting my identity as an American**, etc etc.
however, whenever i do this it’s not just me choosing a specific identity to uplift and focus on. i can’t just pluck a single specific identity out of the complexity that is the more complete picture of who i am. every time i uplift and focus on a specific identity i’m extracting it, in a way. it’s like i’m trying to pick one specific thread out of a fabric of many interwoven threads. i try to pull that one thread out from all the rest to make it more visible from the rest, but doing so is never pretty. i can’t actually extract the thread from the rest, but i try to for the sake of communication. for the sake of simplicity. for the sake of joining in on a discussion within the larger community.
in recent years “intersectionality” has become a bit of a buzzword, especially on the internet, and there seems to be more of a push to create awareness and support for the intersections of different identities and experiences. there are communities for bi women of color, there are organizations for LGBTQIA survivors, there’s growing awareness of asexual people of color, there are words to discuss the unique challenges, discrimination and violence that trans women of color face that never existed before, etc.
all of this is amazing and i cannot express how grateful i am for this growing call for intersectionality. that said, there’s a lot more intersectionality to be had than focusing on and incorporating just two, maaaaaybe three axes of a person’s identity or lived experiences, but that seems to be as far as most intersectionality efforts go these days.
even in a space for aces of color, i’m still extracting / uplifting only two specific identities / experiences out from all of the rest. extracting two interwoven threads out of the fabric that makes up who i am is better than trying to extract only one and i am very grateful for that intersectionality. i really am. but i still have to push aside so many other important things about myself when participating in that or any other intersectional group, space, etc. not because anyone is limiting me to those two specific identities / experiences. obviously no one is stopping me from talking in a more intersectional or all-encompassing way about who i am or my experiences. despite that, i still feel like i have to restrict what i say, compartmentalize who i am and keep a handle on how much of myself i put into a conversation. why?
if you’ve ever been in the middle of an active conversation with people only to have that conversation suddenly turn to awkward silence because you said something that others do not know how to respond to / cannot relate to, then you probably understand why. you understand how it feels to say something, to show a side of yourself or your life and suddenly lose people who you had just moments before been engaged with.
you used too many colors, too many shapes, too many tools to paint your picture– or too many pieces to complete your puzzle and suddenly your once relatable, understandable picture / puzzle has become much more abstract or out of focus to others. fewer people are able to understand or relate to you on a personal level and any commonality that you’d felt you had has suddenly become more transparent.
the more axes my intersectionality has, the harder it is to find people who share those same or similar experiences. i mean, do you have any idea how seemingly impossible it would be to find someone who can relate to the intersections of being a black American expat in Japan who’s also a non-binary, bi / pan ace navigating mental health issues like depression and anxiety all while loving cats as much as i do?? i mean, seriously. and that’s obviously not even everything there is regarding who i am as a person and the experiences that i have had, but i think you get my point. i have to break all of that down into intersections based on two, maybe three axes in order to find commonality with people. in order to find an intersectional space or community for myself.
- ace x person of color / black
- queer x expat x Japan
- bi x non-binary
- non-binary x black
- mental health issues x ace
- etc etc etc
whenever someone approaches me about something with intersectionality in mind, be it to collab on something, to help organize something or anything else, they often have a very specific intersection of identities / experiences in mind that they feel i can help with or represent.
they might want to include a person of color in their lineup of aces, they might want to hear from a black queer person, they might want the perspective of a bi non-binary person, etc. i don’t mind being called upon to add to the intersectionality of something. i’m totally here for that and it’s a honor that anyone would think of me to help them with that.
it just sucks that the intersectionality that i’m usually called upon to help with or represent is so limited in nature. i’m usually asked to help with something very specific without much attention paid to other equally important things about me.
sometimes it can feel like being a representative for Intersectionality On Demand™.
sometimes it’s exhausting, always feeling forced to (or rather, being expected to) dissect yourself into something that is more manageable or relatable for others.
sometimes i really wish the world could see and understand the bigger, more complete picture of who i am instead of just the parts of me that they want to know about.
but at the same time, i can’t and don’t hold it against anyone that they can’t see that bigger picture. even i myself have to break down things about myself in order to better understand myself. if i’m too much even for myself to deal with all at once, how can i expect that of anyone else?
…there’s a kind of sadness that comes with knowing that who you are is too complex for most anyone, yourself included, to ever truly understand. there is beauty in complexity, but there is also loneliness. sigh.
*as an expat living in Japan, “foreigner” basically just means anyone who isn’t originally from Japan.
**i swear being American never means jackshit to me until i’m in a situation that makes it embarrassingly obvious how American i am. or there’s talk of Trump.