We’re in this life together and substantive solidarity is important.
We share one planet, and if we kick one another off the rock, there is nowhere else for us to go.
But we’re not all alike.
There are differences between social groups that can make social solidarity challenging, and there are also differences within social groups that can make rough-cut rules based on single identity factors remarkably unhelpful.
The analytical model of intersectionality emerged from Kimberlé Crenshaw‘s studies of anti-discrimination case law and feminist and anti-racist activism. Why do well-intentioned social interventions consistently leave some group members wounded in the traffic intersection? What are the designers of these interventions missing?
In “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color,” Crenshaw shows how intra-group differences can yield big variations in group members’ outcomes: in one case, Black men and Black women experienced different degrees of discrimination in a company whose policies penalized employees who weren’t male as well as employees who weren’t White.
Crenshaw also explains that race and gender aren’t the only axes of difference that we need to account for as we engage intra-group differences:
“The organized identity groups in which we find ourselves are in fact coalitions, or at least potential coalitions waiting to be formed… With identity thus reconceptualized, it may be easier to understand the need for and to summon the courage to challenge groups that are after all, in one sense, ‘home’ to us, in the name of the parts of us that are not made at home. The most one could expect is that we will dare to speak against internal exclusions and marginalizations, that we might call attention to how the identity of ‘the group’ has been centered on the intersectional identities of a few.” (Emphasis added.)
Over the last few weeks, Herb Montgomery of Renewed Heart Ministries has been working through the Sayings Gospel Q and encountering anew Jesus’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings about engaging oppressors and oppression (Herb is a friend and client).
As Herb has explained to his readers, both Jesus and King addressed their communities from within, not from without. They were addressing their peers, not imposing norms from above them, and knowing this should help us to better understand the tone and content of their teachings.
Some Christians like to say “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” The ground is not level at the base of a social pyramid: intra-group variations mean that it’s sometimes less oppressive to hear a norming message from someone in a different social group from yours if they share other facets of your experience.
Martin Luther King was a Black American Christian who spoke out of the Black America church tradition first to other Black people and thence to the leaders and other U.S. citizens regardless of their ethnicity. He was also a middle-class, highly educated, charismatic man who drew public authority from his position as a member of the clergy.
As a minister, King had social influence that the best cook in the country couldn’t have had. As a man, his public work and time away from family for the common good attracted far less criticism than the work of his female colleagues. That includes his wife: most people don’t know that Coretta Scott King was an activist in her own right and began her anti-segregationist work before meeting the man who became her husband.
So intra-group differences make a difference: we can’t assume solidarity or common experience with another person on the basis of a single characteristic like age or ethnicity or religion or sexuality. People who seem similar can have entirely different priorities (compare Professor Imani Perry and Justice Clarence Thomas or Jane Elliott and Phyllis Schlafly), and people who seem very different can build coalitions to meet their mutual goals (compare Urvashi Vaid and Dean Spade or Ted Olson and David Boies).
Take no shortcuts when it comes to understanding who people are and the social vision they’re working towards, and you’ll make a better teammate for other people who realize that not only is this the one rock we have to live on but also we don’t all have to be alike to live here.
- But Some of Us are Brave, edited by Akasha Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith (1991/2015)
- The complexity of intersectionality by Leslie McCall (2005)
- Re-thinking intersectionality by Jennifer C. Nash (2008)
- A primer on intersectionality, written by Kimberlé Crenshaw and published by the African American Policy Forum