Understanding Intersectionality for the Freedom of All
(First delivered as a sermon on Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday weekend 2018 at the Community Unitarian Universalist Community at White Plains, NY. Be sure to check out the "What You Can Do" section at the end of this blog.)
I was born into a racist culture and family – specifically in Atlanta, Georgia. We moved to Northern Virginia in 1968, only a few months before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. My parents enrolled me in Louise Archer Elementary School, an all African American school founded in a black neighborhood mostly fenced off from white suburbs. I started only a few months after the school had been desegregated and I was in the first batch of white children to attend.
I found myself making friends quickly, including Thea, who I invited home so that we could practice a school play. She lived nearby, but on the other side of a fence, which we climbed to get to my house. My mother came home from work and saw us playing in the living room and told me to ask Thea to leave. As soon as she left my mother slapped my face and said, "Don’t you ever bring another _______ into this house again!"
My family has a lot of work to do and so do I to combat that training of seeing more worth in some than others and undoing the fear that I would be loved less if I thought any differently. Though my example is more extreme than many, none of us totally escape this enculturation.
My family is not just my biologic nuclear family, but it is my cultural family anchored here in the USA. I didn't know how that family had trained me into a dominating colonizing culture until I started to work in Latin America, consulting with the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery project. Once a million of these birds lived on the island (pre-colonization), but by 1973, only 14 remained
The indigenous people in Puerto Rico were long gone due to European colonization, and the parrot nearly went extinct due to the large deforestation of the island after the USA invasion and colonization in 1898. The USA collapsed the Puerto Rican economy and planted sugar cane all over the island. Due to extreme efforts, the parrot numbers somewhat rebounded. But the recent hurricanes this late summer, Irma and Maria, devastated the people and the parrots there, who were vulnerable due to past and ongoing extraction economies and institutionalized racist and speciesist business, taxation, and aid practices.
My human, USA family has a lot of work to do, and so do I, because I benefited from such practices and continue to do so at the cost of the many. None of us escapes the work to stop such extraction and domination economies that marginalize and colonize others.
I have responded to the work my human family and I have to do by taking up the call to Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministry. My sense of family grew to incorporate Unitarian Universalism. While preparing for the ministry I learned the long, hard, and painful history of how Unitarian Universalists had made many mistakes regarding how people of color were treated in our movement, as evidenced by the book, "Black Pioneers in a White Denomination," multiple painful episodes since, and ongoing ones as illusrated in this book.
My UU family has a lot of work to do. I know this because I am at the forefront of a UU movement to understand how what harms animals, also harms humans. We ask how extending our sense of the inherent worth and dignity to individuals of all species helps humans too. This work brings up the pain and loss of how deficient UUs have been with people, as well as other species. This is uncomfortable, painful, and stressful, and it seems that none of us can say or do the right thing. Sound like fun (not!)? It is hard, but there is a tang of freedom in the air. Even if you aren't UU, join us as various possible denominational change, votes, and study groups are coming in the future. My family is doing the work, and we need to do more, for we have not won freedom for all yet
Our work for freedom means addressing intersectionality. Intersectionality means that oppression is experienced differently based on our various identities. Women experience oppression differently than men, and blacks different from whites, and hence black women experience oppression from being both black and female. The corollary is also true - we benefit from a system that oppressed others based on our identities and locations of privilege. I am white human North American from the lower middle class -this gives me privileges that others have, and oppressions that others don’t have.
Intersectionality also means that there are core oppressions that intersect all identities. Some call this core oppression patriarchy, which isn't really about men, so relax guys. It is a culture based on seeing different others as less than, which is tied to dominance, power over, white supremacy, and inequality, all of which catch each of us in a sticky web of harm and benefit.
What does the work of intersectionality look like?
First off, it is not shame or blame or pointing fingers at who oppresses more or is oppressed more. We all are enculturated to be oppressors and oppressed. We are not to blame, but we are responsible. All of us.
The world has lived with 500 years of modernity and colonization to hide the reality that we are inextricably tied to one another and all life, in beauty, tragedy, and death. "Wishing for life at any price continuously calls forth death - the death of other people, other beings, the extinguishing of languages, ideas cultures, and worst of all, possibilities and degrees of freedom" (Andrea Weber). We all are trapped. Our work for freedom is undoing core oppression for our co-liberation. For this liberation we must learn to "live without fear and to die courageously."
This is a death of individualism so that all are centered. In the circle of life, the suffering of another is also ours. In the countries I work in Latin America there is constant evidence of the devastation of colonialism and USA foreign policy. The people I work with, descendants of disappeared indigenous cultures and slaves, (and the dearth of wildlife) do not let me forget it. But I am so alive there for it takes everything I’ve got to show up and be vulnerable. What began as a wound ends in a caressing touch. I’m undone and then made whole.
The work for freedom means we center the marginalized voices. Our individualism dies every time we allow another to speak. And we are born again.
We must center what we marginalize within ourselves. Miki Kashton, a leader in Nonviolent Communication, told me a few weeks ago to not believe a thing you grew up thinking or doing, for it was all based on core oppressions. We need to lay aside the armor that doesn't protect us, but fetters us. Let us lay that burden down.
We must center ourselves in history, ecology, and biology. We must look at past societal practices and how we have been harmed and benefited. Thank goodness for our neuroplastic brains, which are ready to believe that "power over" is the only way to meet our needs, but can also learn that cooperation and co-liberation brings flourishing to many lives. We must accept that we will die and no level of control will stop that. We must embrace reality - to accept all that is now and also, paradoxically, do everything in our power to change it. We are so powerful in freedom's return embrace.
(photo by Dagmar Ollman)
We need resilience because we tread a fragile path of feeling shame, separation, and oppression, but there is joy lurking in that journey. We can take a beginning step by sha