This is not the post I started out writing.


The next disability blog carnival’s topic is intersectionality. Intersectionality is one of those words that does not slide completely off my brain, the way ‘monotropism’ does, but slides partially off my brain and is not a word I would ever use except in paragraphs like this one.

It is a word normally used by people within a very particular way of looking at oppression. And among people who may not be exactly within that category, but who take the word from those who are. I don’t even know the word for that category, although I can usually recognize it by the sorts of words it uses. As long as it is not too abstract, I greatly appreciate reading from things in this category. But I am not myself someone who can work within it (may have something to do with this post, which is in no way an insult to those who can work within it). Intersectionality refers to the way that being oppressed in more than one way at a time (such as being disabled and black and female) combines to make an experience more than just the sum of its parts.

I have spent all of the time since the blog carnival was announced, trying to write on this topic. The results in no way compared to some of the brilliant writing I have read from others. In fact, all they compared to were past efforts to write homework assignments I barely understood by plugging in words to a formula and straining my brain to the point of pain (rhyme not intended) trying to come up with more words to fill in the blanks.

I started out by listing the current categories I fall under when it comes to being subject to various forms of oppression: female, disabled, lesbian, mixed-class/poor, nongendered, and fat. Then I added a few notes under some of them.

1. (Disabled.) Specifically, I’m physically disabled, cognitively disabled, psych survivor/ex-patient/mad/etc. take your pick, and have chronic illness and chronic pain. All of which are sometimes lumped together and sometimes play out very differently from each other. And while these categories stem from the medical model, they also often reflect ways that even the political aspects of the disability communities have divided themselves, and thus become relevant as more than just medical categories.

2. (Mixed-class/poor.) Born middle-class, been poor by my country’s standards since adulthood. Because this has to do with disability, I am not the sort of fashionably downwardly mobile person I often read about who can always go back to the middle class or even the working class but chooses not to because it clashes with their values or wishes. I know enough from having talked to people who grew up poor and working-class that I’m quite aware I have plenty of middle-class privilege that can’t evaporate no matter what happens. My self-description as poor is not an attempt to erase that, but rather an attempt to convey the reality that I am subject to major classist oppression that will last the rest of my life no matter what choices I make. Permanent, involuntary downward mobility exists in the world, even if I’ve virtually never heard it discussed when people talk about classism. Which itself probably has something to do with the fact that disabled people are invisible, and that most discussions of classism seem to revolve around the struggles of the working class. And the fact that people expect class to be simpler than it is, either you are or you aren’t a particular class, when things are more complicated than that.

3. (Nongendered.) Neither cisgendered nor transgendered. Gender is a concept that, while I understand intellectually that it is greatly important for other people, is entirely absent and incomprehensible to me. I imagine that it must be some collection of aspects of a person’s identity that all cluster together in most people’s minds, whereas I’ve spent my life oblivious to how they are connected or why I would want to connect them, and innocently trampling all over people’s ideas of what it means to be masculine, feminine, or even any particular point in the middle. For more information, read Urocyon’s Gender, Sexuality, Identity, and Binaries or, if you can get it, the article “Growing Up Genderless” by Jane Meyerding in the anthology Women from Another Planet?

Then, I set about writing about how those things mixed around make life much more complicated. Most of the things I could come up with were the obvious: my status as what a friend called a “perpetual outsider” in single-issue, single-identity communities. Even in the autistic community, where I have found (unasked for and unlooked for) status, I have found no belonging. How could I, in a community where it’s impossible to go anywhere without hearing some other aspect of my life (even some to do with autism itself, since I am far from the right kind of autie) degraded, denied, and disparaged? Even the “status” has been given to a distortion of my life, not to who I am. And the same is true of the LGBT community, disability community, feminism, and all the others. I have only to walk into an LGBT community center to find a gay man who is inspired by my presence to tell me how he used to work in an institution where there were people who looked like me, where he would stand over the cribs of some of the inmates and ask (insert pained voice) “Why are you alive?” And who wants my sympathy for the agony he feels at the existence of disabled people. Seriously. This happened.

(For more on that kind of topic, see The Difference Slot, by elmindreda, who eventually left the autistic community over such experiences.)

The original thing I wrote was full of stories like that despite them just being the tip of the iceberg on this subject matter. And I grew more and more frustrated as I fit my writing into a formula that did not at all convey my thoughts. Then I decided I would rather write nothing at all than write what I didn’t mean. So here is what I do mean:

I can’t write a lot about intersectionality as a topic because I don’t ever not write about intersectionality as a topic. Every single piece of my life that I describe, is the life of someone who falls under multiple categories. I write about these things by becoming very specific and writing about things I do and experience. I write as one single instance of life and expect people to fill in the broader context on their own. And from that broader context, they can use it to think about situations that at first glance are nothing like mine.

The way I experience these things has no equivalent in words, that I know of. It is like being acted upon by a large number of separate gravitational forces that push and pull in a physical-seeming way. It’s possible to name specific forms of oppression that are recognizable to everyone, but the way I experience these things isn’t as simple as listing off sexism, ableism, etc. As with most of life, I experience a much higher degree of detail in these gravitational forces that push and pull on me, than there is in the words. So why divide them in the exact way that they are normally divided? Why say that there are six things, when you could say twenty, and why say twenty when you could say a hundred? These are just shorthand for the more complex forces at work in the societies we live in, and it is important not to forget that in these often hyper-abstract discussions. I understand very much why a common language is important, but sometimes it obscures as much as it communicates.

So I will continue to move through the world (and the bits of the world that are around me will affect me, and I will affect them) and write (when I can) about specific aspects of my life, all of which have something to do with this thing they call intersectionality, whether that’s the topic of the day or not. Because I don’t stop being all these different sorts of person, when I stop specifically naming them.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

9 responses »

  1. Excellent post! I can identify with a lot of what you’re saying. When I’ve got the time and expressive language ability to do it, I want to post something on this topic. (Kyriarchy does seem to offer a little more complete description of the patterns–thanks, Adelene!)

  2. I think our first reaction to the word and the concept of “intersectionality” was a kind of brief bafflement, although we inferred pretty quickly what it was supposed to mean, because it immediately cross-referenced in our mind to the whole “difference slot” thing. And how weird the idea that people somehow need to go out of their way to notice or think about how all the different groups they’re in interact and affect their perspective is, and that it needs its own separate category for discussion that’s sectioned off from “normal” discussions about prejudice, privilege, oppression, etc. It’s pretty much our life, like you described, and being asked to write about it, we would probably react to it sort of like we do to people asking us in a particular sort of condescending way to “share our story” about what it’s like to be autistic/multiple/etc– just get twitchy at the idea that we’re being asked to chop our life up into neat little oversimplified pieces for others’ consumption (others who will probably continue to look down on us or view us as exotic freaks no matter how much we try to attempt to convey the day-to-day details of our life).

    (Also re the “kyriarchy” concept, that’s… a good verbal way of describing the way we’ve always seen this stuff, different layers of privilege and power, interacting, although it maps mentally for us in spatial and synaesthetic ways.)

    And… besides our whole general wtf about that and the tendency of intersectionality discussions to get abstract beyond what all but a very few of us can handle, the other big problem we have in them is that people tend to come into such discussions having pre-decided what constitutes a valid difference or minority group. I mean, usually everyone will have race, class, (physical) sex, and sexuality (gay vs straight) on their list. If you’re lucky, you get gender identity and disability. Very rarely you get weight/size, or discussions of sexual/relational differences beyond gay vs. straight. And then there’s this whole list of other things for us, that most people, if they have even heard of them and/or believe they exist at all, tend to subsume into the category of disability but in a very condescending way that assumes we are all suffering victims, and/or into a sub-category of disability they’ve designated “mental illness.” And are carrying around a whole list, in their head, of what they think that entails, and what we experience, want, need, think, and feel. (And don’t ever notice when they are condescending to, dismissing, appropriating the voices of, or using their privilege against members of those groups, in ways they would be justifiably angry about if it happened to a group they were a member of.)

    I mean this is not an attempt to “play oppression bingo” or anything, definitely not. We’re well aware that we’ve escaped some potentially bad situations that we couldn’t have escaped if we and our birth family had been less privileged in various ways, front-wise. Just, it gets dispiriting, to say the very least, to repeatedly have the experience of going into groups where you can openly discuss this one difference that most other places don’t accept, and then find that you have to hide three or four others because even within that group, people think those ones aren’t acceptable, or that everyone who experiences them must immediately be taken care of or treated in a certain way, or whatever. And then hop over to another group that accepts another difference but dismisses all the rest and carries many of the same prejudices and stereotypes about “them” as mainstream society.

    The worst part about it– for us, at least– isn’t just the hiding. It’s the feeling that no matter where we go, all of our “allies” who would defend us against all oppression in one regard would be just as willing to turn and throw us to the oppressors if they knew about another certain difference or experience of ours, so it can feel like there is almost no one we can really trust, not anywhere, not ever. And that almost no one will ever really know the totality of what our life is, because there will always be some part of it censored out of our telling of it, for fear of that. That what people think they like or admire or whatever is the censored, deliberately oversimplified version of our life, not the real one.

    And all of that is a pessimistic view, I know, but sometimes it’s hard not to be pessimistic after seeing so many cases of people changing their opinion of someone, in a negative way, after that person revealed certain things about themselves.

    But… yeah, on the issue of people not recognizing certain things or differences because they’re not on their list of All The Officially Approved Human Differences Ever, The End, it’s why we stay back from 98% of not just most intersectionality discussions, but most discussions about prejudice et al period. Because those non-recognized differences are just as significant to us as the recognized ones. And while we can, for instance, join in discussions about how, for instance, as a female-bodied person, we were taught to shape much of our life and activities around fear of rape and assault, or about how as a disabled person, we’ve experienced “nice” disability services workers turning on us and treating us like a naughty child when we started openly showing anger or frustration, and everyone will go “yes, that’s a perfect example of this stuff”– well, we could do that. But if we tried to talk about, say, fear of psychiatrists, a lot of people are likely to either not understand (not in the way they would if we tried to talk about fear of men or of disability services staff), or try to convince us that there was nothing to fear, with bullcrap like “they can’t do anything to you if you aren’t clearly a danger to yourself or others.” And there are many more things that are even harder to describe.

    And trying to convince people that a non-recognized difference is significant, it can get you a lot of hostility. Again, often of the same sort that people would rightfully condemn if someone responded to a member of one of their communities in that way. I mean, it’s been weighing on our mind for the past couple of weeks, for instance, that there is definitely a type of privilege associated with being a singlet (i.e. non-plural– we know in some countries a singlet is a word for a type of clothing; it’s an example of how the existing popular terminology in one particular emerging community really sucks, but we have no idea what to do about it). Yet, we’ve also been fearing that if we tried to point this out, or start a discussion about it, or make a list of the privileges associated with it, it would be interpreted as an attempt to mock or parody other oppressed groups and their attempts to start discussions about such issues. So we just keep thinking “no, not yet, maybe some day” again and again.

    So… ugh, yeah, not knowing what to say, and frustration. (And I’m not actually sure if this was the reply we intended to write, either; it had to go through some translation to render it from the terms in which we think of this stuff, to what seems to be the generally accepted common language set in most of the communities we’re in.)

  3. Great post! I especially love how you’re able to take something so very abstract and theoretical and work it out in concrete ways…I think you’re right. Everything you write about is somehow related to intersectionality. Those sorts of liminal spaces seem to me some of the most difficult places to be–some of the most invisible. I so appreciate you making those spaces–and the people within them–a little more visible.

  4. Well crypto-sociologist that I seem to be the concept is not only of interest but something I have observed.

    I am definately working class, my accent betrays it and I have ended up in that environment, my brother too, for all our parents aspirations that we would become “professionals” it hasn’t happened yet, the nearest I came I suppose was being self employed.

    I note that the majority of AC’s who I know are also from the same class origins as me, and I do think that our experience is significantly different from the middle class experience of autism.

    I can’t speak about race and gender, but that certainly does also colour ones experience of the autistic phenomenon.

    I consider myself sensitive to gender perceptions of autism, and indeed I get very angry about the male stereotype of autism as you ask Simon Baron Cohen and Mike Rutter, they make me very angry indeed.

    Thing is I tend whatever I do to inhabit a sort of liminal land where I am neither one thing nor the other, my circumstances have brought me into contact with people from a very different class background but I remain in spite of all the fancy dinners a “beer and sandwiches” man myself. Indeed not long ago I refused all the fancy food at a formal meal in a posh hotel and demanded sandwiches.

  5. To add on, I think one of the difficult things for me in the less nuanced forms of these discussions is the detail thing. Take class for instance. I generally say mixed-class over a lifetime, middle-class born, poor since adulthood. But when I think of it in my head, I see a system that translates as… Middle-class childhood with still strong influences from my parents’ working-class origins (that were themselves situated in very particular parts of the working class), other influences from some access to education that was generally for people richer than my family, and poor since adulthood but occupying two different areas of poverty at different times, currently with more advantages than I used to have, and more advantages than many poor people I know (but less than others) with of course the residual middle-class privilege that won’t ever go away.

    So I see the locations in discussions of privilege And oppression of any kind in a much more detailed form than I can normally articulate. At all.

    And when such things are combined, my ability to apply language flies out the window that much more readily. I really admire people who can rattle off huge amounts of information about intersectionality. I read such things with keen interest both to learn more about others and about myself. And I am hardly ignorant on the matter. Just inarticulate. With exceptions.

    The problem in articulating this stuff is it can be too many things. I can recognize a situation where intersectionality is at play, but I can’t easily go the reverse direction of going from the word intersectionality to a detailed description of all those ways it comes into play.

    And in addition to all that I do think I have a mode of perceiving it that isn’t as academic (is that the right word?) as what I usually see, and a gut sense that there is something important about the way I perceive it that’s worth hanging on to despite the difficulty. (Which in turn is NOT saying the more academic way of looking at it is wrong or bad, each has it’s uses I am sure.)

    I also definitely see it as going far beyond levels of belonging in various communities, that’s just the easiest to articulate without a reference point beyond the word itself. Not the most important (I would say the ones that directly impact survival are the most important), just the fastest to come to mind.

  6. If we conceive of “gender identity” as a continuum between “Having a very strong attachment to one’s gender identity as being central to one’s conception and definition of self” to “Being completely, entirely nongendered” … and if we assume that most people do seem to have a pretty strong attachment to their conception of themselves as “male” or “female” (or, occasionally, androgyne, butch femme, genderqueer or whatever other variant on the usual binary conceptualization of gender) … then I would probably place myself somewhere in between the two extremes. I have just enough sense of comfort with the idea of HAVING a “gender identity” to feel that the label “woman” is a good enough label to fit who I am. Or if you wanted a little more precision to my gender identity, I guess that would be, “A woman who likes gently nudging the boundaries of what it means to be a woman” … for example, I’m comfortable with clothing that ranges from mostly unisex (casual) to somewhat femme (mostly business or formal wear, but partly just because there isn’t any unisex business or formal wear unless you count pants suits, which I don’t really), but I refuse to wear dresses including (in ’98) for my own wedding.

    But on the other hand, I doubt I would really freak out that much if I woke up tomorrow morning and found myself with male genitalia. It would probably feel strange, at least at first. I’m not sure whether I would be okay with it over the long term–maybe yes, maybe no, it’s hard to say without being able to experience it. I know it’s not something I would seek out on my own. But it wouldn’t be nearly as upsetting or disconcerting for me as it would be for, I suspect, the majority of the general human population to wake up with genitalia that mismatches my (somewhat nominal) gender identity.

    Most regular readers here know this, but for the record I’m not autistic. But I am bisexual. Not asexual, but relatively low sex drive. Don’t know if either of those are related.

    Disclaimer: Yes, I realize that even conceiving of certain types of identity as being on a continuum is itself limiting and may be only a partial improvement at best over the more rigid, traditional binary approach to gender identity. But since I have trouble conceptualizing, much less articulating, a more complex or nuanced model, I make do with this.

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