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.
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.