Is the Emphasis on Marginalization Flattening Diversity Work?

Intersectionality theory welcomes conversation about multiple dimensions of identity but allows for the narration of only one type of experience.

May 2, 2019

I just reread Hilton Als’ wonderful New Yorker piece on James Baldwin and found this tidbit especially interesting.

A journalist says to Baldwin: When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, and homosexual. You must have said to yourself, “Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”

Baldwin replied: No, I thought I had hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous, you had to find a way to use it.

I wonder how that comment would sit with current understandings of intersectionality theory.

On the surface, the term “intersectionality” seems to refer to the various identities we have and how they relate to one another. But actually, in its initial formulation, and in its strict use amongst diversity progressives, it is meant to refer only to those dimensions of our various identity intersections that are associated with marginalization (here’s a good overview of the history, definition and implications of intersectionality).

I think that Baldwin’s insistence that being black, gay and poor meant “hitting the jackpot”, at least as a writer – so much material! such a unique view of the world! – would be viewed as a form of selling out in many campus diversity progressive circles.

It’s not that Baldwin was unaware that his intersectionality made his life difficult - it’s just that he knows that being black, gay and poor did not only make his life difficult. To focus only on the good stuff would be telling a partial story. But focusing only on the bad stuff is also telling a partial story.

It has long been obvious to me that the elementary school tell-me-about-your-cool-holidays approach flattens diversity by emphasizing only a part of what it means to be, say, an immigrant Muslim woman of color. But doesn’t the woke college tell-me-all-the-ways-you-are-marginalized approach also flatten diversity? I mean, is the only way to think about being an immigrant Muslim woman of color to think about all the ways that those identities add or multiply together so that you feel oppressed? Are you supposed to ignore those parts of those identities that may work together to give you strength, courage, hope, joy, perhaps even privilege?

Moreover, are you supposed to only report the identities and intersections that are recognized in diversity progressive circles as likely to be subject to oppression, rather than reflect on those parts of your identity that put you in the circle of power? Take, for example, being involved in higher education in America - an identity for which the vast majority of the world would gladly sacrifice a great deal.

Finally, doesn’t the kind of intersectionality talk that focuses only on marginalization simply give young people in late adolescence another reason to … talk about themselves? Isn’t diversity work about how we build a good community – a better whole? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we be focusing at least part of the conversation on how people’s various identities contribute to that whole? Doesn’t virtually every wisdom tradition teach that contributing to something that’s bigger than you is the path to leading a more fulfilling, meaningful and healthy individual life?


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