When you think of identity, what comes to mind? How do you define yourself?
You could identify by your religion, for one. You could identify as either a man or woman (or both, or neither). You could identify by your race. You could identify by sexual preference or nationality or occupation. There are a multitude of ways any one person can label or define themselves, and chances are quite high that you actually affiliate with several of these categories – that you see yourself as black AND heterosexual AND Christian AND a woman (for instance).
This notion of the “and” is often referred to as intersectionality, which is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. In the context of critical theory, intersectionality refers to the ways in which multiple institutions are oppressive to a person. Crenshaw used the analogy of traffic in her essay on the subject:
“Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.”
But even though intersectionality can mean there are multiple ways for a person to be oppressed, it can also mean there are multiple ways for a person to relate to someone else. For example, let’s say you are a heterosexual Christian woman meeting a heterosexual Muslim woman for the first time. Though at first glance, it may appear that you have zero commonalities between the two of you (you wear a small gold cross around your neck, she wears a dark hijab across her hair), if the two of you engaged in a conversation, it’s possible that you’d discover you are both around the same age, both married, and both the mother of two children. You might find that you both relate strongly to the experience of being a woman.
This is what the D&R initiative, Finding Common Ground, is all about. Everyone has multiple identities and instead of using them to separate ourselves, we should use them to search for similarities. Plus, knowing that everyone fits into several boxes at any given time makes it harder to judge a person for one particular characteristic.
So take time to think about how you identify – how you see yourself and how you’d like others to see you. Then look for different ways to see others. You might just be surprised.