(or Why This Shouldn’t Be Such a Chore, People)
I first heard the term “intersectionality” a few years ago and had no idea what it meant. When friends tried to describe it to me, I had a hard time. Eventually, though, I began to understand it as a different way of looking at identity.
We tend to be very binary when we look at identity. Things are one thing or the opposite. We don’t have much room for “stuff can be two things”.
This makes sense. Or, at least, it’s easier for our minds to deal with things that are one thing. We like to categorize. It’s a bias. It makes thinking about things easier. Complexity hurts. Complexity costs. Complexity is time consuming and we are busy, busy people.
The problem with being basic when it comes to identity, though, is that it doesn’t map well to reality. Not only can stuff be two things, stuff invariably is two things, or four things, or a hundred things, all at the same time and all on a sliding scale. And when we force people to be one thing, we shut out all sorts of other parts of their identity and experience. This is what intersectionality hopes to avoid by giving us a more functional, nuanced way of thinking about identity.
Thing is, complexity isn’t that hard when we already have a framework for it. Navigating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, requires holding hundreds of different relationships and dozens of story arcs in your mind at the same time and many people do it without even thinking about it and, in fact, enjoy the complexity of it.
But there’s another, even more common metaphor for intersectionality that a lot of people should be perfectly comfortable with, and it’s the United States of America.
It’s right there in the name. United. States. Many, many, many different identities (well, 50 to be exact) with their own rules and ways of doing things but all aligned to one identity with its own overarching set of rules. And it is true intersectionality in that it isn’t one thing for a while then switches to another but it is all fifty states at the same time.
America is not Alaska for a while and then New York and then Texas. It is all three (and more!) at the same fucking time!? Think about that. It’s absurd. How can you be Alaska and New York and Texas at the same time? It makes no sense. These things are completely different. Hell, different parts of those states are different from each other. But somehow, conceptually, we’re okay with it.
Now, how can someone be black, and gay, and Muslim all at the same time? And rural and a Harry Potter fan and lower middle class and dyslexic? Impossible! Our minds can only deal with thinking about the stereotypes that go along with any one of those identities at a time. Except, no, we are perfectly capable of simultaneously understanding all of those identities as one identity.
I submit that any one of us should be able to handle at least 50 different identities for any one person, including ourselves.
And America isn’t just a little intersectional. It’s a lot. I was at a conference with a group of friends one of whom was in America for the first time and had planned out a handful of states to visit which brought up the following question: If you wanted someone to get a sense of America but they could only visit three states, where would you send them? It’s incredibly hard. Three just isn’t enough. Hell, ten barely scratches it. Even from a climate perspective, there are so many different experiences possible (although, to be fair, Alaska and Hawaii are responsible for half of that shit). We contain multitudes.
And America is uniquely suited to cater to the idea of intersectionality, it’s just that it chooses not to for the most part. But even the government is this weird simultaneous existence of executive, legislative, and judicial identities, some of whom are elected by one of the most intersectional group of identities ever assembled. We could actually kick ass at enabling and celebrating intersectionality if we just read the damn manual once in a while.
Which is not to say we’re always happy about our intersectionality. Quite the contrary. But we do understand it. Texas may not be very happy that New York is not Texas but is still America, but at least it understands conceptually that New York is another identity that America contains. They don’t literally think it’s a different country. Okay, maybe some of the time.
And here’s the thing. We’re only going to get more intersectional. Generation Z is by far the most diverse group of younglings we’ve managed to produce yet and, perhaps not coincidentally, on track to become the largest on the planet. The future is intersectional.
So the next time an American you know is having trouble with the whole concept of intersectionality, just remind them that they are a citizen of an intersectional country; a country founded on, and that values (at least conceptually) the idea of intersectionality. Otherwise, we would’ve just made it one damn state.