This past weekend was KidLitCon, KidLitosphere's annual conference (KidLitosphere is a community of reviewers, librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators, publishers, parents, and other book enthusiasts who blog about children's and young adult literature). I had the honor of speaking on a panel about intersectionality with Guinevere and Libertad Thomas, aka the Twinjas. Unfortunately, Zetta Elliott (who, in addition to being a speaker, was also the moderator) couldn't make it due to illness.
Wellp. Time to wing it.
Though Zetta was unable to attend in person, she was able to send us her presentation and notes (which I read aloud while doing my darnedest not to stutter… I succeeded maybe 60% of the time).
We started off with a little background. Intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of discrimination, domination, or oppression. Types include race, gender, sexuality, ableism, politics of appearance, classism, socioeconomic status, language bias, religion, and whole host of other traits. The concept was first named by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. The big idea surrounding intersectionality is that people are complex beings that don't fit into neat little boxes. A person can be among the oppressed in one aspect and among the privileged in another.
The example Zetta gave in her presentation was the recent controversy surrounding the quote "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" that's been used to promote the film Suffragette, which is about white feminists in the early 20thcentury. This quote is offensive because it implies that slavery is a choice, and black women certainly didn't ask to be enslaved. The example I gave later during my own spiel was the incident that first brought intersectionality to my attention: Patricia Arquette's 2015 Oscar speech. On the stage when accepting her award, she called for equal pay for women. Huzzah! But then backstage, when she was asked to elaborate, she stated that women had been fighting for the rights of people of color and gay people, and it was time that people of color and gay people fight for women.
… Because there are no women of color? Because there are no gay women? Because there are no gay women of color?
And therein lies the problem of white feminists: In fighting the oppression of patriarchy, they sometimes forget that they are privileged in other aspects. In Patricia Arquette's case, she is among the oppressed because she is a woman in a male-dominated society. In Hollywood, at least, she is likely among the oppressed for being a woman over 40 (ageism). However, she is also privileged because she is white, able-bodied, straight, attractive, American, and wealthy.
|The many facets of identity. Source: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women|
Feeling a little bad for picking on Patricia Arquette (she's a great actress, and it's great that she took a stand even if it was a little misguided), I offered up myself as another example of how a person can be oppressed on some fronts and privileged on others. I, too, am a woman in a male-dominated society (down with the patriarchy!). I'm also a racial minority. However, I'm a so-called model minority, which saves me from some of the discrimination other minorities face (people see me walking down the street in a hoodie and assume I'm just a sloppy math nerd, rather than a criminal up to no good). I also come from a relatively privileged socioeconomic background, being among the upper middle class with parents who paid for my college education. Also, I'm able-bodied, relatively svelte in a fat-shaming culture, and still counted among the young in a youth-worshipping society.
The point is… Identity is complicated. And one of the biggest issues we fact today is that we live in an underdog-loving culture. Everyone wants to see themselves as the scrappy oppressed rebel fighting the System. So they look only to their problems and fail to acknowledge their privileges. In fact, they can get very defensive when their privilege is pointed out.
But privilege is not a crime. It's a state of being. And having privilege pointed out shouldn’t be seen as an attack. Fact is, life is hard for everyone, and no one likes being told that they're advantaged because, in their minds, that negates all the hard work and dedication they've put into getting where they are. Privilege is also invisible. You only see how far the finish line is from where you're standing—most people don't look behind them to see how much further others have to go. I myself had a kneejerk reaction of "But I worked so hard to get into college!" when my Princeton privilege first occurred to me. It's not fun realizing that you're not as tough and self-made as you thought you were. And of course, that's followed by, "Well, what am I supposed to do about it?" Like all the men out there who, when it's pointed out that they're the advantaged ones in a patriarchal society, say, "Well, I can't stop being a man! What do you want me to do about it?"
|The lovely Libertad and Guinevere, plus a very unflattering pic of me|
Answer: Just acknowledge it. Because understanding your own identity and its position relative to others is the first step to understanding the systems of discrimination around us. And understanding is the first step to eliminating.
Identity is also complicated within individual factors. The Twinjas talked about how complicated intersections of race can be. They are of Afro-Cuban descent, which means they are both black and Latina in a society that can often only think of people as one or the other. And representations of these intersections in books are hard to find.
After giving our little spiels, we opened up the forum for questions and had a lively and refreshingly honest discussion with the audience about what intersectionality means and what we can do as book bloggers, librarians, teachers, etc. One question that came up was, "How do keep up with all these shifting terms?" Answer: Read. A lot. Thinkpieces, opinion columns, essays… there is an abundance of free content on the internet that discusses matters of identity. Read them, listen, and think. And don't be afraid to ask questions. Hey, I didn't know what intersectionality was until earlier this year, even though the concept's been around since I was a year old.
Another question was, "How do you avoid offending people?" Honestly, you can't. There are so many people with so many perspectives that someone is always going to be offended. The best you can do is to take what you know and try to avoid causing offense. And if you do, find out why it was offensive. Apologize if apology is merited (it isn't always… plenty of people are offended for the wrong reasons. Like the religious extremists who are offended by the very idea of gay marriage). And if you were in the wrong, try not to do it again (and be willing to admit you were wrong… which is probably the hardest thing for a human being to do).
All in all, I had a great time being on the panel and learning from my fellow panelists as well as the audience. And I met a lot of great people afterward. My only regret is that it had to end. Here's to KidLitCon!