“Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity of the world in people, and in human experiences.” Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins & Sirma Bilge, 2016
Did you attend any of the Women’s Marches held around the United States, and around the world, this past Saturday? Did you watch any of the coverage of them on the news? As you watched or participated, what did you think? How did you feel? Did you feel that your beliefs were being represented and celebrated, or did you feel like you were still on the margins? I have recently started, very slowly, reading the book Intersectionality by renowned sociologists Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge. I am reading the text, not so much to wolf down the information, but rather because I need to understand the ways that I can personally and professionally embrace and uplift the cause of intersectional activism. As a faith leader, it is my job to call people in, to cultivate new relationships, and to remind all people that there is a seat for them at the table. Religion is about people, not about institutions. Religion is about feeding the soul hunger of human beings. Religion is about the complexity of the human experience and allowing the Creator of the Universe to partner with us along our complex journeys.
Many religious leaders and faith communities are completely unwilling to engage in deep conversation about the issue of sexuality. And, in 2017, that is shameful. Many of us are familiar with the recent controversy (December 2016) surrounding a portion of a sermon preached by gospel singer Kim Burrell. The sermon appeared online after being recorded by a church-goer. In the sermon, Burrell seemingly condemned the LGBT community because of their sexual practices, which she described graphically in her sermon. My friend Porsha and I are discussing it in greater detail on our podcast this Friday. As young ministers, Porsha and I agreed that the conversation about sexuality needs to be taken seriously in communities of faith. We must have a robust understanding of the fact that God made us as sexual beings. Religion has no relevance if it cannot honestly discuss and grapple with that reality.
Admittedly, the topic of sexuality is one that I still struggle with today. I struggle because sexuality was not a topic that was openly discussed in any of the communities I belonged to in my childhood. So, I came to understand sexuality as taboo, and any sexuality that differed from heteronormativity was a problem at best, sinful at worst. I will pause to say that any sexual abuse whether heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise is sinful. However, I had no scriptural basis to believe that homosexuality in itself was sinful, and today, having full knowledge of the Scriptures folks use to drive home those abusive teachings, I am unconvinced that there is a scriptural basis for the idea that homosexuality is sinful. One of the greatest gifts of my young adulthood was that I attended Wellesley College. While the school does not have a larger number of lesbian students than any other American college, I am proud that I went to a school where lesbian and gender non-conforming students felt that they could live into and explore the fullness of their sexuality. As one who wants to explore the full depth and breadth of my gender and race as a woman in ministry, how can I tell another person that it is sinful for them to do the same?
“When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other.” Collins & Bilge
One of the major critiques of the Women’s March is that it lacked intersectionality. Well, I think that critique is a challenge because one of the issues of American life is that it lacks intersectionality. A few days ago, in a conversation with my mother, we were talking about the images I saw online of women headed to the march in Washington, D.C. I joked about how they all looked alike, quite literally. They all had a similar body type, the same shade of brown hair, the same skin complexion, the same pink hat, and even uncannily similar smiles. The conversation morphed into a conversation about how so few of us have close friends that don’t look just like us. And, I don’t mean just friends that have the same skin color. Take a look at wedding photographs! It is rare to see someone in the wedding party that does not look like they could be the sibling or cousin of the bride or groom (unless they are one another’s sibling or cousin. But, you understand the argument I am making). Do I think we choose our friends based on their looks? Well, yes and no. We choose our friends based on connections. Our friends are usually those with whom we have multiple places of common interest. Typically, between college friends, the connection is deeper than simply, we went to college together. The connection is usually something more like we were in the same dorm, we shared the same major, and we both liked the same sort of music.
So, to return to the Women’s March, I am empathetic to the women who all looked and acted alike and got together to plan the marches. Likely they didn’t think of intersectionality at all, which no doubt is a problem, but what if they had thought of intersectionality. How would they have connected with queer and transgender women, poor and exorbitantly wealthy women, black, Latinx, and Asian women, or disabled women? We have siloed ourselves so much that I almost don’t know who to blame! I am ashamed of the preceding sentence because even it fails to recognize the possible intersections between the categories I just named. As Collins and Bilge explain, when it comes to social inequality, we are shaped by “many axes that work together and influence each other.”
“Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves.” Collins & Birge
Regardless of how you are feeling about politics right now, take the time to explore the complexity of the person who you are becoming. Do you ever take the time for self-reflection? Do you ever take the time to mine the depths of who you are? Do you ever just take some time to celebrate the reality that you are fearfully and wonderfully made? There is some critical self-work that we all must do before we are ready to go out and fight the good intersectionality fight. Fight it with yourself first! You are a Free Agent! March on in peace and power. See you next Monday!