I have a childhood friend who became a Christian missionary. She spent four years teaching bible in Asian countries. (In some parts teaching bible was illegal, but she said they ignored the law.) When she returned to the United States we resumed our friendship.
Our casual conversations quickly turned into debates about religion and politics. As she proselytized about her political views I noticed she was fond of labeling her ideas and she had a hierarchy of identities. She said things like, “I’m a Christian first,” and “My faith supersedes my race, gender, nationality, and political affiliation.” Now, when she found a new church home, she praised this particular place of worship for its diversity. Out of curiosity I asked, “What’s diverse about a congregation full of Christians?”
She said she was referring to the different nationalities and ethnicities that attended. (And each nationality and ethnicity she named was non-European.) I didn’t know whether or not it was a contradiction that she viewed herself as a Christian first, but first viewed these churchgoers by their non-European features, but whenever the topic of systemic racism came up her viewpoint became clear. When it came to oppression she changed her hierarchy of identities. She was a Black woman first and she championed this order through the theory of intersectionality.
This theory claims human beings have interwoven identities and each identity has its own form of discrimination, but our justice system deals with the discriminatory factors for each identity separately, and ignores the overlapping of multiple discriminating forces that intersect oppression and marginalize groups even further from the mainstream. The Oxford handbook of Feminist Theory adds, “Intersectionality is not simply a view of personal identity, but rather an overarching analysis of power hierarchies present within the identities.”
Power present in the identity means privileged and no power in the identity means oppressed. So at the top of the interwoven power hierarchy of identities obviously is upper class, White, heterosexual, Christian, male, with no disabilities and every other combination just descends all the way down to the most oppressed.
Now, after one of my friend’s many diatribes about America’s patriarchal society and how my male identity prevented me from understanding all of the powerful forces against her due to the intersections of her race and gender, I asked her where did her Christian identity fit into intersectionality? Then I reminded her that she told me her faith superseded her race and gender.
But she said it didn’t factor in.
I didn’t probe deeper into the matter. But it was obvious that she rearranged her hierarchy of identities to conform to a theory that wasn’t compatible with her individuality. What baffled me was she always spoke of Christianity as the most liberating thing in her life. It just couldn’t liberate her from intersectionality. Now, I said all that just to say, the one thing I hope for in the New Year is for individuals to realize “oppressed” is not an identity.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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