Intersectionalty & positionality
I woke at 4am this morning knowing I had to be up soon to catch my 7am train to Baltimore. This cold seemed to be over—I made it through yesterday without sneezing once—but today I woke with an impossible headache and by the time my meds kicked in, I’d missed my train. I sent my presentation to the Kidlitcon coordinators and my co-panelist Mary Fan read my remarks for me. I figured I’d post my remarks here and when the video is posted, I’ll share that, too, so you can hear what the other panelists had to say. Not the way I thought this day would go…
Intersectionality: The Next Step in Diverse Books
Good morning! My name is Zetta Elliott and I will be moderating the next panel. I’ll start with brief introductions and then I’ll take a moment to define some key terms.
Mary Fan is a sci-fi/fantasy author, first-generation American, lifelong nerd, advocate for women in tech, and nobody’s Asian trophy wife.
Dynamic twin bloggers and debut authors: Guinevere and Libertad Thomas of Twinja Book Reviews create and critique diverse speculative fiction for teens; their debut novel is The Mark of Noba.
And I’m a middle-aged author, educator, scholar, immigrant, self-publisher, and fierce Black feminist advocate for greater diversity AND equity in kid lit.
We live in an either/or world that prefers to put people into simple, separate boxes. But identity is fluid, not fixed and books can help to reveal just how rich and complex our identities really are.
Understanding intersectionality begins by examining one’s own identity. Privilege has enabled many in the dominant group(s) to avoid considering the multiple ways in which individuals can experience—and perpetuate—oppression. At the same time, the preference for “single-issue books” can limit an author’s ability to explore/expose the various, overlapping systems that create the unfair advantages and disadvantages that shape our lives.
This graphic from the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women shows how each individual exists at the intersection of multiple aspects of identity. The opportunities available to us in this society can be enhanced and/or limited by one or multiple aspects of our identities. The experience of advantage or disadvantage can change from moment to moment—CONTEXT COUNTS.
I found this great definition of intersectionality on the site Geek Feminism Wiki:
Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and is largely used in critical theories, especially Feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression. When possible, credit Kimberlé Crenshaw for coining the term “intersectionality” and bringing the concept to wider attention.
Intersectionality has become more widely known and used in recent years, but many people fail to acknowledge the critical role played by Black feminists like Sojourner Truth (who asked “Ain’t I a woman?” back in 1851), Audre Lorde, and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term in a seminal 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”
You may have heard the term intersectionality used quite frequently as of late as white feminists reveal that the blindspots they had over a century ago persist to this day. Case in point: the publicity campaign for the forthcoming film Suffragette. The all-white cast posed in t-shirts bearing a quote first made my Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903—it was offensive then, and it’s offensive today. Black women actually WERE slaves, and rebellion isn’t merely a choice made by the righteous. The film focuses exclusively on white women in England even though women around the world also fought for the right to vote—and didn’t get it until long after their white “sisters” did.
When you’re driving, you can’t simply rely upon your car’s rear-view or side-view mirrors to keep you and others safe on the road. You have to look over your shoulder before you change lanes. One way to correct your blindspots when it comes to identity is to always situate yourself in relation to a text—state your particular position so that it’s clear and not allowed to operate invisibly as neutrality.
When you’re reading or reviewing a book, it’s important to publicly locate yourself—state your position because aspects of your identity will impact the way you engage with the text. There’s no such thing as an “average” or “objective” reader (or writer). I found this definition of positionality useful:
“By positionality we mean…that gender, race, class and other aspects of our identities are markers of relational positions rather than essential qualities. Knowledge is valid when it includes an acknowledgment of the knower’s specific position in any context, because changing contextual and relational factors are crucial for defining identities and our knowledge in any given situation.”
In our society, there is a default setting that privileges certain people. If I say, “Look at that doctor!” the default setting teaches us to expect a white, straight, middle- to upper middle-class man, probably middle-aged or older, wearing a white lab coat. If I say, “Look at that woman doctor!” the default has been manually adjusted in terms of gender, but all the other “settings” remain the same.
We ALL have blindspots. Did you catch mine? A while back (during the highly publicized transition of Caitlyn Jenner) I offended a dear friend by posting an article on Facebook that said some reactionary things about transwomen. When she questioned my decision to post it, I responded defensively, insisting “A lot of women are feeling anxious right now.” I should have said, “A lot of cis-gender women are feeling anxious right now” because that’s the position I was speaking from and it acknowledges the perspective of transwomen (which might be different).
Over the next few weeks–months–years, I gradually became aware of a world of exemptions, of -isms I’ve never had to deal with. I am a woman, yes. I am also White, heterosexual, cisgender, and not disabled. I am a documented citizen, I am housed, I am educated. None of these things change the fact that as a woman, I experience sexism (as it manifests against white women). But similarly, my woman-ness doesn’t alter the truth that I belong to the dominant group along these and many other identifiers.
I decided this past year to stop sending my books out for review. Only 2% of published children’s book authors in the US are Black, and after struggling for over a decade to sell my many manuscripts, I finally decided to self-publish. I was thrilled when the Reading While White blog appeared; I consider many of the contributors friends and allies, and I know that white women will NEVER listen to me the same way they will listen to another white woman.
I operate in fields that are dominated by white women—whether I’m dealing with a school, a library, a publisher, or a nonprofit, I will likely have to deal with a white woman gatekeeper who isn’t from my community, doesn’t know much about my culture, and yet has a lot more power than me. The same is true when it comes to reviewers. It’s not enough just to read diverse books. Marginalized writers need members of the dominant group(s) to acknowledge their advantages and the role their GROUP has played in creating and maintaining disparities. Do start with the woman in the mirror—but then join those who are committed to equity and not only diversity.
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