We’ve all had the opportunity to hear many perspectives when it comes to discrimination and the way people face it. Many activists and others are able and willing to express their personal experience with oppression and discrimination by considering their identity as an important factor.
But there are others who argue that the “fixation” on social identity is nothing more than an excuse made by sensitive people who can’t “be strong” and achieve things in their lives — which should in fact be freely granted, but are difficult to gain in an unjust system — such as the right to be free from discrimination, respect despite social identity, or a basic income to have a better life.
I fall in the group of people who believe that by looking at our social identities, we can learn how each of us is privileged in certain ways and disadvantaged in many others.
I also believe that a lot of conservative views on the subject of social identity stem from the belief that the oppressed are not interested in destroying oppression, but merely in shifting the balance of power and oppressing the privileged. This, besides being a false belief, would likely be an unachievable goal if it were true; it would require undoing centuries of oppression and replacing people in crucial positions of power.
But it is understandable why people find it difficult to come to terms with the ways their social identity impacts them, whether it be negatively or positively.
Taking a look at the societal implications of your identity is not an easy task. It entails, among other things, accepting guilt for the ways in which we benefit by someone else’s disadvantage and challenging our own prejudiced thinking. What’s even harder, however, is being constantly reminded of the ways our social identities intersect and leave us vulnerable and marginalized.
This is precisely where the concept of intersectionality, which the Black American lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberle Crenshaw coined in 1989, comes in handy. She wanted to point out that people’s lives were impacted in negative ways because of the intersection of their identities and argued that African-American women were discriminated against because their identities as Black and as women intersected with each other.
She argued that it was this intersection of race and gender identity that specifically contributed to their discrimination. So they were not primarily discriminated against for being black or being women, separately, but for being black women. Prior to that, intersections of identities weren’t taken seriously in court in cases of discrimination — you could only make a case for discrimination that had a basis in racism or sexism, but not the intersection of both.
Throughout the years, this prism through which we can better understand oppression has developed to encompass many different areas of our lives. These include race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, socio-economic status and all other aspects of a person that can add to oppression.
Together towards social justice
When we embrace this point of view, we can better understand the ways in which we have impacted people’s lives, whether personally or on an institutional level.
In Kosovo, there has been an increased awareness in recent years from NGOs and social activists when it comes to intersectionality and the importance of social identity in personal experience with discrimination. More and more people have realized that any fight for social justice that sees individual success as the only goal and doesn’t consider the many barriers that block marginalized groups from attaining this success is not very useful.
In fact, it only maintains a social value system that blames people for their social problems and sees external factors as their own personal failures.
We should seek to destroy this visible imbalance of power. Activism has to include an intersectional point of view if we are to achieve justice for all. Taking these different things into account helps us better understand what we are fighting against and what we should fight for, or simply how to become better allies to people who are in need of our help.
Of course, this is way easier said than done — partly because many marginalized social groups have internalized the oppressive way in which society looks at them and fail to see the usefulness of coming together with other social groups to achieve freedom.
These internalized values — including, but not limited to, misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia —- can obscure marginalized people from realizing they’re getting the short end of the stick. They are discriminated against by others, only to later internalize the blame and prejudice, making it hard to fight for social justice or empathize with other social groups that may be marginalized.
If we as activists acknowledge — instead of denying — our differences and difficulties in coming together while also seeing how they have an impact on our daily lives, we will be able to unite and assist each other in different fights for social justice. Audre Lorde, a writer, civil rights advocate and renowned contributor to the intersectional point of view, spoke in may of her essays about her background as a Black woman who was also a lesbian and the difficult time she had accessing feminist circles, which were primarily made of white women.
She said: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Through this prism of intersectionality we can build solidarity and unite around the common goal of equality for all and not just privilege for the few.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.