Sociology often talks about race, class, gender, and many other social attributes as though they are a single stand alone issue. However, our day-to-day lives are much more complex than that. In this post Nathan Palmer thinks back on an incident that happened in his undergraduate history course that taught him a valuable lesson about intersectionality
“Michael, you have a unique perspective on this issue, I’m guessing. Would you care to give us another point-of-view?” my history  professor said. My mouth dropped open in shock as I watched Michel, the only African American student in the class, shake his head side to side, eyes looking down, “No. I, uh… No.” My professor looked surprised, or perplexed might be a better word. After a long silent pause he said, “Okay,” and then proceeded to talk about the civil rights movement. Many of my classmates looked around the room at each other in confusion at what just happened.
So what happened here? Before we get to that, let’s talk a little about intersectionality. In sociology we often talk about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and many other social aspects of the individual. However, when we talk about them we tend to focus on them one at a time as if they were separate from each other.
In our day-to-day lives it’s easy to see how ridiculous this notion is. I am not just a white person nor am I just a man. I am a heterosexual, white, middle-class, able-bodied, highly educated, U.S. citizen amongst other social attributes. I am, as you are too, a complex person who’s lived experience cannot be summed up in a single social category. Intersectionality acknowledges that race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, education, citizenship status, and your geographic location all interact with one another.
Furthermore, given that all of your statuses interact with one another, it is impossible for their to be a single “____ experience.” There is no single “Black experience”, nor a single “female experience”, etc. The experiences of all African Americans are too dissimilar to be summarized in a single point of view. Low income African American women who are married with children have an experience that is dissimilar from a high income African American man who is single without kids. There are some shared experiences, to be sure, but not enough to say, “They’re all alike”. Statements and thinking like this alienates people and minimizes their diverse experiences.
Now that we know a little more about intersectionality lets take another look at what happened in my history class. My professor was, by all accounts, a very nice man who probably had no idea why Michael didn’t jump at the chance to share with the class his “unique perspective” as the only African American student in the room. My professor probably thought he was being inclusive and that he was incorporating diversity into his class (something responsible educators should be concerned with). And yet, it appeared Michael didn’t take it that way.
I never got the chance to ask Michael directly about the situation, but we can use intersectionality to venture a guess at to why Michael responded as he did. When the professor asked Michael for his “unique point of view” Michael probably felt that he was being put on the spot and that he was being asked to speak on behalf of his entire race. By implication the professor was saying, “Michael, would you give us the Black perspective, because you’re Black and you can speak on behalf of all Black people because they are basically the same.”
While it’s possible that Michael had a totally different reaction to our history professor than the one I interpreted from the situation, it’s important to note that the majority group is rarely asked to speak on behalf of their social statuses. Imagine if my history professor had, when we talked about lynching, turned to me and said, “Well Nathan you have a unique perspective of this issue, I’m guessing. Do you care to comment on why White Americans terrorized communities of color?” That would have been wildly inappropriate, now wouldn’t it?
We often talk and think about race, class, gender, etc. separately, but when we do we minimize diversity and deny the complexity of our lived experiences. Intersectionality challenges the idea that anyone can speak on behalf of any one of their social statuses.
- How could sociologists teach race, class, gender etc. in a way that acknowledges intersectionality better?
- How do you think your social attributes affect how you experience the world you live in?
- Imagine that you woke up tomorrow as a different race, class, and gender. How do you imagine you would experience the community you live in differently?