I care about social justice and equality. I make this statement, because even in Student Affairs there are people who don’t, and until everyone does, I think it’s a good statement to be making. We can’t assume anything – the spots we can’t see, or don’t notice, or don’t think about…those are the ones that can and will cause problems. Those are the places where we end up falling short though we expected tremendous success.
I also try to be a postmodern thinker, which I combine with critical theory to attempt to make sense of the world. This is not all that easy because it requires time, energy, and the willingness to look at all things from all angles. One has to to break them down, and to see where society has boxed them in to make a neater package despite either filling gaps, or trimming edges in order to make it fit.
When I combine my love for deconstructing and critically examining things, with my beloved and chosen profession, I struggle – mostly because I start to see things that either don’t make sense, or hurt, or do not achieve the results intended. Recently I have been feeling conflicted on ways in which to point out how important (let me say it again – how. important.) it is to think about not just the thing…but how the thing intersects with all other things.
Where I am seeing this is in efforts of colleagues and students in taking on issues of social justice, particularly in the desire to take on one issue, and be its champion. Don’t get me wrong – I am all for that. However what I see often is a tunneled version, a version that places hierarchy within justice, that uses the society-issued boxes as foundational to meaning-making, and that ignores the intersection of identity and how that intersection can change the whole game. There is no malice in this approach, but intent and impact are not the same thing, and a tunneled vision of social justice may only create more injustice.
In college I focused on feminist critique. I was all about equality for women, and many of my papers, my activities, and my personal conversations were devoted to this. I wanted to empower women, to see them get equal treatment, to nullify years of oppression and hardship. “Bring it on, world, Clare Cady is going to fix sexism. You all can work on the rest of this mess, but sexism is the root of it all, and I am going to make sure that we would see high heels in the workplace, equal pay for careers, and the chance for women to play professional sports.” Really. These were important to me.
Is this a bad thing? No. Not at all.
What, however did I miss?
Gender, class, ability, race…just to name a few.
Is it wrong to want women in the workplace? Of course not. What is important to remember is that this does not mean that women will show up there in the same way. The intersections of gender, sexual identity, and sexual expression mean that women can be there in whatever they like to wear, however they choose to act, and that this does not mean that they will be wearing heels, or dresses. My paper entitled (I thought so cleverly) “Business Skirts: The Power of Women in the Workplace,” reduced the issue to sexism only, and reinforced the idea that to be a woman means to be cisgender. Beyond this, I also focused on getting women into careers, ignoring the fact that many people in the US never get to have one of those. The whole concept of a career – of working in the same field, and of enjoying what you do – is wholly classed. For working class people and people from generational poverty, the relationship to work is different. To many from these backgrounds, work is a place of long hours, sore feet, poor treatment, and separation from family. Campaigning for women to be CEOs won’t help them. Maybe it will…but not much.
I could go on with this self-critique, but I think the point is clear. By focusing solely on sexism, and defining it with only one lens, I ignored the salience of intersections, and left out more people than I included. Even in that critique I only discussed where one identity intersects with another. In reality there are multiple intersections. What happens when we look at sexism, and gender, and race, and ableism…what happens when we add more?
I get why we do it – be single-issue social justice warriors. It makes things simpler, easier to get our minds around, and our hands on. Start to think about all of the intersections and it becomes complicated, exhausting. But if we choose not to open our minds to intersections… if we ignore how one identity or issue can affect another… we leave people out of any and all equations that we draw. These people are our friends, our colleagues, and our students. I for one don’t want them to be left out.