The Importance of Intersectionality

Three weeks after the recent Parkland shooting, accidental gunfire in a Birmingham, Alabama high school resulted in the death of a 17-year-old girl named Courtlin Arrington. Despite the heavy media coverage of the students at Parkland and of the gun violence prevention protests they sparked, few major news outlets reported on Arrington’s death. The ones that did picked up the story from smaller news outlets days after it happened, mentioning the event only briefly.

Since the Parkland shooting, my school has been planning a walkout for April 20, the anniversary of Columbine. It was originally planned to last 17 minutes, with an additional minute added for every student killed between Parkland and 4/20 (the unfortunate reality of America right now is that it would have been preposterous to assume that no other student would die in a school shooting between Parkland and 4/20, a two-month period). For weeks after Arrington’s death, the event remained planned for 17 minutes. No one was acknowledging this additional gun death, let alone discussing it.

People need to pay attention to Courtlin Arrington. I’m not trying to equate what happened in Birmingham to Parkland—a gunman intently shooting 17 students is vastly different than an accidental death caused by irresponsible gun access and poorly implemented school safety policies—but every single death caused by gun violence is too much. Every single one warrants anger and change. And in the aftermath of Parkland, when more people than ever were pushing for gun control and bringing attention to the tragedies that have been and still are occurring, when media coverage of gun violence prevention advocacy was at an all-time high, how could this death have slipped by the attention of the American people?

The simple answer, bluntly, is race. Huffman High School in Birmingham, where Arrington was fatally shot, is located in an underfunded, urban district, and both Arrington and her shooter were students of color. The Parkland protests are necessary and powerful, but they arose in no small part because the mainly white, upper-class students organizing them had been raised to expect safety, autonomy, and governmental protection in a way that students in areas like Birmingham typically are not. Gun violence deaths have been incredibly high for years—decades now—in communities of color, and the public has largely turned a blind eye. Gun violence prevention stands to most benefit students in struggling, inner-city schools (which, due to economic stratification, include statistically more people of color). Yet race is conspicuously absent from the conversation.

My point here isn’t to vilify the Parkland activists, nor the people now paying attention to the Parkland activists. My point is simply: even in some of the most progressive conversations that America is having, we aren’t taking intersectionality into account. We aren’t addressing the fact that not all students face the same danger in regards to gun violence, and that very specific factors including race and class deeply affect what levels of danger students face. Privilege allows the Parkland protests to operate; it creates the sociopolitical conditions necessary for activists to speak up and to be heard. This isn’t inherently bad. Privilege isn’t inherently bad. But when we fail to recognize and discuss the privileges underlying movements and individual activists, and when the activists fail to take their privileges into account, we strive towards their goals at the expense of other causes.

Courtlin Arrington, 17

Stephen Hawking’s recent death, for example, struck a chord. I have an invisible illness and care deeply about disability rights, and so Hawking’s success in the sciences and in pop culture despite access barriers inspired me. When he passed, I felt compelled as the president of my college’s Illness and Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring group to organize a conversation about his legacy. I began drafting an email, but in the process of reading about his personal beliefs and actions, I found lengthy discussion of the misogynistic comments he had a tendency to make and of his murky history with his ex-wife. I wanted to appreciate everything Hawking had done—and I do appreciate the great strides he made for disability representation—but I also couldn’t ignore the regressive impacts of certain platforms he held. I couldn’t reconcile his progressiveness in certain areas I care about with his conservatism in other areas I also care about. I never figured out what to write, and I never sent the email.

Several days later, feminist icon Gal Gadot (of Wonder Woman fame) posted a tribute to Hawking in which she called him “free from physical constraints” now. The implication, as many dissenters have pointed out, is that people with mobility-related disabilities need to die in order to be “free,” and that death is somehow a blessing and a better alternative compared to a life with a disability. And yes, Gal Gadot is known for her feminism—not for her disability rights advocacy. This isn’t her cause of expertise. But I don’t expect her to directly champion disability rights, only to not feed into ableist constructions that disability is a constant hindrance. She can focus on feminism while still recognizing and supporting other causes. This is what she should be doing. This is what we all should be doing.

Source: @GalGadot on Twitter

I could pull out a laundry list of other examples that demonstrate a lack of intersectionality in movements that I care about, but the thing is, I can’t find any good examples of intersectionality. This is what I perhaps find the most frustrating and difficult here: when I attempt to find role models for the type of political work that I want to accomplish, there aren’t any available. There aren’t any developed strategies for future activists who want to introduce intersectionality. And this isn’t just hindering the activists. Prioritizing one cause at the expense of others only succeeds in the short-term (when it does succeed), and it only fulfills a movement’s goals temporarily until its activists realize that their progress is unsustainable and that by oppressing another group they undermine their own values and exclude a large portion of potential supporters. A lack of intersectionality hinders the causes themselves.

In banding together to push universal equality—for women, people of color, people with disabilities, and so many more identities—the causes become stronger, and the communities pushing for them become wider, with more resources and support. And yet, people are still buying into the myth that focusing on one issue at the expense of all others is the way to bring change. The amount of people I have heard refer to themselves as “single-issue voters” in reference to gun control after Parkland, even and especially progressive activists, is much too high. As someone who is female, LGBTQ+, and chronically ill, I can’t afford to be a single-issue voter. The intersectionality of my own identities is too much for a single issue to cover. Single-issue voting inherently implies privilege of some kind: the ability to care about one primary issue over all others, since the others don’t immediately impact you enough to cause constant worry or political concern. And, even if I myself could single-issue vote, even if I myself had that privilege, that wouldn’t invalidate the experiences of others who don’t have that luxury, who do have to take various platforms into account. Politics is inherently about social connection, not unadulterated selfishness. When I vote, I don’t vote based solely on gender, sexuality, and disability. I also vote based on how the policies of the candidates will affect people of color, people of different religions, people of low socioeconomic standing, and more. Existing in society, as a political and a social entity, requires an empathy for your neighbor, an ability to see how issues that don’t directly affect you will affect the people around you, an ability to care about these issues by proxy.

The moral of the story: fight for the causes you support, but uplift others’ stories along with your own. Include intersectionality in your conversations, and take it into account when you develop strategies for your activism. For example, my school’s walkout is now officially slated for 18 minutes after conversation surrounding Courtlin Arrington’s death and the reasons it hasn’t been covered in the mainstream media. Bringing these issues to the forefront and talking about them made that happen. But that doesn’t change the fact that it took weeks before anyone cared enough to start those conversations, and that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot of work to do. We still have a long journey ahead of us, one we embark on together.

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