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Homework answers / question archive / Intersectionality: What Does it All Mean? A term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé W

Intersectionality: What Does it All Mean? A term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé W


Intersectionality: What Does it All Mean? A term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw to describe the ways that multiple systems of oppression can interact to shape and impact the experiences of individuals who possess multiple marginalized identities. The concept of intersectionality allows for the critique of societal institutions and more complex analysis of social issues. It helps call to attention the ways that history continues to influence today’s society and helps the creation of more inclusive and equitable interventions, resources, and support for those from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds. ? Identity dimensions are intersecting rings around a core. ? No one dimension may be understood singularly—only in relation to the other dimensions. ? In the center is the core sense of self, comprising of the valued personal attributes and characteristics. ? Surrounding the core and identity dimensions is the context in which a person experiences their life. ? The salience of each identity dimension to the core is fluid and depends on contextual influences. Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Jones & McEwin, 2001) Journal of College Student Development Typically, Intersectionality is understood as multiple oppressed identities interacting to shape and inform one’s experience. Another critical way to understand the concept is the result of multiple oppressed identities interacting and shaping one’s lived experience. That is, individuals exist at an axis of their oppressions that shape one’s lived experience. In this example, folx find themselves at the intersection (collision) of varying systems of oppression that impact their lives. The systems work together to create unique lived experiences of oppression. Adapted from Kim Milan “Intersectionality and Anti-Oppression” via, Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. In: Martha Albertson Fineman, Rixanne Mykitiuk. Eds. The Public Nature of Private Violence. (New York: Routledge, 1994). P. 93-118. Foundations in LGBTQIA Allyship, UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center. Culture, Self and Identity There are many ways to build off of last unit’s discussion of cultural constructivism. One of them is to turn inward, so to speak, to make our questions about culture’s constructive power personal. We could ask things like… …well if culture produces things, then how much of me does it make? …am I thoroughly a product of my culture? …are there other sources of my self beyond the cultural? …if I’m a cultural product, then are my thoughts, desires and actions simply derived from cultural systems and structures? ...what other kinds of people are produced by their own cultures? …do I share the same kind of psyche with all other humans or does culture impact us so deeply that there are all sorts of different types of minds, emotions, personalities out there? Well, now that I’ve got you thinking about those questions, I’m likely to disappoint you. That’s because I don’t have the answers to such questions. I have my own opinions which I’ve formulated over long periods of researching and reflection, but I’ll only share that with you in subtle bits here and there. Rather than me telling you what I think about these questions, it’s important that we all explore these sorts of questions and figure our own perspective. It’s my job, then, to not rally around my own position, but rather to show you a range of positions which various scholars and researchers have laid out already. I hope such an approach will enable you to better position and develop your own thinking on these crucial issues. The expectation that you’ll chart your own course through these issues works particularly well in this context as there really are no irrefutable ideas in this area. In other words, lots of what we are talking about here are a matter of perspective and opinion, and at this point in our understanding of these complex phenomenon, there’s no clear measure to determine which is more correct than another. Perhaps such an idea is folly to begin with, as a hardcore constructivist might say, since it’s more a matter of what sort of a reality our ideas will generate and thus the question becomes what sort of a world we want to live in rather than what sort of a world we do live in that truly matters. In any case, a lot of this debate comes back to some of the positions already outlined in the language and constructivism conversations. The positions established there resonate with heated debates that span the social sciences, life sciences, philosophy and beyond. In that way they seem to be core questions of our time. Let’s try to dissect and organize it somewhat. In the language and constructivism notes I suggested that there were multiple ways to view the relationship between culture and reality. One perspective is that reality itself is generated through cultural acts. Another perspective is to say that cultures are generated due to all sorts of real needs and pressures. And there were all sorts of positions between. Perhaps a better way to think of this is as one big question. That question would be something like… …when you think about our human experience, how much of it do you attribute to natural forces and how much of it to the force of culture? When you think about it this way, you’ll recognize pretty quickly that we are talking about a continuum of perspectives. On one end of the spectrum you’ll find people who argue that humans and their experiences are mostly determined by natural or real factors. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, tend to fall further in this direction. They argue that all sorts of things about how we think, act and feel are hard-wired into us due to evolutionary pressures. So, for an evolutionary psychologist, the fact that you find certain things desirable in a sexual partner, for example, is not a matter of your choice, upbringing or cultural pattering, but rather is a direct result of certain builtin evolutionary mechanisms for mate selection. Evolutionary psychologists will also make claims that the differences between men and women are primarily based in similar evolutionary needs. Human emotions, language, color preference, and just about anything else you can think of is explained by these folks along these natural lines. On the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the hardcore constructionists. They’ll say that humans are like a “tabula raza,” a popular expression which means a blank slate. What they mean by this is that once we are born, or even before birth as we receive stimuli within the womb, we are thoroughly imprinted by the imputs we receive. In this way the explanations regarding why people are the way they are don’t refer back to some kind of natural dispositions, but rather examine the way patterns of behavior, thought and desire are built up in us. Most cultural anthropologists fall further towards this pole of the continuum, as you’ve likely witnessed already. In that way this debate isn’t new at all. It’s implied in just about everything we’ve studied thus far. Let’s break it down one more way and then see what it has to do with the ideas of self and identity. If we take some major modern paradigms, we find that they line up in this dichotomous way. Realism Idealism People who are realists believe that there is a reality which can be observed and which underwrites all human experience. People who are realists are likely to believe that there deep commonalities between all humans, despite cultural diversity, and that the meaningful differences between people are a result of real conditions of existence such as ecological factors. People who are idealists believe that experience occurs on the body or in the brain, rather than in a real world. Because experience can basically be thought of as electrical signals interpreted by our brains, then the mental structures which allow us to process these signals are the fundamental basis of our realities. Thus, reality doesn’t exist outside of our perception of it, rather, perception is the act of building the real based on the concepts we have available and how they are arranged. Human Universals Cultural Particulars Deep commonalities between all humans can be described as human universals. Such foundations of the human condition Because these mental structures aren’t considered to be given to us through genetic heredity, human beings learn are universal because they are built into us. These universals are natural structures which greatly shape who we are and how we live. Culture and diversity are secondary, and can be considered variations of these underlying and unavoidable human themes. them. Because learning is the way mental structures are built up for us, there is the possibility of endless and vast differences between human experiences. It’s these variations, then, which are considered primary, and are the focus of study and explanation. These particular cultural forms, or cultural particulars, become ways to think about the constructive power of culture. Nature Nurture Hopefully not being too redundant now, folks who talk about nature over nurture tend to favor realist explanations of human behaviors and tend to look for universals in human experience to explain Now I know I’m being redundant, but to push through this chart it should be said that people who favor idealism and focus on cultural particulars tend to explain human behaviors in terms of nurture. If someone does something, just about anything, it’s because she or he learned to do it, either directly or indirectly. So, where do the concepts of identity and self fit into all of this? They fit into this discussion in a fundamental way, because ultimately what we are talking about above are identities and selves. Or, ask yourself this… …where does your self and your identity come from? Think about your answer for a while and then reflect back on the discussion above. Where do your ideas about self and identity fit into this chart? If we can get a good class discussion going on this subject, we’ll likely find that there are a wide range of perspectives on this question. Some of you will be toward the nature side of things and want to explain who you are as mostly to do with genetic dispositions and adaptations. Some of you will be towards the nurture side of things, seeing humans as open-ended creatures imprinted by our experiences. Most of you will likely fall somewhere in the middle. We should all be aware, however, that these sorts of basic schisms between how we think about things aren’t the end of a thought process. Rather, they are the beginning of one. If you want to explain an experience in terms of human nature or in terms of cultural construction, in either case in order to have any sort of explanatory force and any kind of significance, you’ll have to dig deeper into how things work in either direction. That is to say, if things are based in human nature, then one should want to know how it works, why it works the way it does and what the effects of it working this way are. If things are based in culture, then we should similarly ask how such arrangements were generated, what they do, why they do it, and what sorts of effects they have. Just to toss in some thought provoking comments… …perhaps we should start trying to think beyond the simplistic nature/nurture division. What are the fundamental elements which differentiate these two sorts of forces? Are they necessarily so different? Can they be integrated? What would a perspective that doesn’t rely upon the concepts of nature or culture look like? Now let’s try to differentiate the concepts of identity and self and see how that fits into this basic schema. Let’s start with identity. It’s likely an idea you’ve simply taken for granted all these years, a word you’ve heard and described but probably not put deep thought into figuring out what it is and how it works. So think about it now for a while… …what is identity? Let’s explore the concept on our own for a while and then come back to the notes. Take a look at the links provided on this subject and search around on the net on your own for a while. Try to come up with your own definition of what identity is in a way that would be meaningful for anthropological study. You’ll note right away that identity is a complicated concept, like most of the things we are dealing with in this course. So there are numerous ways to approach the issue. The cultural anthropological way tends to assume certain things about identity. I’ll try to break those down as simply as I can for you below. For cultural anthropologists, identity is: 1) Something that is categorical 2) Something that varies greatly from one culture to another 3) Something that is expressed and interpreted 4) Something that we use to understand ourselves and others Now let me try to break down these points in a meaningful way. Firstly, what does it mean to say that identity is something categorical? Well, think about it this way. What is your identity? Take a few moments and really think it through and scribble down some ideas on a notepad. So, what kind of things did you come up with? Here are some of the things I came up with… Professor Father Husband Man White Middle-class Intellectual If you think about those words above, they are basically ways to categorize who I am. They let me think about myself in certain categorical ways. Who am I? In this context of writing this lecture right now I’m a professor. That’s my career and it’s differentiated from lawyers, accountants, physicians, and even other teachers. Moving down to the last term on the list, the idea that I’m a professor also differentiates me and a whole other range of individuals as dealing primarily in knowledge and information rather than physical labor. This distinction between laborers and intellectuals is another important level of how we see ourselves. I’m a father too, as opposed to a mother or a dead-beat or just a person without children. It’s interesting now that I think about it that there’s a certain assumption about men being fathers, though nowhere near as intense as the association between women and motherhood. Women are simply expected to be mothers by a certain age, and many women encounter the confused or judgmental if they try to explain that they simply never wanted to have kids. I’m a man, not woman. I’m white, not black, Latino, Asian or any other racial group. I’m middle as opposed to upper and lower class. Well, you get the idea, they are all categories. They are categories of how we divide up the people in our world. As such, they are one of the ways we try to understand who we are and who other people are. They become tools, so to speak, which we use to interact with the people in our social domains. Now, where do these categories come from? Moving back up to the schema above, some folks argue that at least some of the identities above derive naturally from innate categories of human beings. For example, it can be argued that there are natural distinctions between men and women and that these natural differences generate the basis for my identity as a man. In other words, I do manly things like spit, scratch and play rough because it’s genetically coded in me to be that way. When we get to the sex and gender section of the course we’ll explore these issues in much more detail. But I’m sure you can see already that there are more ways to think about sex and gender than this strictly biologically determinist one. Cultural anthropologists tend to think of the categories as cultural products. That is, they are arbitrary designations of various kinds of human beings. This should make quick sense of item 2 above, which states that identity varies from one culture to another. Thinking about it this way, the point is obvious as long as we are able to see that the categories people use to think of their identity change from culture to culture. Back to the categories… …We might call them systems of differentiation. That’s what Michel Foucalt called them at least. What Foucault argued is that such systems of differentiating people are always embedded in mechanisms of power. Another way to get at this kind of a point is to ask questions about why we have the categories we do. On one level, perhaps the will to categorize can be conceptualized as a human universal. But even if you accept that it is still difficult to explain why we would have the categories we do and another society the categories they do without recourse to some idea of usefulness. In other words, those categories exist because they are used for something culturally specific. We have classes, for example, because it allows us to understand our economic lives and primarily, I argue, see ourselves in relation to others as we jockey for status and position. In Nepal they have castes. Castes are groupings of people determined by heredity and designate more spiritual positions in the universe. They are vastly different systems of categorization. Nevertheless they both explain why some people do or must do what they do to keep a complex social whole functioning. We can come to this question about identity, culture and power in a different way as well by noticing in my short list above that there is a fundamental difference between some of the terms I put up there. Some of them like man, white, middleclass, are a part of who I am regardless of whether or not I want them to be. If I said to you, “I’m not a man,” or if I said, “I’m not white,” you’d either thing I was bonkers or would ask for a whole lot of explanation. That’s because I pretty clearly emit the signals which have been designated by our society to be associated with those categories. As such, I’m put into those categories whether or not I like it, whether or not I resist it. I could even be sitting here writing these lecture notes in a skirt, painted nails and perfume on. But for most of you that wouldn’t make me not a man. When people try to choose such things in our society people get very uncomfortable. That’s because, I think, these categories are fundamental to who we are and how we understand each other. Sociologists like to call what I’m talking about in the paragraph above ascribed characteristics, ascribed status or ascribed identity. It’s ascribed because it’s given to us. Ascribed stands in juxtaposition to those things which I assign for myself. Sociologists call that achieved characteristics, status or identity. It’s a useful distinction to a point. What’s important from the cultural anthropological perspective, at least the one I’m forwarding here, is that we understand this process of ascribing identity and how it affects us and the way we live our lives. I like to call ascribed characteristics something different. I call them “categories of existence.” That’s a nifty term I get from Judith Butler, a fantastic feminist scholar at UC Berkely. What she says about these categories is that they define our existence for us because we have no option of truly opting out of them. Imagine a conversation like this: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t fill out this job application.” “Oh really? Why’s that?” “Well, because I really don’t see myself as neither a man nor a woman. But you’ve just got two boxes here and I’m supposed to just check one.” “Well, yeah, because you’re either male or female, aren’t you?” “No, I don’t want to be. I’d rather think of myself in some other way.” “It doesn’t matter what you want, it matters what you are. So, what are you?” Silly? Sure. But there’s hopefully some kind of point in there. And the point is that we don’t really exist in our society outside of these categories. Though, in some ways, an intermediate gender position is pushing itself into people’s awareness. But more on that later. For now what’s important to note is that we come to know ourselves through these fundamental distinctions of what kind of people exist in our world. When I was born the first thing the doctor said was, “It’s a boy!” My first category was assigned. Along with that came the parade of expectations. I’d play baseball, like the picture of me in my little pin-striped baby outfit demonstrated. I looked cute though ?. I’d prefer blue to pink, since all my clothes, blankets and toys were colored that way. I’d be tough and aggressive and wouldn’t be pushed around and the way my family played with me when I was young helped make that the case. There are all sorts of ways to think about these expectations that link up with our categories of existence. But the point is that I came to know myself in my earliest moments through these categories which were assigned to me. I learned what the expectations were and I knew that to be accepted and loved I’d have to internalize the norms and values embedded in those categories. The experience of who I am in this way can be seen as given to me from without, my identity impressed upon me based on a range of complicated cultural knowledges, practices and objects. In there is the power of identity categories to give shape to our selves and our bodies. The above discussion also relates to the point about expressing and interpreting identity. We express our identities in several ways. One way is we simply exude signals because we’ve become so habituated to being a man, for example, that it all just comes “naturally.” These signals are picked up by others in our social domains and give people an idea of who I am… “Well, he seems like a normal sort of guy.” If I start to stray too far and express myself in an aberrant kind of way, people will most likely react with subtle scorn or judgment, letting me know that I’ve violated a cultural norm. That kind of thing is painful. Ostracizing, scorning, ridiculing, are all very affective and are thus very powerful tools in terms of cultural patterning or cultural control. If you are a man, try to wear a skirt the next time you go in to work. Or if you’re not a man, try to get a man you know to wear a skirt for you, even in a private context. Even if you fully understand the arbitrary nature of a particular kind of attire being designated as feminine, you’ll have to overcome some intense social anxiety to be able to do something like that. That’s how deeply set such constructions are. I also express myself to others in all sorts of more active ways. One way to think about this is that I perform my identity categories, both those which are essential to who I am and those which I actively seek membership within. These expressions of identity greatly vary from one society to another. Shortly I’ll nudge you towards some articles which will hopefully give you a sense of this. But with all this talk about identity, we’ve just sort of assumed what the self is. But we probably haven’t explored that idea any deeper than we did with ideology. So let’s think about it a bit. What is self? How does it relate to identity? Think about it on your own for a bit and then take a look at the web resource I’ve provided for you to further your thinking. Based on what we are talking about above, self is a tricky concept. Rather than categories which are clearly designated in cultural belief systems, self is something more rooted in emotion, sentiment, affective states which have some kind of a raw status in our mind. Whereas identity categories may tell us who we should be, and we may see ourselves in relationship to those categories and adjust ourselves accordingly, that doesn’t mean that our selves are simple effects of such procedures. In other words, when you think of your categories of existence, like sex for example, do you think that being a woman or man sums up your experience of yourself? Or do you rather see yourself as some kind of entity in relationship to these culturally established parameters of what a male or female should be? The only way we can think that way about ourselves is if we maintain some sort of distinction between the inside and outside, between the cultural and personal. In a sense, that’s where the idea of the self comes in for most folks. A great many people want to view the self as that personal domain where we are who we are and that’s just that. Then identity becomes the hinge between the self and culture, showing us what is expected of us and allowing our selves to gravitate towards it, so to speak. But now that I’ve said things the way I did in the previous paragraph you must be asking yourself by now, “Ok, but where does this self come from?” That’s another amazingly complex question which I’m only going to give glimpses of possible directions. For some folks the self may be a spiritual thing. For others it may be based in natural pre-dispositions. Perhaps this is an attractive view, and fits a lot of folks understanding of the middle ground between nature and nurture. In other words, the identity part may fall on the side of cultural ideals constituting experience from one direction and the self part may be our natural core constituting experience from another direction. As you’ll see in the next unit, this is pretty much the way the gender/sex distinction works. Keep in mind though, that for hardcore cultural constructivists, the self is itself a product of cultural forces. In this way, our very sentiments, emotions and all other manner of internal states are ultimately learned through the experiences which we are guided through most of our lives. So, here we are back at the radical idea that there are no human universals, that cultural particulars are what generate the forms and functions of human psyches. These approaches of course greatly contradict many aspects of our western traditions. Is there a mind or are there minds? Do all humans have an ego, id and superego, as Freud postulated? Or are there other versions of human mental structures? Approaches which at least suspend the notion of universals as an analytic tool have several names in the social sciences. They tend to be mergers of contemporary thought in psychology, anthropology and sociology. In that way they are pretty darned powerful and exciting to explore. They go under the heading of ethnopsychology, cultural psychology, or social psychology. There are differences between those approaches, but if you are interested in this stuff any of them will provide good starting points. Such approaches and questions should give you another way to look at the various notions about human psychology that are floating around out there. As soon as you hear someone talking about stages of development, or structures of the mind, you should know that they are positing human universals as the key means to explain the human psychological condition. And you should then start to explore them as opinions about the way that human minds are, not necessarily facts. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover you’re a constructivist. If you are, you might find that such perspectives on the structure of the human mind actually create the reality of that experience rather than reflect it. What I’d like for you to do now is to read through the article entitled “Toward a Deep Cultural Psychology of Shame.” I’m sure the author there has done a far better job presenting the fundamental issues which face those who want to explore the connection between culture and psychology. There’s an ethnographic element to the article as well, and that should increase the entertainment and educational value of the discussion. Another great way to explore the connection between culture and self is to examine rituals. Rituals can in many ways be thought of as the hinge between the internal and the external, between bodies and selves and the knowledge and expectations built up by any given group of people. Rather than writing on and on about these and other subjects, I’m linking some pages for you to explore in these regards. There are also ethnographic exercises which you can use to develop your thinking along these lines as well. When you’ve finished reading the article and sites mentioned above, I’d like you to take a look at the supplemental articles folder for this unit and pick one of the articles out of there which seems most interesting to you. Then read through that one to further develop your thinking on this complex and relevant series of explorations. All that’ll be left for you after reading these notes and those two articles is to pop on over to the discussion boards and join a hopefully exciting discussion. See you there!

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