Society labels us. The labels of gender and race are applied the moment we come into existence. Certain things are instantly dictated by these labels– the toys we are given, our clothing colors, whether or not we can easily find make-up that matches our skin color– even whether or not we are “supposed” to wear make-up. We are deeply and subconsciously programmed to become blind to the divisions to which we subscribe; and the inconveniences, discrimination, and pressures that can occur because of these labels. We are encouraged to accept our place in the world and continue on the path we are given based on our color and gender. When we get a little older and add sexual orientation to the mix, a whole new slew of programmed acceptance of the way things are and the way they should be begins dictating our behavior.
I recently read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack), in which she numerically lists the many ways she experiences her white privilege– the things most of us do not often realize or dare admit. It inspired me to examine my own white privilege, but it also inspired something else– what about the discrimination I face as a woman; nonetheless a gay woman? How do my gender and sexuality balance or outweigh my white privilege, and vice-a-versa? Incredible as it was reading such a beautifully honest portrayal of a woman’s acceptance of her automatic privilege in this world, I suddenly felt incomplete without fully understanding my own categorized place. I am now choosing to take a closer look at these instant classifications that clamp on to me effortlessly, and the ways in which these labels affect my perspective of the world.
I was born female. I have a vagina and an XX pair of sex chromosomes, so I was instantly labeled “girl.” I was raised female and always felt female. My gendered place in the world is officially female and I identify as a woman. I am also white. Both of my parents are white with extensive generational lines of whiteness preceding all of us. It is possible that there is a sliver of Native American from someone long ago, but I am about as white as can be– blonde hair, blue eyes, and I get a nasty sunburn if I sit outside for lunch and forget my SPF. My racial place in the world is officially white. Lastly, I am gay. I was raised under the assumption that I was straight, and never really knew that gay was a thing I might be until I was about 19 years old. I thankfully came to the understanding of my sexuality after many destructive years of trying to be heterosexual. My sexually oriented place in the world is officially gay or lesbian.
White privilege is a reality by which we are surrounded. Gender inequality is also one of those realities, as is homophobia and LGBTQIA+ discrimination. I am interested in better understanding the ways in which these encapsulating identities modify, affect, contradict, and cancel out one another. There are occurrences and situations which remain isolated to one of those three identifiers, but there are significantly more situations in which they intersect. I am a whole person consistently inhabiting my own existence of race, gender, and sexuality, so I may retract and revise. Those three identifiers are always upon me, but their impact depends on the context. I suppose this collision of categorization, advantage and disadvantage is what led scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to develop the term “intersectionality.” (http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf)
The following exists as a personal collection of my intersectionality. I have been indefinitely influenced by Peggy McIntosh throughout the listing of my white privilege, and will thus denote those privileges most directly inspired by her insight with an asterisk.
As a white person…
• I see a reflection of my skin color on every media platform. I see people of my color sharing the news, in the movies, as characters on television, as dolls, and as advertisements.
• It is extremely easy for me to be around people of my color*. I have to actually make an effort to put myself into communities and environments with people who are a different color than I.
• When I need make-up, Band-Aids, or skin-colored undergarments, the vast majority of products available will actually be “skin-colored” in relation to my skin*.
• Wherever I am in the country, I can easily find a hair stylist who knows how to manage my hair, as well as hair products that work well with my hair’s texture.
• If I get pulled over by the police, I can be sure that my race did not contribute to the police officer’s decision.
• If I fail, make a mistake or grammatical error, eat sloppily or am a little more disorganized than usual, it will not be attributed to the color of my skin*.
• In academic settings, even at the wonderfully progressive and cultured University of St. Catherine, I will most often be learning about the history, accomplishments, art, and research of people from my own race. I will also most likely be learning these things from an instructor of my race.
• Professional resources are regularly and easily available to people of my color.
• I can go shopping nearly anywhere without employees lurking over my shoulder or keeping an eye on me because of my race*.
• I would be hard-pressed to find a neighborhood in which I would feel like an outsider solely based on the color of my skin.
• If I achieve something great, it is celebrated simply for the fact of being an achievement– not because of how impressive it is that I managed to accomplish something despite my race.
• If I need to buy or lease an apartment, house, or car, I can feel confident in the fact that the color of my skin will not interfere with attaining the desired property*. In fact, our current landlord is a woman of color and I did not think twice about getting approved during the application process. (What if the roles had been reversed? Would she automatically question the possibility of approval?)
• If I have something important to say, I will not be judged or shut down because of my race alone.
• I do not feel the weight of living in a country where the color of my skin formerly meant that I did not legally count as a whole person.
As a woman…
• I most often see a reflection of my gender that is either hyper-sexualized, objectified, victimized, weak, stupid, flighty, needy, bossy, or bitchy.
• I am constantly reminded that I will never quite live up to our society’s standards of beauty for my gender.
• The ideals given to me in terms of those beauty standards are mainly in the form of airbrushed and altered photographs– ideals which are literally humanly impossible.
• Society expects me to wear make-up– to paint my face– simply because of my gender.
• When I have emotions of any kind, a bad day, or speak out in disagreement, my biological cycle will potentially be mentioned as the culprit.
• If I get pulled over by the police, I am encouraged to use my gender to avoid the consequences of breaking the law. Maybe if I cry and squeeze the small amount of chest I have together…
• If I fail or make a mistake, it may very well be attributed to my gender.
• Alternatively, if I achieve something great, it is probable that my gender will be mentioned, as it still manages to be a surprise when women have big dreams and make them a reality.
• In academic settings, I will most often be learning about the history, accomplishments, and art of individuals outside of my gender.
• I am supposed to simply assume and accept that the term “men” is meant to encompass all humans when we say, “All men are created equal.”
• I am at a great disadvantage in the professional world, with extreme gender inequality in nearly all forms of leadership and promotion.
• My gender is dangerously underrepresented in influential political positions.
• My gender-specific healthcare is being managed, decided on, and controlled by a group almost entirely made up of another gender.
• If I were to make great strides in a typically male-driven field, such as science or mathematics, there is a decent chance a colleague outside of my gender would get credit for my work.
• If I need to buy or lease an apartment, house, or car, my gender might interfere with the process or allow assumptions to be made on my knowledge as a customer. It is an unfortunate truth that, based on past experience, I still feel it necessary to have my dad come along when we buy a car to make sure a male salesperson will not try and take advantage of us.
• If I do not succumb to traditional femininity, I am at a disadvantage in many environments in which individuals outside of my gender dictate my position, comfort, or safety.
• I am made to believe that it is my job not to be sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped because of my gender.
• If I am a victim of any of the above, it is probable that I will inherit at least some of the blame because of my gender.
• I am told to be thin, sexy, and beautiful but also told that it is my fault when men verbally harass me.
• I am convinced by society that it is impossible to be intelligent, kind, funny, and physically attractive all at the same time. I am encouraged to choose only one.
• My gender places me in a constantly inferior position in our patriarchal society.
As a gay person…
• It is nearly impossible for me to see a positive reflection of myself anywhere in the media. Television shows and movies that actually do include gay characters or relationships almost always portray them as dysfunctional, troubled, messy, or destructive.
• I do not regularly find myself in the company of people who share my sexual orientation.
• I currently have to fear for the status of my marriage and my personal rights as our country is undergoing new political leadership and policy changes.
• I have to live with the weight of knowing people like myself were considered clinically insane just over 40 years ago and were once subject to lobotomy, electroconvulsive therapy, and imprisonment.
• If my wife and I are in a new place, we have to wonder if it is safe to walk around simply holding hands.
• My appropriate public displays of affection are a form of activism.
• When we were planning our wedding, we had to search extensively for places that would willingly welcome and celebrate our marriage (through many websites of very clearly unwelcoming wedding venues and accommodations).
• I have to regularly, and awkwardly, correct people when they assume I have a husband.
• I feel a perpetual desire to be considered “normal” by society based on my sexual orientation.
• It is necessary to confirm that a place is welcoming of my sexual orientation prior to any sort of celebration, dinner, or overnight accommodation to guarantee that there will be no mistreatment or lack of service.
• If I need to buy or lease an apartment, house, or car and I want to make this decision with my spouse, there is a chance that my sexual orientation will interfere with my ability to attain the desired property. (We got extra lucky with a black lesbian landlord this time around!)
• There is a critical need to consider the neighborhood and community in which we live in order to ensure personal safety and comfort in openly existing.
• I am forced to worry when I am in an Uber or Lyft and start talking about “my wife.” What if the driver, a complete stranger to me, is some kind of extreme homophobe that now has complete control over my safety?
• If we want to adopt children, we must accept that the process will most likely be different and take significantly longer because of our sexual orientation.
• I have had family members say horrible and hateful things to me, and have to live with the constant knowing that I am not fully accepted by many members of my family.
• My marriage is a sin and I am going to hell, according to a frighteningly large percentage of our country.
• Meanwhile, a large part of society attempts to convince me that sexual orientation is a choice.
Why would so many people choose a life of such resistance?
I do not have a choice in my sexuality, just as I do not have a choice in the color of my skin or the biological body or gender identity with which I was born. I do have a choice in examining these labels and the ways in which they affect my daily existence. My whiteness puts me at a huge advantage, but that is often canceled out by my femaleness and gayness. Take a look around and just try, for a moment, to understand what someone else’s intersectionality might look like. Try to understand what your own intersectionality looks like. What privileges do you innately possess? What discrimination might you be facing without realizing? What about her, or him, or them?
I do not examine my own privilege and disadvantage to simply understand my own small bubble of a world; rather, to better understand the layers we need to dig through before we can find greater empathy and compassion as a society. I do not, and will not, ever know what it feels like to exist in this country with black or brown skin, nor perhaps do you, or will you ever, know what it feels like to exist as a gay person. However, if we look deeper into our own labels, we might better understand what someone else’s life looks like when we have experiences and circumstances to compare and contrast. We can only ever truly understand and know ourselves in the reflection of others.