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Intersectionality: it’s a way of life!

November 18, 2009

I hadn’t thought about writing something for this Disability Blog Carnival until I ran across Amanda’s post at Ballastexistenz. In fact, I’d totally forgotten that this month’s theme is “intersectionality”, and the topic intrigued me.

My expressive language ability is not great today, but I still wanted to write something about this. That makes it harder not to get verbose, trying to wrap words around ideas, so please bear with me. 🙂

I, too, have a hard time getting away from intersectionality, and most of the things I write here involve the concept to some extent. By now, I can’t help but see it as a special sort of privilege when someone does not have to think about intersectionality regularly.

Why do I have a hard time avoiding it?

Since this is a disability blog carnival, I’ll start with being disabled. I have both invisible and now-visible disabilities. I only found out that I’m autistic a few years ago, at about age 30. Before that, I was up to my neck in the psychiatric system from the age of 13, with an alphabet soup of diagnoses including bipolar. Now I’ve got loads of psych/medical-related PTSD, on top of the existing PTSD from earlier abuse I suffered, in part due to being “strange” in the first place. When I finally admitted in (forced) therapy, through all the instilled shame, that I was being seriously bullied and experiencing other social problems in school, I was stuck in a social skills group. Way to blame the victim! 😐 I also have largely verbal Tourette’s-style tics–earlier considered a manifestation of OCD, when everything was being interpreted in biopsych terms–and, in fact, fit Tourette diagnostic criteria. Only recently have I recognized them for what they are and started becoming more comfortable with them. The earlier coerced psychiatric medication has left me “looking more autistic”, and my verbal ability/IQ is not nearly what it used to be. This has affected how other people perceive me, and made obvious some nasty things I’d internalized.

On the more “visible”, physical front, I now need to use a walking stick when out and about because of what I now know is tardive dystonia from neuroleptics. One of my legs stays pretty stiff, and is liable to spasm out from under me. I haven’t had a pain free day in years, and have considered suicide at times. This chronic pain has also been called fibromyalgia, which is a tough enough diagnosis on the stigma front, but I have really hesitated to seek out specific treatment for something I got directly from “crazy pills”. I’m going to have to, as much as muscle relaxants helped before. This also gives me migraine-type headaches from muscle spasms, back pain, you name it. The treatment I get out and about has changed quite a bit with the added visibility of a walking stick, and I now get more looks of pity (over being gimpy and young-looking, I guess) than irritation. The perceptions continue to irritate me just as much.

On the less visible front, I also got early-onset Type 2 diabetes and other endocrine problems from all the psych medication. (I also have unrelated gluten intolerance, so my food choices away from home are rather limited, and frequently seen as unreasonably “picky”.) This is aggravated by not always remembering to eat, and having trouble procuring and preparing food, with autistic inertia and executive function problems.

Blaming people for developing diabetes is popular enough these days. I did get fat from the medications, directly from their causing endocrine problems like insulin resistance. Thanks to being built the same as most of the Warriors of AniKituhwa guys, a lot of people see me as fat when I am actually underweight to the point that I’ve lost muscle mass. (Like I am now, due to illness and forgetting to eat.) That included when I was younger and engaging in disordered eating behavior. Even at an unhealthily low weight, my BMI runs at least 27 or 28, which has caused me some problems in medical settings. My bare skeleton would be bigger than Western women are supposed to be these days, especially my ribcage and shoulders. This is not hyperbole; when my mother was dying of cancer last year, she never went below 140 lbs. while they could still weigh her without breaking her rotten bones (covered in skin, and not much else). That kind of brought things home, literally and figuratively. Even though I am mostly able to see that I am not actually fat these days, I have become very interested in fat acceptance, and body acceptance in general. This affects us all, especially if we’re female.

Which brings me straight to the next point(s): ethnicity and gender. That’s at least a triple whammy for me. I’m a multiracial non-Treaty Tutelo/Cherokee from the Virginia mountains (a.k.a. Hillbilly White Trash). “Blood quantum” is a highly racist concept anyway, but it’s particularly absurd in the East, where we had to band together to survive, and took in all kinds of maroons. I have low enough winter melanin levels to “look White”, yet have been made painfully aware of having non-European features, and of having a typically Indian physique. (That’s even before we get to cultural considerations, and perceived/invented “craziness” and “backwardness”.) Come to find out, low base melanin levels were common at the time of Contact in the East–including the grey eyes and reddish-brown hair that half my family has. My mom actually bore a semi-disturbing resemblance to much-darker Wayne Newton, which is not surprising given that he’s from the same area and background. (And who, even identifying as Indian and having experienced discrimination in Phoenix, AZ schools, keeps getting referred to as White.) I readily tan as dark as either one of them does, in the same tone, even in the U.K.’s paltry sunlight. Overall, it’s a good adaptation to an Eastern U.S. climate, not so suited to Britain. Here, I feel awful if I don’t supplement vitamin D year round.

Still, as Barbara Mann put it, colonial racism as it’s developed insists that “if Eastern Natives are ‘white,’ they got that way through the ‘dilution’ of intermarriage with Euro-Americans. Otherwise, their light skin is taken to mean that they are not actually Indian, at all.”–and that message has been absorbed by a number of Western Natives, besides leapt on by Euro-Americans. You’re suspect already in some circles if you claim Cherokee ancestry in particular, and that’s reinforced by the fact that a lot of “full blood” Cherokee–some of the Original Hillbillies–have always been pale.

Enter the Hillbilly White Trash, along with legal 20th Century eugenics getting started over top of our (female) “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South” bodies. Carrie Buck was indeed a “Mongoloid”; she was a Virginia Tutelo. Judging by the photo on that link, we look a lot alike. She got forced into (“higher-class” White) foster care/domestic servitude, raped while there, judged “feebleminded”, and forcibly sterilized for her troubles. That happened during my grandparents’ lifetime, not far from where they lived. It’s kinda hard to forget that sort of thing.

In 1650. Virginia instituted a £75 scalp bounty (not at all shabby, in those days), with “any Indian children under 12 years of age to be sold into slavery.” Until 1924 –also in my grandparents’ lifetime–anyone identified as Indian could be shot on sight if spotted on “someone else’s” land. Continuing on the pen-and-ink witchcraft/documentary genocide front, Virginia also later got a eugenicist, Walter Plecker, in charge of vital records, and he went on a crusade to racially reclassify all Natives because they were really stealth Black people. West Virginia added a lot of incentive to identify as other than Indian on paper, since Native people could not own property until 1965; “According to newspaper reports, individuals were being shipped away to Oklahoma reservations as late as the 1950’s.” Overall, in the East, it was hard not to get turned into a “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites”, at least if nobody eyeballed you as “part-Black” and wrote that down somewhere. From the 17th century on, a lot of people headed west into the mountains, to get farther away from the people enforcing these things. I know people whose parents moved from Virginia into West Virginia as late as the early 1960s, to get married out from under the Racial Integrity Act. Some of my relatives still won’t identify publicly as Indian, no matter what they do in private.

I only found out about most of these things within the past five years, and had to do a lot of historical digging. It should be embarrassing! It’s much harder to pretend that things are peachy keen these days, looking at the context. And it’s easier to understand why an awful lot of people filled to the brim with politically convenient encouraged ignorance are certain that they know who we are better than we do ourselves. That doesn’t make it any more palatable, much less reasonable or ethical.

The whole thing gets even more complicated when you know that probably a quarter of your ancestors were White and/or Black, so no matter what culture you were raised in, you’re subject to weird (and genocidal) racist snarking. There are an awful lot of us around, especially in Appalachia and the rest of the South.

And, of course, if you’re perceived as either a Hillbilly or Native woman, you’re going to get creepily sexualized. You’ll also be at much higher risk of sexual assault, with at least 86% of the reported attacks perpetrated by non-Native men. “Some Indigenous women interviewed by Amnesty International said they didn’t know anyone in their community who had not experienced sexual violence. Though rape is always an act of violence, there is evidence that Indigenous women are more like than other women to suffer additional violence at the hands of their attackers.”

Dealing with more than one gropy asshole, I have gotten oh-so-humorously squawed–interesting how I suddenly did “look Indian” when it worked to someone’s twisted advantage. My mom was suddenly readily identifiable as Indian when she ended up in one local ER with symptoms they could dismiss as her being a stupid drunken (and uninsured) Indian woman making a big deal out of nothing, while hardly able to stand up. She collapsed from undiagnosed cancer and broke multiple eaten-up ribs; they tried to force her into alcohol treatment, and the ribs never got treated. Needless to say, she didn’t even drink. I can’t make this crap up. (That was a strong wake-up call!) I won’t even go into all the familiar “run faster than your brother”-type creepy-ass “jokes” Appalachian women of any description get to hear ad nauseam, which tend to reflect attitudes toward us as the butts of an ethnic group already treated as butts. Rape and incest are such humorous subjects, anyway. Cue the Deliverance banjos.

It looks like there are too many quotation marks in here, but I’m not about to dignify the senses in which some of these terms are applied by letting them stand on their own. My apologies if it makes reading harder for anyone.

My ethnicity has been forced into mind a lot more since I’ve been living in the U.K., married to a ethnic Swedish man from a Stockholm middle class background (which carries its own special privilege baggage, oh my!). It’s been painfully obvious how much of the colonial racism did start out here–for obvious political reasons–and a lot of it lingers on. Sometimes I can’t help but feel like the stealthily pale multiracial Ghost of the Empire, come back to haunt them. (A few people have reacted as if I were, finding out that *gasp* I’m a living American Indian.) In some ways, I do have melanin-based privilege, but in other ways not so much. I picked up multiple kinds of internalized racism and shame, which I am trying to work on now.

That, in turn, raises the issues of class and gender/sexuality. I can totally understand Amanda’s comments about classism and disability, and I am also tempted to identify as “mixed-class”. When I was little, we were firmly middle class, then my mom got financially wiped out by a divorce (largely to get shed of an abusive man) and her later disability. My stepfather had multiple health problems–including a serious car wreck and two bouts with cancer–and disabilities, and a lot of the money they did manage to earn went straight to paying off medical debt not covered by insurance. Over some periods when I was in high school and college, we were trying to live off no income at all, when both my parents fell into a disability hole. Neither one could work, nor were they eligible for unemployment or disability benefits. My grandmother and some other people pulled us through with gadugi, and I am still very thankful. We were completely uninsured for better than five years–with health problems–and I hobbled through community college and then a couple of years at Virginia Tech on Pell Grants, books bought by my grandmother, petsitting and other part-time jobs, and sheer bloodymindedness. Looking at it stated that way, that looks like one more reason to have gotten overwhelmed enough to have a breakdown, and go crashing out of college!

Now I am very aware indeed that I am no longer poor, but technically middle class again, just because I married a man who makes decent money in IT. I am unable to work, and am still fighting feelings of terror at being so financially dependent, and one divorce away from serious poverty. (I have also become very aware that I don’t have another home to go to back in the US, now that my mom is gone.) I strongly resent the way things are set up, so that a lot of women are not eligible for disability benefits while a man is financially “supporting” them. This vulnerability can lead to a lot of abuse, and I feel much luckier than average to have found someone who actually respects me, and treats me like a real human being. Then those feelings of luck turn into outrage that this is far from a given.

This also ties back in with ethnic/racial stereotypes and expectations. Yep, I started out middle class, as an Indian in “savage” Southern Appalachia. Even when we were poor, we had indoor plumbing, high intelligence (just to counter stereotypes!), and plenty of food. (Some of that came from gardening and other people’s hunting/fishing gadugi, and I still feel lucky to have been poor in a relatively rural area.) I was also pushed pretty hard into higher education, even when we were dead broke. Still, I get sick of having the option of (a) trying to prove I’m not some stupid, backward, uneducated hick, and probably “easy” and generally submissive to men, to boot; or (b) letting people draw their own ridiculous conclusions, since they’re going to do so anyway.

So, yeah, I agree with Amanda’s observation that “Permanent, involuntary downward mobility exists in the world, even if I’ve virtually never heard it discussed when people talk about classism. Which itself probably has something to do with the fact that disabled people are invisible, and that most discussions of classism seem to revolve around the struggles of the working class.” Women, poverty, and disability all go together, around the world–including the EU. Throw in ethnic minority status, and you get a real mess. Women With Disabilities Australia offers one of the few excellent online collections of information on how all these factors play out.

What’s left? Gender and sexuality. I wrote a post not too long ago, Gender, sexuality, identity, and binaries, on how some of these things have played out in my life. The short version: I just don’t seem to have an innate sense of gender at all, and find “bisexual” a clumsy label at best. The most important thing to me, overall? Getting treated like crap because I have a female body, and because some people feel threatened by the way I perform gender (or just don’t, as the case may be)–to an even greater extent than most women run into. The Sense of Gender thing is another complicated one, in terms of privilege. In some ways it makes things easier; in others, as hard as if I had the more usual type of gender conflict going. I did have trouble understanding where a lot of other people are coming from–despite trying, and realizing that something wasn’t lining up for them–until that mini-enlightenment.

Another relevant bit I included in the endnotes to that post: ‘Much like African American women, American Indian women haven’t had the luxury of being “weak”. One of the areas in which I’ve been struggling for balance is the harmful pattern formed when “I have to be strong and hold things together” runs up against impairment and disability.’ I’ve been handling that one a little better lately, just trying to keep it in mind.

I grew up in a feminist household–my mom was a radfem, with some pretty peculiar contradictions going on–but have turned increasingly to anarcha-feminism as I’ve recognized more how all kinds of factors do intersect in a “benefit from treating people like things, so you can consume them in one way or another” way; Jack Forbes’ highly contagious, cultural Wétiko Psychosis model describes it very well indeed.

I know I have a lot of privilege as a woman of naturally “bisexual” and “polyamorous” inclinations, married to a man. (Besides that category becoming prime wanking material in popular culture. No “hot bi babes” here.) The layers of unfairness there was one of the reasons I didn’t want to get married at all. It’s a harmful institution anyway, but I ended up doing it because I wanted to be able to live in the same country as Nigel.

Still, I’m dealing with some internalized biphobia, a lot of that picked up at home. My mother was big on the “gay people are OK because they can’t help it, but people who say they’re bi are just confused and in need of psychotherapy” view, which made me feel even crazier. Any time I tried to bring up the subject through mentioning openly bi people I knew, she recommended counseling for them; when I was 18 and she ran across an indication that I might be bi, she blamed the “confusion” on (her own mental version of) my biodad’s abuse (!). For years, I went back and forth between identifying as straight and lesbian, with all the associated mental distress. It was only ca. 2000 that I could identify that way to myself–and not until 2006 that I got fed up enough just to tell her that I’m also attracted to some women, and don’t think it’s a sign of confusion at all. Her telling response? “But everybody is like that to some extent. Did you really think I was so narrow-minded?” (By all indications, yeah, even dealing with some of the same yourself.) Internalized hatred abounds, and trying to cram people into constructed binaries does all sorts of damage.

Another example of how appealingly destructive this kind of response can be: dismissing and discrediting people through deeming them crazy and/or previously victims of crime, so lacking any kind of perspective or insight. You don’t have to listen to things you don’t want to hear, employing that tactic. It’s just a slightly updated version of the old “evil influences” and “God’s plan” approach.

I could identify very well with a comment from mjules I ran across just last night, while reading sparkindarkness’s Growing up gay part # 2 Coming Out:

By the time I came out for real, I’d already been through ex-gay therapy and several years of questioning/wrestling, so I was pretty much, “I’ve learned who I am by fire and trial, and this is me, so fucking deal with it.”

So that trembling, vulnerable state of coming out to someone… I don’t really remember it. Because I went into everything defiantly and with the knowledge in front of me that I was prepared to kick everyone out of my life who had a problem with it. Blame it on years of trying to kick my sexuality out of my life for the sake of those people.

That is pretty much my attitude toward being vocal about my neurodiversity, my sexuality, my gender identity, my ethnic/racial identity, my multiple disabilities and chronic pain–you name it–these days. People have acted like these things were all signs of craziness and/or projected bad motives onto me when I could not bring these “bad”, “sick” aspects of myself into line with other people’s expectations. Or just cram them in a closet. I am simply not going to cooperate with that anymore. “I yam what I yam and tha’s [not] all I yam,” and other people can learn to “fucking deal with it”, indeed. I’m not going to help people shame me into shutting up and trying to be somebody I’m not.

Giving in to that kind of pathologizing and shaming pressure also makes things much harder on other people who have the same characteristics, and hopefully my talking about these things in public can help somebody who’s as truly confused as I used to be. Reading and hearing other people’s experiences gave me enough hope (and anger) to start dragging myself up out of my own personal snake pit of PTSD I picked up along the way.

I have also come to recognize how often depression is a good indication that something is wrong in your life–and it ain’t just your neurotransmitters. I can also recognize how much of biopsychiatry depends on pseudoscience, while being used for social control: ‘The surface is all there is….Modern psychiatry now foists on patients the view that their deepest and most private ills are now medical problems to be managed by physician-psychiatrists who will take away their symptoms and return them to “normal functioning.” This is more than a bit malignant. ‘

This has run long and personal, but it should give a pretty good idea of how I’ve been seeing intersectionality play out. Nobody and nothing exists in a vacuum. Everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent. If you try to look at the world through a filter of “good” vs. “bad” oppositional dualism, all kinds of categories of people are going to be “bad”–and many of the “bad” people will fit into more than one category of badness. Then you get all kinds of amplification and feedback, not to mention emergent properties–so the filter gets to work even harder to keep the constructed model going. Yeah, I really hope humans can somehow break out of this kind of pattern.

On the whole, the concept of “kyriarchy” describes the pattern better. (Thanks to Adelene for pointing it out!) It still isn’t a perfect way of describing all the Bogus Hierarchical Crap, but it seems to cover more complexity than the term “intersectionality”.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2009 10:40 pm

    Great post.

    I kinda like “Bogus Hierarchical Crap,” actually!

  2. November 20, 2009 3:10 am

    Wow… this post here… that’s the first time I’ve seen anyone else express sentiments like that.

    My grandmother’s Mohawk. People read me as white, without exception. Although I’ve hardly ever gotten negative comments about my appearance from others, I have always perceived myself as weird-looking, fat, and ugly; I’ve always hated a lot of the features that you mention in myself. It was only a couple years ago that I looked at a picture of my grandmother as a young woman, felt that same repulsion I feel when looking in the mirror, and realized that almost all the features I hate in myself are hers.

    It’s really terrible of me to feel that way; it’s dripping with internalized racism. But I still feel like my hideousness is an objective fact. :/

    • urocyon permalink
      November 20, 2009 4:22 pm

      I moved the reply I posted here over to a new post, and expanded it. 🙂

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