As the leaves transform and fall, revealing the true colors that chlorophyll has been hiding for months, the autumn season begs us to reflect on our changing colors. A week ago, many people were celebrating Halloween, a holiday rich with the opportunity to explore your parts and shadows. Following these themes, it seems like appropriate timing for a post on intersectionality and allyship. Let’s start with some definitions:
Intersectionality is the study, acknowledgement, and honoring of intersections among two or more forms of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Allyship, based on the concept of friendship, is the life work or practice of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized, oppressed, or dominated groups and individuals.
So what does this have to do with counseling and mental health?
A very common complaint in my office is a sense of fragmentation. This may be presented as compartmentalized components of one's life, feeling divided, feeling broken, or feeling scattered. It may be a sense that you cannot be fully seen for all of your simultaneous identities. Fragmentation--that grinding sensation that not all of you belongs at one time in one place--is a rule of oppression.
Oppression states that you are either female or male, either Deaf or hearing, either beautiful or ugly, either smart or stupid, either sane or insane. It does not recognize non-binary experiences. Oppression states that if you are female, you cannot be strong (and if you present as strong, you may be criticized, harassed, or assaulted for it). It also states that if you are male, you cannot be sensitive or patient (and if you present as sensitive or patient, you may be criticized, harassed, or assaulted for it). If you are reading this post, I imagine that you may believe that you are more than those categories and the limitations that society may put on them. And you may also be familiar with how hard it has been for you to take ownership for your "sensitive part" or your "angry side" or your "aloof part" or your strength.
The rules of privilege and oppression divide us. Oppression robs us from the opportunity to "collect your fractured pieces, examine them, and then accept them as part of who you are" as quoted above (Angel Kyodo Williams). How do our family history, the institutions in charge, our friends/family/colleagues, and our own personal beliefs encourage this fragmentation? How do we actively befriend these fragments in ourselves and others?
In this context, intersectional allyship is critical for the development and continuation of our society, for our personal relationships, and for our own self-acceptance and self-love. It is the recognition that privilege, when (intentionally or unintentionally) exerted as power over another, is intrinsically experienced as self-oppressive, as well. Whatever we oppress in another, we oppress in ourselves. It is the recognition that my health and well-being is connected to your health and well-being.
When it comes to personal work, we face multiple parts of ourselves. In our relationship to self, we address the things we like, don’t like, and feel ambivalent about. Within our own being, we have identities that are lauded and identities that are oppressed. We have many norms, stories, and experiences that tell us what is okay, acceptable, appropriate, and worthwhile. Sometimes these things are societally imposed (i.e. racism and other -isms), and sometimes they are unique to an individual's experience (i.e. being a cisgender, heterosexual male and being repeatedly told by your mother that she wished you were a girl). Typically, we try to promote the desirable parts of ourselves and hide the parts of ourselves that are not accepted. According to Carl Jung, our hidden parts are our shadows, and we are often afraid of our shadows even though we cannot separate ourselves from them.
Oppression can be brilliantly subtle. One of the most fascinating aspects of oppression is that it only takes place in relationships (relationships to self, other people, society, nature, spirituality, etc.). It often dictates how we can feel, behave, and think in different situations. Oppression, as a relational phenomenon, creates a web of connections between self and others.
Oppression intricately weaves our wounds together, requiring relational work (i.e. intersectional allyship) in order to heal. The personal work becomes less personal. When you practice allyship towards yourself, you bolster your capacity to be an ally to others; when you practice allyship towards others, you bolster your capacity to be an ally to yourself.
Our intersectional identities need balance and love. How do we support ourselves through struggle and take ownership for the undesirable parts of ourselves? How do we reduce the sense of fragmentation we feel regarding all of our diverse identities, parts, passions, interests, and experiences? Perhaps, through actively practicing intersectional allyship. The Buddhist practice of maitri is a great example of this. Supporting (or receiving) diversity training may be another way.
For many people, self-compassion can be more difficult than cultivating compassion and forgiveness for others. For some, it may be easier to start by practicing allyship with our loved ones, and then branch out to people we feel neutral about, and then people we struggle with, and then ourselves. For some, the process may be opposite.
Ultimately, when it comes to relational work (partners, families, groups), allyship is crucial. Allyship goes beyond equal pay for equal work, beyond reducing police brutality, and beyond activism. Allyship shows up in nuance and subtlety, in the most ordinary moments of our lives. At the grocery store. At the bus stop. While watching the football game. At a meeting for work. Allyship activates even when other influences suggest it might be (momentarily) safer not to engage.
We need allyship, for ourselves and for our loved ones, in the nuance especially because many of us are much more active about recognizing and condemning the irritating and undesirable parts of others. The ordinary parts of life are the frontlines. In the moment that I complain about my father's tendency to pile dishes in the sink, rather than in the dishwasher, I not only forget his consistency with cleaning the bathroom, I distance myself from the reality of my own messy tendencies.
We are much more quick to judge the Woman who has the abortion (or doesn’t), the Muslim who adheres to prayer times (or doesn’t), the Black person who is angry (or isn’t), the Deaf person who does not speak (or does), the child with Autism who tantrums (or doesn't), or the Criminal who has re-offends (or doesn't).
When someone experiences life in a vastly different way, we don’t understand. How do we go beyond what we understand in order to support the ones we love? How do we actively love their differences and the parts of themselves that even they do not like? How do we collectively heal the wounds of all the areas in which we are told that we are "wrong", "bad", and "unloveable"? Perhaps through the practice of intersectional allyship.
I write this blog from multiple locations of privilege, and some marginalized identities. Every day, each moment, I do my best to take ownership for all of those identities, how they inform my worldview, and how they support or inhibit my capacity to stay in relationship with people I meet. This process initially started as part of my training as a teacher in Teach for America and continued as I trained to be a therapist. Now, it is evolving into reclaiming my humanity.
One of my mentors frequently asks me, "What is the cost of your whiteness?" After repeated reflection on this question, which will continue into the future, I have integrated many lessons. I have started to recognize the parts of myself that I have rejected due to what it means to be a "white person." The question hints at one of the lies the privilege tries to instill--that their are only gains and rewards in privilege. That privilege provides immunity. The reality is, that when unchecked, my whiteness separates me from people. It can limit my social circle, limit my range for empathy and compassion, and rear up in harsh judgement. My whiteness separates me from myself. It claims that I cannot be angry, I cannot know my own cultural heritage, I cannot have a big presence. It is an ongoing practice to challenge those claims. I will pursue wholeness.
What is the cost of your privilege?