03/07/2013 12:03 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Intersectionality: Challenging Though Essential for Liberation

We all hold concurrent "social identities" (consciously or unconsciously) based on socially constructed categories: For example, on our personal and physical characteristics, on our moral beliefs and values, on our ages, abilities, interests, professions, socioeconomic class backgrounds, and on our cultural, racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, sex, gender, sexual and affectional, and religious identifications, and more. Sometimes others ascribe these identities to us (often at or even before our birth), sometimes we choose our own self-descriptors, and some of these identities we achieve throughout our lives.

Society simultaneously grants unearned privileges and benefits, and also imposes enormous limitations and restrictions centering solely on these identities. Based on Peggy McIntosh's pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders.

This system of benefits confers dominance on specific social identity groups, for example in a U.S. context, men and boys, white people, heterosexuals, those who conform to established gender roles, Christians, upper socioeconomic classes, temporarily able bodied people, people of a certain age range (young adults through the middle years), U.S. born, English as first language speakers, and so on, while subordinating and denying these privilege to other groups, for example, women, girls, and intersex people, racial minorities, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) people, those who do not hold to Christian beliefs and traditions, working-class and poor people, people with disabilities, young and old people, non-U.S. born, non-English as first language speakers, and others. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual's consciousness and woven into the very fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a deeply stratified social order.

In my life, early on I focused exclusively on my subordinated identities, on my pain and the pain of others within my marginalized identity categories. When I was very young, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon Mahler's knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, "Varn," (through his distinctive Polish accent, he always pronounced my name "Varn"), "you are named after my father, Wolf, who was murdered along with my mother and most of my 13 brothers and sisters by people called Nazis." When I asked why these people killed them, he responded, "Because they were Jews." Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.

In this country, my father told me how he suffered the effects of anti-Jewish prejudice. One of only a handful of Jews in his schools in Los Angeles in the 1920s and '30s, many afternoons he returned home injured from a fight. To get a decent job, his father, Abraham Blumenfeld, felt forced to Anglicize his name, changing it unofficially to "Eddy Fields."

My parents did what they could to protect my sister and myself from the effects of anti-Jewish prejudice, but still I grew up with a constant and gnawing feeling that I somehow did not belong in this country as a Jew, and then later as a gay boy and man. The time was the early 1950s, the so-called "McCarthy Era" -- a conservative time, a time when difference of any sort was held suspect. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, a brash young Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, sternly warned that "Communists [often thought of as Jews in the public imagination] corrupt the minds and homosexuals corrupt the bodies of good upstanding Americans," and he proceeded to officially purge "accused" Communists and homosexuals from government service. During this era, police departments frequently raided LGBT bars, which were usually Mafia-owned; the U.S. Postal Service raided organizations and even published the names from their mailing lists in local newspapers, and people lost their jobs. LGBT people were often involuntarily committed to mental institutions and underwent electro-shock therapy; some were lobotomized.

When I was quite young, long before I learned what were considered the "proper" rules of conduct in terms of socially constructed gender roles, I naively enacted gender in ways I found integral to my temperament. I quickly discovered, however, that family members and peers despised my gender expression. Children called me names with an incredible vehemence and malice that I did not understand.

Not knowing what else to do at this time with what they considered to be my gender non-conformity, my parents sent me to a child psychologist at the age of four until my 13th birthday because they feared that I might be gay (or to use the terminology of the day, "homosexual").

For most of my years in school, my peers, boys and girls alike, continually beat and attacked me since they perceived me as "different." Names like "queer," "little girl," and "fag" targeted me like the big red dodge ball my classmates furiously hurled at one another on the schoolyard. I would not -- and could not -- conform to the gender roles that my family and peers so clearly expected of me, and I regularly paid the price.

I have worked many years attempting to develop a positive Jewish and gay/queer identity, which included my social activism and scholarship in LGBT/Queer and Holocaust/Religious Oppression studies. Through my work, though, I discovered the profound and poignant intersections in the forms of oppression (not only between anti-Jewish oppression and heterosexism, but in all the many forms of oppression). I thus began my journey discovering the ways that I am not only marginalized, but I also came to consciousness, at first reluctantly with guilt and anger initially surfacing then later subsiding, of my many privileged status identities. I now understand that my oppression does not and cannot trump or cancel my privileged social identities.

The relative invisibility of privilege to members of dominant social identities helps to keep this system of oppression firmly in place. I often use the analogy of dominant group privilege as the water in an aquarium in that the fish do not see or even feel the water because it is so pervasive and "normal." For us as individuals, as entire identity categories, and as a larger society to move forward, however, we need to be conscious of the water of dominance that saturates our environment.

I understand now, to add another metaphor, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes (those spokes that represent our own marginalized identities, those spokes that represent specifically our pain and the pain of members of our groups), then the oppression wheel will continue unencumbered to roll over people. For us to reach the goal of true and lasting liberation, we must work to dismantle all the many spokes in conquering all the many forms of oppression in all their many forms.

We can revel in our past victories, for we have fought tirelessly for them. But let us not dwell there because we have further to go to ensure a truly just and equitable society and world. In the final analysis, whenever anyone is diminished, we are all demeaned, when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised from primary rights and benefits, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.

If we focus only on our own pain, if we focus only on the ways we as individuals and members of subordinated groups are systematically oppressed, if we perceive instead the spokes as representing a vertical hierarchy with the forms of oppression aligned with our oppression on top and all others placed far below if at all rather than understanding the image of the wheel, and if we cannot come to consciousness of our socially privileged identities, we sabotage ourselves and the goal of liberation.

As a university professor, many of my students become initially irritated when I tell them that I do not subscribe to "The Golden Rule" (treating others as one would treat oneself), until I state that I, instead, follow "The Platinum Rule" (treating others as they would treat themselves).

I believe, therefore, that we must look within as well as beyond ourselves and base a community and a movement not simply on shared social identities, but also on shared ideals and values among individuals from disparate social positions, with like minds, political philosophies, and strategies for achieving -- dare I say? -- social justice.

We must end the "my oppression is worse than your oppression" divide-and-conquer dance (a tango I too have danced) because it only serves the interests of maintaining the systemic nature of oppression by distancing people into separate and exclusive identity politics.

Whenever, for example, white gay men openly declare or imply that racism is not their issue and their only goal is to marry another man and assimilate into the "mainstream," then the wheel of oppression gains traction and momentum.

Whenever Ashkenazi (European heritage) Jews proclaim that the German Holocaust was exclusively a Jewish tragedy while refusing to acknowledge or even entertain the notion that the Nazi also targeted homosexuals, Roma, people with disabilities, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Catholic clergy, communists, socialists, and others, and when Jews fail to understand the connections between their oppression throughout the millennia with the oppression of peoples of color, then the wheel of oppression gains traction and momentum.

Whenever people of color characterize heterosexism and cissexism (oppression toward trans people) as inconsequential or irrelevant, and when they fail to understand certain parallels between the German Holocaust and the enslavement of Africans in the Americas and in Europe, then the wheel of oppression gains traction and momentum.

In short, whenever any of us rank the forms of oppression, the wheel of oppression gains traction and momentum. In the inimical words of poet, essayist, and activist, Audre Lorde, "There is no hierarchy of oppression."

In addition, we must not expect others to convince us of their pain, to convince us of the validity, saliency, and impact of forms of oppression that may not appear to affect us personally and directly. We must commit to walking the journey of educating ourselves, for it is not your responsibility to educate me and convince me of your pain, as it is not my job to convince you of mine.

Reverend Martin Niemöller places the intersectionalities into perspective:

"In Germany they first came for the Communists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me --

and by that time no one was left to speak up."