Intersectionality: A Personal Understanding
Intersectionality is a concept that examines the way social identity structures such as race, class, and gender and work together to create life experiences. The biggest impact of these intersecting social identity structures being seen in the areas of privilege and oppression. It is one thing to evaluate how these intertwined constraints effect communities, however, to look inward to see how they impact you on a personal level can be quite enlightening. Put your life experience under a microscope, be open and honest with yourself, examining how you were influenced or had affluence by the intersectionality in your life.
I was born to a white middle class couple; my father owned his own construction business and my mother was a homemaker. I was the oldest of three kids born to my father’s second family. Life was good, my parents hosted weekly card games and dinners, there were always people coming and going. I recall my father lending money freely to friends and family. If they were struggling, I never saw it. When I was 6 years old my father experienced a heart attack and our lives changed very quickly as medical bills piled up.
After 2 months in the hospital the medical bills wiped out all of my parent’s savings, my mother had to sell anything of value to keep the house and pay the bills, and with my father being the lead in his business due to his health they closed the doors. My mom returned to work picking up two full time jobs while my father continued to recover. The kick to the manhood devastated my father and he began to drink to cope with the loss of his breadwinner identity. My parents were receiving food stamps to feed us as they tried to recoup any money they had previously lent out. No matter how hard my mom tried she couldn’t work enough to keep the bills covered and within 3 years we were evicted and homeless.
This series of events had the strongest impact on how I aligned with many of my social identities. Before these events I was a well to do upper middle class, white girl who would have been kept in a bubble by my parents, I would have grown up happy to get married young and become a homemaker like my mom. These events drastically changed my perception of reality, that change impacted my social identity markers. I grew up a physically strong, full figured, polytheistic, poor white girl with masculine tendencies who didn’t understand sexuality because she liked specific people not a specific sex in a predominately upper middle-class white heterosexual Christian community.
By being the physically strongest girl in my high school all 4 years it afforded me opportunities other girls were not offered. I was allowed to physically train with the boy’s sport teams, I was encouraged to tryout for the football and wrestling teams, and I was the only girl whose parents allowed her to play streetball in our friend group. Other girls were not asked or even considered due to their physical stature. It was both an honor and a curse being accepted as a girl who could compete with the guys but it isolated me from my female peers, much like Glenn (2020) explains. This made it easy for me to have male friends, but I had very few female friends.
Being polytheistic at a young age growing up in a deeply Catholic household and a strongly Christian community proved sometimes very difficult. I was ostracized by my family church and Sunday school. I was scrutinized by friends’ parents and some friends. I always found myself having to defend my personal spiritual beliefs. The only one of my friends I felt understood what I was going through was a Jehovah’s Witness. He often had to explain his religious practices to his peers and like me he felt attacked every time someone asked us why we believed what we did.
Being a poor white girl in a rich white community to me offered me a better perception of my goals and desires in life. I always wore second-hand or hand-me-down clothes, I never had brand name, I never went on family vacations, my family shopped at Aldi’s or bought generic, we used food stamps for a period, and college was going to be on my own dime. I tried to never talk about these things with my friends. My parents did their best to ensure we always had what we needed, but we never got what we wanted like many of our friends. Most of my friends were cool about it and never drew attention to it. But too many times peers outside my friend group would ridicule and try to shame me because of my clothes, my free lunches at school, or our broken-down old car that was so loud when it went down the road all the dogs would bark. I think this social identity really shaped many of my personal characteristics, being humble and appreciative of having nothing can be very hard for many to accomplish.
Along with being athletic, physically strong, and highly competitive I was also very analytical and rational in my thinking. I was quite non-emotional and this was an incredible divider between my and my female friends and peers. My female friends had a very hard time finding ways to relate to me because when they were getting all weepy-eyed over life events I would sit and reason with them about how they should get up, never give up, and get on with life. I was called cold-hearted, ice queen, a porcupine, a sociopath, and several other names because I didn’t fall to pieces when life didn’t go my way. Very often I found myself withdrawn and isolated from my female friends, their inability to understand our differences cost me several friendships as the years went on. This behavior was examined by Rose (2006) as well when social groups find differences in their members.
I believe it was this behavior between my female friends and myself in high school that caused me to identify as heterosexual into college and my early twenties. This allowed me to marry, have a beautiful family, and realize as time went by, I was still someone who was attracted to specific people not a particular sex. I talked with my husband and LGBTQ friends about this but have really not discussed it with my heterosexual friends. Given their more conservative views I will probably not broach the subject uninitiated.
In some cases, intersectionality brought me closer to my peer group. The layers of social identities made it easier to relate to a broader group of people. In other cases, it tore me away from my peers and even my friends. Even through my life experiences it is highly evident why the study and understanding of cultural diversity is and will always be important to the betterment of our society.
Glenn, K. (2020). Fictional Girls Who Play with the Boys: Barriers to Access in the
Transition to Male-Dominated Sports Teams. Children’s Literature in Education,
51(3), 309–331. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-019-09384-7
Gopaldas, A. (2013). Intersectionality 101. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing,
32(1_suppl), 90–94. https://doi.org/10.1509/jppm.12.044
Rose, R. (2006). A Review of Sex Differences in Peer Relationship Processes: Potential
Trade-offs for the Emotional and Behavioral Development of Girls and Boys.
Psychological Bulletin, 132(1), 98–131. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.1.98