Image: Rafa Win
I may have given some readers pause with my debut article. They would be savvy to the fact that the term “intersectionality” was coined by black feminists to describe a phenomenon distinct from and more complicated than white feminism, to point out that white women enjoyed privileges that women of other races did not. They may ask what justification a white male writer has in claiming for himself an identity for black women.

First off, I want to give credit where credit is due. The writings of bell hooks, which first opened me to the notion of intersectionality, have challenged my understanding of my place in society and inspired me to create change. In her common refrain of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” I am not only convicted of the privilege I have as a white male, but I also find solidarity as a lower-class individual who has experienced the injustices of our rigid class structure. So I thank bell hooks, for her scholarship and her story, as well as the many other black feminists who continue to influence generations in their understanding of the complex power dynamics at play in society.

Does claiming solidarity with these ideals justify my using the word “intersectionality” for myself? Don’t my whiteness and my maleness subvert the very notions behind the word? Going back to bell hooks, if she only wrote on race and gender, I might rightly be vilified. But she digs deeper. Class and orientation figure prominently in her writing, and in these she and I share some common ground. And just as she claims that race complicates feminism, so too, I think, it is fair to claim that class, orientation, and ability complicate whiteness and maleness.

This, of course, isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy great privilege as a white male. If anything, I grow more cognizant of this fact every day. But it seems my awareness has grown precisely because I have observed my own marginalization as a lower-class disabled gay man. I haven’t experienced the common white claim of “we are all the same” that steamrolls any narrative or experience to the contrary. I see that there are spaces where I am placed on unequal footing; thus, I can recognize that the unequal footing actually exists, and that there are spaces in which society has placed me at an advantage.

(As an aside, I should point out that there has been a societal move, going back at least as far as the Southern Strategy, to pit lower-class whites against other marginalized groups so as to keep the lower class from building solidarity. This is why we see lower-class whites denying that they have privilege — they have been taught to conflate the disadvantages they have as lower-class individuals with the distinctly different disadvantages of other marginalized groups. This has all been part of a most effective divide-and conquer strategy, designed to ally lower-class whites with those in power, so that they will not ally with other marginalized groups and thus disrupt the status-quo power structure.)

There is something useful to be found in a more literal understanding of the word “intersectionality.” It finds its roots in elementary set theory. Set A contains some qualities, Set B contains some other qualities, and if the two sets intersect, there are qualities found in both Set A and Set B. In reality, we each belong to a great many sets. I am white, male, cisgender, American. I am lower-class, disabled, gay, atheist. I live in the twenty-first century, in Alaska, in an apartment. On and on the identities collide.

It all gets complicated really fast. I can recognize that my disabilities inhibit me in frustrating ways, but also that I live in a country with enough of a safety net that I can take care of my symptoms reasonably well, but also that the safety net in my country is uneven enough that I am prohibited from living in some parts of the country if I want to adequately treat my disabilities.

I simply have not found another word that gets at that kind of complexity. As I have awakened to my many identities, so I have contended with how they… intersect. How else can I put it? Maybe it’s not the best word for me, but it’s the best I know for now. In the meantime, I’ll do the best I can with what I have, paying homage to those who have fought bigger fights than I can imagine in order to move us all towards a better society.


Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He presently serves as nonfiction editor for Permafrost. His work has been published in The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, Apogee, Jonathan, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, and elsewhere. A native of Indiana, he earned his BA in creative writing from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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