Cargo Culting Intersectionality: Perpetrating a Fraud

Even as a young girl, Maya Angelou’s novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, resonated with me. Before the concept of intersectionality was coined, and then villainized, Angelou put into words the identity politics of racism, classicism, and sexism. From her autobiographical novel, Angelou shares ”The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” Angelou’s novel was published in 1969 and two decades later, in 1989, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw codified a framework to examine and study the social and political identities of individuals and how they interplay with systems that are oppressive, discriminatory, and marginalizing. This framework is intersectional theory, also known as intersectionality. The most insightful aspect of Crenshaw’s framework is the emphasis on the inextricable link of social and political identities. Crenshaw explains, “In mapping the intersections of race and gender, the concept does engage dominant assumptions that race and gender are essentially separate categories.”

This idiom is a demonstration of the inherent flaw of applying a preconceived solution on a mis-perceived problem.

Crenshaw’s original paper addresses the anti-racism and feminist paradigms. Though an individual is a part of a stigmatized group, this does not guarantee an intuitive understanding of systemic discrimination and oppression. Consequently, with some activism and advocacy groups, the struggle to achieve a unity in purpose and solution continues. A shallow understanding of the problem leads to an ineffective solution to the problem. This is cargo culting. This idiom is a demonstration of the inherent flaw of applying a preconceived solution on a mis-perceived problem.

Cargo culting is a concept that comes from the phenomenon that occurred following WWII when the indigenous people of a South Pacific island attempted to replicate the experience of cargo planes dropping food and supplies from the sky. The indigenous people built landing strips to replicate the same experience. However, they did not have a full understanding of HOW the cargo came. Replication of civil disobedience through marches, protests, and stand-ins, are amazingly energizing and viscerally impressive. Having a mission that is representative of all women is a bold goal, especially on a national forum, but a shallow use of intersectionality is analogous to the indigenous people building a landing strip.

Based on the shameless denigrating of the women who voiced a concern regarding under-representation and acknowledgement with the women’s march, the immaturity with understanding intersectional theory is glaring. There is precedent of this in the advocacy and social justice communities.

Patronizing

Intersectionality, inclusiveness, diversity, safe space, black lives matter, and other terms are concepts that evolved from the existence of people who are a part of stigmatized and ostracized communities. These concepts represent a bid for the acknowledgement of injustices and the hope for a fundamental change within the systems and institutions. Unfortunately, the concepts are co-opted and adulterated for misuse.

This gratuitous use became a defense mechanism. When an organization is confronted, the knee-jerk response is create an ad-hoc committee entitled “Diversity and Inclusion.” This demonstrates an action of change. This response became a shield of defense versus a catalyst of change. The appearance of acquiescing and appeasement is more comfortable than the effort and intention of change. Needless to say, similar to the indigenous people’s landing strip, no cargo has come. Hence, frustrated and disenchanted members of these organizations leave or become silent.

Maya Angelou writes, “the fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.

Following the various uprisings a.k.a. protests after the 2017 presidential inauguration, sadly, the media coverage was not about unity. It was about disunity. It was filled with disdain and frustration. An op-ed in the NY Times by Emma-Kate Symons described her perception of the march’s organizers as “victimization” and “grab-bag of competing identities.” Ironically, in the same paragraph, the blogger claims to be an inclusive feminist. To add insult to injury, there is a picture of a protester holding a sign that says “Intersectionality.” My internal dialogue is: this person is a charlatan, trying to sell me some snake oil.

Those bloggers and internet journalists offer solutions to disagreements within the feminist movement. The most frequent identified solution is to focus on the similarity of being WOMEN. This is their understanding of intersectionality.

Say what?!?

My understanding

Maya Angelou writes, “the fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence.”

Intersectionality is a lens that invites an exhaustive examination of how institutions within our society have altered and impacted the social and political identities of its people. The fundamental ideologies of the dominant class inevitably determines the priorities of their perceived stakeholders. There is a positive behavioral and attitudinal change when a person is seen as a whole rather than their parts. Striving for the homogeneous “we are all human” is moot. We have a solid understanding of what human is. We don’t have a solid understanding or history of recognizing the inherent worth and benevolence of all humans.

That’s intersectionality.

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