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Intersectionality: how am I different than a white woman?

It’s been over a month since I’ve written anything. Everyday I say I am going to write, but I don’t. It is my responsibility to write; I feel I’m not doing my job when I don’t. But the truth is, when I’m not writing I’m living.

Sometimes living means creatively stretching the paycheck. Means eating that last can of soup in the cupboard before going to the grocery store. Going to the grocery store means rent, the electric bill, or the phone bill will accrue late charges, again.

Sometimes living means time and energy spent trying to explain I am not a nobody, a nothing. Means confronting people who trample me because they can, because they are privileged and powerful. Means even if I lose, I win because I am not silent, not passive. I can be who I am even if I can’t change how other people choose to identify me.

However, sometimes living is remarkably enjoyable and I want to inhale every breath of it, not write about it. There are plenty of unashamedly, self-satisfied writers that write happy all the time.

I have a friend who wears a hearing aid. He doesn’t pretend to hear when he doesn’t, but sometimes he hears what he thinks he hears which isn’t always what was said. He was surprised when he heard me say I write “happy.? I laughed. What I said was, “I write snappy.? I write what some people don’t want to hear, but I unwittingly write it with small jabs of humor.

I suppose I could write happy, but I’d rather be happy than write happy. To be happy I have to write all that other stuff that women of color are so good at writing—those difficult stories that save our lives!

There are always exceptions to my own rules. This morning I went to the grocery store. The temperature was 15 degrees below zero wind chill; the roads were icy. I was hungry. There was no meat in my freezer (or food in my cupboard). For several days I had been hungry. Last night and this morning I obsessed about wanting to eat steak.

I bought the cheapest steak amongst very expensive steaks. I bought the smallest steak. I bought a nine dollar steak. I also bought pork chops and chicken. I bought broccoli, but passed on the tempting sweet potato fries, and potato chips. I passed on the strawberries and raspberries too (which cost as much as meat)! I purchased my food with money I borrowed to pay bills. I was happy. I am happy. I am writing happy.

It’s the morning before Christmas Eve day. I’ve eaten bacon and toast for breakfast. I am drinking last night’s coffee. And I am dwelling on a question asked of me during one of many early morning holiday phone conversations. A question I felt inadequate to answer, though I knew the answer. How is a woman of color different than a white woman? How am I different than a white woman? What are the issues that separate us?

I remember the chocolate chip frozen cookie dough that I bought at the store—another luxury. I am happy, but decide to interrupt some of my “happy? space to answer my friend’s question. It was a heartfelt question, not at all disingenuous. He is interested in who I am and is not obnoxious or confrontational.

The question reminded me of a college class I was asked to teach. Students were assigned my book, CHINESE BLACKBIRD, as a text. They were having difficulty understanding intersectionality. How did race, class, and gender impact my stories? I was asked to explain. Although I understood intersectionality on an experiential level, I struggled to articulate the concept in theoretical language. I tried to visualize it by drawing a diagram with my name circled in the middle of the page. Other words came quickly—Mother African American Father Chinese relationships retirement gender church teenager education race death class German work children, etc. I made copies of the diagram and gave one to each student. Then I told them a story beginning with: before I was born

My Chinese father emigrated from China to the west coast of the United States when he was eleven. He sold vegetables from the back of a truck. He also went to school, participated in sports, was artistic, went to community college—then he jumped a train for Chicago and eventually ended up in Minneapolis and met my mother, a black woman who was handing out towels in the bathroom of a popular Chinese restaurant. Father wanted a boy. Girls in Chinese culture were considered worthless—of no monetary value. Father left his four daughters and the son Mother was pregnant with for the red haired woman who was also pregnant. I was five years old and fatherless. Mother became Mother and Father. I had neither the experience of being Chinese nor black. I was Scandinavian; passing for white. I attended the Lutheran church and sang in the choir. In fourth grade my Sunday School teacher asked if we should allow black people to be members of our church. I was confused. The answer was no. My mother had an eighth grade education. But earned a high school and business degree when she was fifty-eight years old, when all of her children had graduated from high school. We were raised on welfare and love. Raised on Government subsidies and my mother’s sewing. We were sheltered. We were disciplined (State Fair yardsticks broke on my behind). There was music and dancing and my oldest sisters’ boyfriends. We were afraid of snakes, and dirty ol’ men. I lived in the same house, the same neighborhood for eighteen years.

I asked the students to draw lines from my name to the other words on the diagram that related to who I am. Hint: there could be more than one line from one word to others. When they finished, there were lines everywhere. My story couldn’t be told without the intersectionality of the many aspects of my identity.

The first wave of white feminists tended to analyze discrimination of women based solely on gender. Women of color feminists recognized multiple and intersecting discriminations. How could white women not recognize class differences? And what about race?

My five year old world changed from a Chinese want to assimilate white father centered environment to a black female headed passing for white environment living on welfare Salvation Army white dolls for Christmas environment knowing how to play Mah Jong but not knowing Chinese beyond colorful tiles and chow mein environment having to use lemon cream to keep my skin light environment having to wear make-up to keep my skin masked environment relatives only can visit at night so no one can see they are black environment can’t go to high school football games because there might be a race riot environment to men in white sheets haunt me and still do today environment.

To better understand intersectionality an internet search provided clarity:


The UN and Intersectional Discrimination

Central to the realization of the human rights of women is an understanding that women do not experience discrimination and other forms of human rights violations solely on the grounds of gender, but for a multiplicity of reasons, including ages, disability, health status, race, ethnicity, caste, class, national origin and sexual orientation. Various bodies and entities within the UN have to a certain extent recognized the intersectionality of discrimination in women's lives. However, the structures of the UN do not necessarily support the implementation of such an understanding. . . .

A definition of intersectional discrimination

An intersectional approach to analyzing the disempowerment of marginalized women attempts to capture the consequences of the interaction between two or more forms of subordination. It addresses the manner in which racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and the like. Moreover, intersectionality addresses the way that specific acts and policies operate together to create further disempowerment. For instance, race, ethnicity, gender, or class, are often seen as separate spheres of experience which determine social, economic and political dynamics of oppression. But, in fact, the systems often overlap and cross over each other, creating complex intersections at which two, or three or more of these axis may meet. Indeed, racially subordinated women are often positioned in the space where racism or xenophobia, class and gender meet.?

What does all this have to do with me?

My mother: hid her black identity to live in a white neighborhood so her children could hopefully live lives isolated from racism; work opportunities were limited by Mother’s eighth grade education, being a black woman, having five young children to raise on her own; etc. Class. Race. Gender.

Me: a mixed race don’t want to pass for white woman writer moving from one relationship, one house, one job to another running from prejudice and discrimination from racism and sexism only to encounter both over and over again earning a graduate college education in midlife earning less money in a lifetime than a white husband without a degree could earn in a year.

Sometimes I am happy. Sometimes I believe love is possible. Sometimes I believe my next lover will love all of me even though I know I am too much to love.

Sometimes I eat steak.

Women of Color: Please click on comments to add your story—how does intersectionality impact your life?


Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful and beneficial to your readers

Dear Sherry,

I am a woman of color with midlife musings of returning to college. I was surfing the web and found your words to be comforting.

In my web search I found the info footnoted below, particularly the last sentence, to be particularly validating for, and supportive of, many women of color....

I usually don't participate in chat rooms or blogs and am a bit shy at posting much personal information, but thought it may be helpful to everyone and your readers to contribute the quote below....

May all beings experience happiness and its causes. May all beings be free from suffering and its causes....

Thank you for your article, Sherry.

May 2008 unfold with the fulfillment of all your wishes,
Fun Fun Fun

Affilia, Vol. 9, No. 2, 113-128 (1994)
DOI: 10.1177/088610999400900202
C 1994 SAGE Publications
Midlife for Women: A New Perspective

Ski Hunter and Martin Sundel

The middle years for women are often described as being a time of increased risks for emotional, physical, and financial problems. Although some of these problems are realistic, studies have found that many women, especially middle- and upper-class White women, expe rience a better quality of life at this time. This mixed situation calls for an alternative perspective on midlife women to counter myths and stereotypes and to acknowledge that sexism, racism, and poverty hinder midlife women of color from improving the quality of their lives.

Many life experiences put us at crossroads. I escaped from my hometown, Brooklyn, New York when I was twenty-one.

Everything about New York overwhelmed me. It still does. When I left I came to Bloomington, MN. A place I'd never heard of. Had to look it up in the encyclopedia. Attended an all white Christian college. Encountered racism and ignorance on a Minnesota-nice level.

Once here I was in constant search of my culture. I divided my days and nights into time spent in prestigeous west Bloomington learning to make lefse and working with at risk youth in the Frog town section of St. Paul. Different worlds. Different realities.Of course before came I was in constant search of my own history. Still am.

There are too many holes in my life. Too many gaps. Too many loses. Too much struggle without enough return. Too much silence. Too much blindness. Too much work to make Life anything near happy. Yet everytime I blink someone is declared a hero, survivor. A miracle has happened. An angel has protected. Life is the best thing we've got.

And I guess it can be said if we choose to block out the screams, justify wars, call every hurting, dying child resilient, ignore the homeless, step over the fallen, pretend everything's going to be okay despite the blood pooling at our feet.

A wonderful story...thank you for your insight.
Happy New Year to you too!

Intersectionality does impact my life.

Being more brown skin than light skin, no one sees that I am bi-racial. I can hide my mom, if I want to. But I know what that feels like, trying to fit into a world that talks smack about being white, wanting to be white. I am not saying that I am a tragic mulatto. But the crap that others try - everyday - to put on me is what I am trying to acknowledge. My skin color tells so little of who I am.

My mom is from a small farm in Menomonie, WI. She does not understand the sexism that I encounter. She understands, to a degree, what racism and prejudice is, because her husband and children are a different color than her. But she raised me to be tough and she loved her son. She did not dole out as much concern about me, or my sisters Debra and Kim. She worried a lot, and still does, about her black son. And I still wonder what would have happened if I was a problem child or a junkie, or a failure? Would she have worried about her black daughter?

Education is a privledge in my family. My dad said that we would all go to college. He believes that educaiton is the only way out of poverty. Old school. He was able to get a education - Masters in Education and Counseling. But now, today, it's money (or maybe it always has ben money?). If you come from it, you can buy your way in, up or out.

Yet, education doesn't mean you will not be poor. I have struggled and still struggle. I have used my rent on food, car note and car insurance. And there have been times when I have been so far in the red, I wonder how I will get out.
Maybe I am irresponsible. Maybe I should be working another job. But I know that if I did, other things in my life would fall apart, my relationship, my full time job, my friendships, my self-esteem, my writing! It would all suffer, because I am trying to be something I am not, I am giving into he message that society says I am bad, becasue I cannot keep my bank account in the black. And live high off the hog like the commercials and the advertisement.

So, I could work more than one job. I could. But that would mean I die sonner rather than later. I would be killing myself for those out there and not living for me, inside. I think about all the women how have come before me, around the world, who have paved the way so I could be here. And there were orbably many who lived hard lives. trying to make there intersections work, trying to survive because of the intersections.

What does this all mean. It means that as a woman of color, I am not just thinking about my gender, I am thinking about my race/color, my class, my privledge of education, and how that all come into play when I walk out the door. It may not be a conscious thought, but there is something automatic that happens inside when I come into contact with others.

"the truth is when i'm not writing i'm living..."

truth is...we're always writing, though not always with a pen...

the tireless pen in my head has saved me many times from committing to paper what was meant only for me.

too often my pen wants to be an arrow. shooting straight at the heart of the matter.

too often that arrow has a mind of its own dictating to me what i never thought was in my head.

too often my arrow is blunted by the shields of those who are privileged to have the means of defense.

too often this arrow never leaves its bow, poised to fly but frozen, quivering at the bow before the moment of flight.

too often i choose not to shoot the arrow but release my hold on the tautness of the quivering bow.

quite often my arrow reminds me that it is a pen, an extension of my arm, an appendage of my heart, a companion to my mind.

and then, and only then, do i aim, and let my pen take flight, right to the heart of the matter...