The week of November 16th was a crazy time. The last week of classes before Thanksgiving break is a struggle in a normal semester, but with fall break being canceled on account of the worldwide pandemic– I’ll be honest I’d seen better days. Beyonce’s latest IVY PARK collection dropped, just in time to remind me that I’m still a broke college student who can’t afford an IVY PARK price tag; I beat my own record for how many days I could wear the same pair of leggings in a row without anyone else being the wiser; and I finally fell asleep on a zoom lecture with my camera on (the horror). As captivating as my social life has become these days in quarantine, none of this came close to my excitement around the EXCEL and DEI Intersectionality in the Arts Event which was hosted on Nov 17th.

If you weren’t able to attend, stop, and take a moment to reevaluate your priorities. Don’t worry I’ll wait. Just know that some experiences in life don’t come around every dynasty and you missed a good one… but luckily for you, I’m here to give you the highlights. 

What IS intersectionality?

There are certain words that are like the literary equivalent of Franks Red Hot…

Interdisciplinary, interdepartmental, and recently intersectionality seem to have that effect (any linguists able to tell me what’s up with the prefix inter?). Throw it in a grant BAM approved. Throw it in an essay BAM A+. Throw it in a risky text BAM boo’ed up. But what does it ACTUALLY MEAN? Why does it make liberal academics sophisticatedly begin snapping, squint their eyes, and regard you with a new profound respect as the lights mysteriously dim? (no that only happens to me? Weird…)

Intersectionality is a term that developed in the late 80’s and early 90’s and comes out of Critical Race Theory. It was coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black female legal scholar at Stanford University. According to the all knowing Wikipedia, “ Intersectionality is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.” It seeks to embrace the complexity of identities that make up group dynamics and not to essentialize a group’s experiences.

The approach selects different aspects of a person’s identity and then analyzes the effects of these intersecting and overlapping identities. The classic triad compares race, gender, and class but any aspect of identity can be studied: sexuality, size, nationality, caste, religion, disability, physical appearance, etc. 

Need an example?

When looking at a diverse group of women, all of those women may face discrimination based on their gender, but the intersection of their other identities such as race, class, or physical appearance may complicate or alter the way they experience gender discrimination.

In her first essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” Crenshaw looks at examples of court case where black women were uniquely disadvantaged because of their dual identity as a black woman. The law was only set up to address discrimination based off of race or gender but these women were falling through the cracks as they faced oppression based on the intersection of the two. 

Intersectionality is particularly relevant in conversations around social movements which are historically founded upon identity politics to help delineate the “us” from the “other.”1 This has a nasty side-effect of at best conflating and at worst ignoring intragroup differences, a problem that unequally affects members who sit at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.2

Dr. Naomi André, a speaker at the Intersectionality in the Arts event, discussed how one of the strongest applications of intersectional theory is in the creation of coalitions. When seeking to create social change or gather opinions on a topic organizing a group around a common cause instead of identity politics can be really effective at creating space for inclusivity and building bridges across groups who may not normally be allies. 

Intersectionality seeks to reframe the way that identity and identity politics are thought about. It asks individuals and movements seeking to address one form of oppression, to incorporate other intersecting types of oppression. It asks us to acknowledge how while we may identify as oppressed in one aspect we may be an oppressor in another. 

“The true force of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”

-Audre Lorde

How does this pertain to the performing arts?

The Arts + Intersectionality = LIZZO

Everyone loves Lizzo. Everyone. Dare I say that in a nation as polarized and divided as we are we can all come together around the notion that it is UNAMERICAN to not love Lizzo. (I am not above initiating a McCarthyesque witch hunt for Lizzo haters. Don’t test me.) 

Why is Lizzo so dang likeable? She’s authentically and unabashedly herself. She doesn’t attempt to be an idealized media icon. She doesn’t seek to fit into the prescribed cookie cutter mold for black pop stars. She is a multi-faceted person who contains multitudes. 

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

– Walt Whitman Lizzo

She writes songs about what it’s like to be a black, body normative, sensitive, flute playing, goal setting woman. While most of her fans don’t share all those identities her confident claiming of her intersectional identities has resulted in fans forming their own coalitions around these different aspects of her identity. Fans flock to Lizzo because she loves being black, because she loves being a woman, because she loves her body as it is, because she loves her band kid nerd status (and honestly band geeks need all the street cred they can get)… She is paving the way for how music, public opinion, and social movements can espouse the values of intersectionality and build coalitions around common causes. 

Looking at Lizzo’s fanbase is a great case study into how intersectionality and coalition- making, create bridges across groups that may not have otherwise been allies. By realistically portraying her unique perspective on the world due to the intersection of her different identities, Lizzo is able to create a group of fans who are united by their similarities rather than their differences. Whether you’re a band geek, Rihanna, a varsity twerk team captain, or simply a shower karaoke artist, Lizzo reminds us that focusing on intersectionality can unite us all. 

Where can I find more resources about this?

Dr. Naomi André (a real life superhero). Professor of Arts and Ideas in the Humanities Program, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and Women’s Studies.  One of the speakers at EXCEL’s intersectionality in the Arts event and a national treasure. 

Dr. Marc Hannaford’s class Beyond Boundaries: radical black experimental music explores Intersectionality in Music Theory.

  • The class explores case studies of musical groups such as the Jazz Composers Guild and explores how the impact and power of these groups depends on one’s perspective and calls for a more nuanced and intersectional analysis than just thinking in terms of race or sexuality. Intersectional identities help shed light on the complex and overlapping meanings of various forms of identity and the ways that they filter and distribute power. 
  • Wouldn’t it be cool if intersectionality was a lens used throughout art history, musicology, and theater history courses to study the effectiveness of art pieces or art periods, for a more inclusive and more holistic representation. Just a thought… (Sips tea)

Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA)

Booklist for Break

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality (I know I know wikipedia isn’t a credible source BUT this is a particularly well-written article and a great starting place if you want to read more about it)
  • This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color- Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzuldua
  • Demarginallizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics– Kimberlé Crenshaw
  • Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color- Kimberlé Crenshaw
  • Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connections- Patricia Hill Collins
  • Anything by Audre Lorde
    • Sister Outsider, if you read it comment below so we can gush about it together.

2 Comments »

  1. What an insightful post! Thank you, Sam for sharing a piece of your mind and heart into each one of your blog posts! I appreciate your thoroughness and density in knowledge and resources for me the reader to explore. Keep up the great work, you are awesome. – Karen L

    Liked by 1 person

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