I am an Indigenous Latina serving as the core anti-racist staff trainer within the women’s organization of the whitest religious affiliation in the United States. I have been teaching white women about racism for almost two decades. Intersectionality — how two or more oppressive social identities overlap or intersect — is my day-to-day reality.
Intersectionality describes the overlapping or intersecting social identities and their related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality expresses the exquisite pain of how gender oppression intersects with racial oppression within women of color; when we are also lesbian or transgender, the possible violence is multiplied.
In my work with women in my church and my past work with the National Council of Churches’ Justice for Women’s Working Group, the intersectionality of race and gender was seen as the additional burden of women of color. I also see intersectionality as a blind intersection where white women reflexively use white privilege to not see anything on the roads of life outside of their own good intentions.
Learning about intersectionality achieves greater understanding and makes white women stronger allies. Understanding intersectionality is fundamental to the notion that white women and women of color can live, worship, and grow together in community. So much falls into the relationships between women of color and white women. We have all internalized the racial and gender messaging given by a patriarchal white construct. When white women are blind to their own privilege, women of color get hurt.
“When I see you, I don’t see color,” is something white women have said to me for decades. When heard from white women I see as sisters in Christ, these words erase me. For years I tried responding. I might say, “I get that you are refusing to attribute to me the bad things you have heard about people of color,” to which might come the response: “Oh no! I was raised to accept everyone!” Or I might say, “I know you mean that as a compliment,” and she might say, “I really mean it; I don’t see your color!”
Sometimes poor theology would be applied, as in: “When I see you, I only see a child of God,” to which I might respond, “Well, I do see you, Dorothy. You are standing right in front of me.” Or she might ask: “Do you think God sees what color we are?” to which I might respond, “I certainly do expect so! We are such a beautiful variety!”
These collisions at the intersection tend to come out of the blue. I don’t always see the white woman of faith heading toward me, fully loaded with assumptions and a stubborn perspective that says women of color are somehow able to step out of our race and just be another girl.
But what I was trying to teach these loving, white Christian women about color-blindness was simply not being grasped. I suffered and prayed for guidance and wisdom on this topic for four years.
My prayers were answered at a training retreat. Just as we were approaching a break, Marie (not her real name), a white woman sitting close enough to touch me, reached out, took my arm and said to me, “Inez, when I see you, I do not see color. I just see your beautiful soul.” Crash!
My face must have shown what I was feeling, because she quickly jiggled my forearm, and said, “I mean that as a compliment!”
My training partner, knowing that this was a hot-button issue of prayer for me, called the break. I cried out to the Lord, who heard my cry. Since we were still on break, I found Marie, took her aside, and asked, “Marie, can we talk?” She looked relieved and hopeful. Then I asked: “Have you ever been the first woman to do anything either in church or as a professional?”
Marie’s bright, blue eyes seemed to smile. She nodded, saying: “Oh yes! I was the first woman elected to the elders’ board at the church!”
“Wow,” I responded, “That is impressive!”
“Oh, yes, the men didn’t think I could handle it, but I really showed them!” She beamed.
“I’ll bet! You can still remember what that was like, can’t you?” I responded.
She nodded again.
“So if one of the men on the elders’ board had turned to you one day and said, ‘Marie, when I look at you I do not see a woman,’ would you have taken that as a compliment?”
Marie’s face blanched. An understanding light appeared in her eyes, and she fell into my waiting arms. “I am so sorry.”
“Yes, Marie,” I said. “It is like that.”
I asked for and received Marie’s permission to share our exchange with the group. I thanked Marie for giving me the story I needed to illustrate how color-blindness is a barrier, and not an aid to the creation of God’s community. Marie was happy to have me share her story then, and I think she would be pleased to know I still find it a useful teaching tool.
When “whiteness” was created (1640-1660) in Maryland and Virginia (the first two colonies of our nation), white women were named the keepers of chastity, the bearers of whiteness (Birth of a White Nation by Jaqueline Battalora). White women were, and often still are, expected to remain girls, to dummy down, and to behave in cute, submissive, or manipulative ways in order to receive rewards. Women of color receive completely different messages and treatment rooted in centuries of European conquest. For example, women of color cannot show emotion without being labeled as angry or fiery.
For me, the intersection of racial oppression and gender oppression is a daily reality. What I need my white sisters to get is that, until you learn about structural and internalized racism, until you get in touch with both your oppression and your privilege, your good intentions will not stop the violence. Your good intentions do not make me feel welcome or safe.