In school around this time every year, my teacher would recite the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. story—the lunch counter sit-ins, the march on Washington, the “I Have a Dream” speech, the assassination—and I would listen in awe, inspired by his strength and determination.
It wasn’t until college that I realized King didn’t do it alone. Of course he couldn’t single handedly orchestrate a peaceful uprising of an underclass, but until college I equated the Civil Rights Movement—and, really, all issues of race and ethnicity—with King.
In my 99 percent white school district, the only time race was even mentioned was around MLK Day. Well, then and also at Thanksgiving, when I learned about indigenous people celebrating the harvest with the Pilgrims.
Of course, I learned about white people everyday in school, but these were just people. I learned about white people’s struggles, white people’s heritage, white people’s writings and white people’s stories; we just called these subjects literature, social studies and history.
And while all people have a race and ethnicity, I only learned about those identities in an othering and tokenizing way, never discussing the atrocities committed against people of color. I learned about slavery, but it was presented like, “Black people, who we now call African Americans, were brought here as slaves who worked for free while masters gave them food and shelter. Then there was the Civil War, which wasn’t about slavery, and then Lincoln freed the slaves. Then they had to sit in the back of the bus and stuff, so there was the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King said some things about his dreams, then he was shot and now racism is gone forever. We’re colorblind. Hooray!”
It wasn’t until I took introduction to women’s studies during my third year of college that I was presented with a different view of race. This was the first time I realized racism still exists. I knew the Ku Klux Klan existed and they were racist and there were other bad people out there who were racist, but I thought the average white person like me wasn’t racist because we didn’t participate in overt racism, like using the n-word.
I had no idea about institutional racism, or the interlacing of race, ethnicity, class, education, ability, citizenship, gender, sexuality, the prison industrial complex and the law. Or how much privilege I have. Or that privilege even existed. Or that I contributed to the oppression of others, even though I did it inadvertently and with kindness in my heart.
This was a life-changing epiphany: I knew my activism had to be intersectional or it would be bullshit. I have to do more than just say I am an ally to identity groups that are not my own; I have to actively participate in what other people are working on because it’s the right thing to do and all of our oppressions are bound up together. No one can be left behind.
Intersectionality is a tough issue for all liberation movements. King’s lead strategist was Bayard Rustin, a gay man. King and his fellow organizers kept Rustin’s sexuality under wraps out of fear he would tarnish the Civil Rights Movement. When a politician threatened to expose Rustin, King accepted his resignation. Rustin stayed in the shadows for three years until has was called upon to organize the 1963 March on Washington, causing infighting among Civil Rights Movement leaders because some believed Rustin would embarrass the march because he was gay.
That is just one example of the oppressed further oppressing others for their own gain. The Human Rights Campaign did this in 2008 when it jettisoned gender identity and expression from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, hoping it would pass if they left transgender and gender-variant people behind.
But it’s no accident we organize around identity—people are more likely to find common ground or solace with someone with the same identity. While that is important, it breeds tunnel vision, allowing us to ignore all other identities, groups and issues because we’re focusing on what only applies specifically to our identity group. But no person can be equated to one identity—we’re all a complex mix of histories, oppression, privilege and circumstance. And if we don’t keep that in mind, no one will ever achieve liberation.