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Unapologetically Me: The Power of Intersectionality

June 20, 2017

By Janelle Lyons

Woman smiles at camera

Janelle Lyons

As an African-American woman with Attention Deficient Disorder (ADD), today’s political climate has stretched me to my breaking point.  With almost every post on social media provoking conversations about racial tension in the U.S., the continuing gender wage gap, and how people with ADD/ADHD just need to focus more, I can sometimes find myself going numb.  As the very essence of me—my race, gender, disability, etc.—are constantly coming under attack and scrutinized, understanding the power of intersectionality has become more important to me than ever before.

For those new to the term, intersectionality is the idea of overlapping identities that make up a whole.  As a framework for understanding the challenges of shared identities, intersectionality helps to expose the ways in which identities such as race and gender interact to marginalize certain persons within a group.  The term is often used to critique “progressive” movements of equality that fail to include the needs of all members within that identity group.  For example, I feel you cannot call yourself an activist, leader, or member of a racial justice movement like “Black Lives Matter” if you don’t believe in the needs and plight of Black Transgender Women, who are disproportionately targeted for hate crimes within the U.S.  Intersectionality makes people look at the bigger picture and truly understand the meaning of diversity and inclusion.  Honestly, how can you expect anyone to believe that women deserve to be given equal pay, if you do not even believe that all women are equal?

In today’s society where individuals are made to feel as though they must choose among their many identities or only fight for one identity at a time, understanding the functionality of intersectionality is critical. Within many justice movements, it is as if we* are asking people to give up a part of themselves in order to be taken seriously or in order to be understood.  Therefore, in some movements, it’s acceptable to fight for women’s rights–but disabled rights? Maybe not … As if disabled women don’t exist.

I think one of the beauties and challenges of intersectionality is the amount of constant focus and practice needed to even begin to understand its vast nature.  This understanding should not make you overwhelmed for lack of mastery, but instead should help you realize the many dimensions of “self” and how you, as a constant and inadvertent student of intersectionality, can grow and transform with a deeper understanding of not only yourself, but others around you with whom you have shared identities.  For me, as a member of the disabled community and an intern at Women Enabled International via USICD’s internship program, intersectionality is constantly in play.  It ultimately structures the way in which I approach each project.  Even as I walk around D.C. and take in its beauty, I have become hyperaware of its accessibility issues and how those issues affect members within my community, even when some of these issues may not directly affect me.

To know intersectionality and its wonder is to glance back to my initial sentence and understand that being an African-American woman with ADD is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding how I identify in this world.  However, even if you understand just these identities alone, it is enough to transform and expand your notion of my needs and desires in this world, for I am not just a woman, nor am I just African-American, but a host of intricate pieces to a complex being that should never be stifled or pressed down for easier consumption.  I am unapologetically me.

* “We” should be interpreted as individuals within the movement as well as the larger community.

Janelle Lyons is a member of the 2017 cohort of the USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program and other topics, to be posted at this blog during the summer.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  The internship program was enabled by funding support from the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF). Janelle Lyons is completing her internship at Women Enabled InternationalRead the biographies of our interns in the summer 2017 program.  Or read blog posts by other current and past interns. The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD, MEAF, or Women Enabled International.

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