Song of Myself: An Intersectional Autobiography


A written snapshot of me

So the selfie above is me, Emilie, on a nondescript afternoon in May of last year. If you were to see me out in my natural habitat of the Oklahoma City suburbs, I suspect I would fade into the background. My appearance and mannerism fall within the norms of a slightly-harried woman with full-time white collar job trying to keep her toddler from taking over the world. Or Target. I think she currently has set her designs on Target.

It’s a university town–this demographic is over-represented in comparison to the population at large.

Like many women recently, I have been alarmed by the direction of our national (and state) politics. I have spent my adult life figuring out what I think about the world and what I want to do about it, and my circumstances have allowed that to be a mostly armchair pursuit. But I find myself feeling like my armchair has not only been upended, but also dismembered for firewood. Or vampire stakes. Or spare parts to build my daughter and all our children’s future. I find myself standing up with nowhere to sit, so I better get moving.

And I look up and begin to get an inkling–not just with my head but somehow with some strange fiery, clipboard-toting activist part of my heart that I didn’t even believe was there–what it means to have no armchair. To have my rights not be an intellectual exercise, but a matter of active, constant engagement and struggle.

I am embarrassed. I feel like an idiot. I feel like a fraud.

I’m a white, well-employed, college-educated progressive. I have had an active interest in the study of gender, race, and economic class for a decade and a half. An active intellectual interest.

Donate the money. Vote. Sign some petitions. Call some representatives a few times a year. Listen to NPR in the car. Have discussions with people not too far from me in the political spectrum on hot button topics. Read think pieces from people with whom I mostly agree. SHARE ALL THE PROGRESSIVE MEMES! Complain to my friends about hearing sexist/racist/homophobic/classist language.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

For what little it’s worth, I knew this wasn’t enough as I listened and learned more from the Black Lives Matter movement last year. I made a marginal effort to join a nascent SURJ chapter. I began intentionally speaking up when I heard racist language, whether it be from family, friends, or strangers. I started learning about community policing practices.

And I watched the Black Lives Matter OKC demonstration via my friends’ posts on Facebook.

I don’t recall my specific reasons for not going. I know I didn’t feel that guilty about it, like I had a good/understandable/easy justification for not showing up. But in the days since the Women’s March, I have listened to the perspectives of people I know and people I am just meeting through the magic of the internet talk about how disenfranchising it is to see a sea of white women show up to protest what Trump says he will do when that same force did not come out to stand up against an ongoing, soul-numbing list of injustices already done.

I have hid inside of my brain because I could. Showing up against any injustice hurts because injustice hurts. When I am a recognizable part of the group being threatened, showing up also provides a sense of solidarity and purpose. When I am not a recognizable part of the group, when I’m recognizable as similar in some way to those who are perpetuating or blind to the problem, showing up is an exercise in self-managing my awkward, embarrassed, guilty, confused self. Which is hard work to push through in order to actually have the positive impact I really want to have.

Hard work is hard, and I have had the luxury of being able to be lazy.

Let me be the first to point out that throughout my adult life, my easily recognizable identities have not been threatened to the point of me getting out of my damn armchair except to stretch my legs and get a bit of air.

Dear World: I’m sorry. I’m learning to do better.

So why am I saying any of this?

I want to say that this is some selfless exercise in… something? I want it to be selfless because I’m owning up to a whole lot of selfish, weak-tea living up to my values. Better philosophers than me, however, have debated whether any action can actually be considered selfless. So part-of-me-that-wants-to-make-a-good-show-of-selfless-humility, suck it up. I’m writing a damn blog post on the internet, and I hope people read it. The Mother Teresa boat has sailed.

I’m writing this because it’s important to clean up messes I make.

Digging into why I’m writing these words in particular on the internet, I want to explore and name who I am, what my values are, and what actions I need to take to honor that. I can’t do that if I don’t clean up the pool of embarrassment spilled across the metaphorical space of my mind. If Brene Brown has taught me anything, it’s that when embarrassment is left to fester, it quickly becomes shame, and shame is a dungeon from which nothing good ever comes.

So in this and connected posts, I’m going to be shining a light on my once and future embarrassments whenever it’s appropriate. I’m not looking for you to console me about them. Trust me–I’ve processed them enough to write long-form blog posts about them. I don’t need you to pat me on the head and tell me it’s okay.

Besides, I’m a grown-ass woman. I can admit when I’m wrong without it breaking me.

I’m writing this to keep focus and intention.

There has been a lot of chatter about how to keep the momentum from the Women’s March, how to make it into a movement and not a moment. This post and the ones I am committing to continue to write are my way of doing this. I have a very distractable mind when it comes to meaty intellectual challenges. It’s part of what has kept me in that armchair for so damn long.

But like I said, there’s no more armchair for me. I’m left with the question of what to do about all this, and I know that I don’t know yet. I have a lot of skills and experience that could be useful, yet I’m still figuring out where I fit in the quickly forming and shifting efforts underway. But one thing I have always been told that I do well and impactfully is write. So instead of just mulling this all over in my head, I got up at 3:00 am and started typing.

I’m not just writing because I’m good at it, though. I’m writing because I can refer back to this when I’m tired and distracted and remember where we’re headed. I’m writing this so that I can look back someday and see how far we’ve come. I’m writing this so you read this and nag me about it. This is public accountability. This is naming something into being.

I’m showing my work.

Remember back in math class when the teacher made us write all the steps we needed to find the answer? That’s part of this, too.

I want to show my work to others who are struggling with how they’ve lived their values in the past and what they need to do differently in the future.

I want to show my work to people with whom I will be an ally so that they have a better idea of who I am and from where I am coming.

I want to show my work to my friends and family so they understand what all this (seemingly) sudden passion is about.

I want people to know, no matter how similar or different their experiences are from mine, that the journey we must all take to find ourselves is booked as one-person passage on a ship full of humanity. You are not alone even though you are the only one who can find who you need to be.

Begin again

This post is the beginning of a series of posts in which I explore my various identities, how they have and have not changed over my life, and how they inform my values and actions. This approach is informed by the framework of intersectionality, that one must take into account a variety of a person’s attributes and how these attributes interact in order to understand that person’s experience. (Want to know more? The internet is awash in talk of intersectionality and intersectional feminism currently. This article by Latoya Peterson, and the series of which it is a part, from a couple of years ago were particularly useful to me.)

When I first encountered intersectionality, it made SO MUCH SENSE. Even now, I’m a bit baffled that it is controversial. As I said at the top of this, I present to the world as a white, married-to-a-man, mom-to-a-kid, white-collar, suburban woman. All of those things are true. Find me 10 other women who fit this description, and some of our experiences will be similar and some will be vastly different. Some of that difference is going to come from the identities you don’t see in that off-the-cuff sketch above.

I strongly suspect that ignoring this nuance of self and experience is part of why people have so much trouble understanding one another.

Thank you for joining me as I explore my own identities and how they inform and shape my experience. I hope to hear from you about your own experiences. No doubt, we will find common ground in places we least expect.

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