There’s an old puzzle that runs like this.
A father and son are in a car, on their way home. The road they are on intersects with a railway track. The father sees a train coming, but attempts to cross the tracks before the train. He fails, and the train hits the car.
The father is killed. The son is seriously injured. Emergency crews arrive and the son is rushed to the nearest hospital. At Emergency, he is rushed directly into the operating theatre, where a team has been prepped to receive him.
The boy is brought in. The head surgeon, in mask and scrubs, looks down and says:
“I can’t operate on this boy. This boy is my son.”
The question is: How is this possible?
I’m always surprised how many times I’ve seen progressive, thoughtful, aware people concoct extravagant stories to do with gay couples, stepchildren and secret affairs in order to explain this, while all the time missing the most obvious answer:
The head surgeon is his mother.
What’s going on here?
The Mythical Norm and Othering
This happens because we carry with us a “the mythical norm”—a default assumption about what a normal person looks like. It’s a stereotype. It’s mythical because it needn’t correspond to any reality. The mythical norm is still a thin young person, even though the statistical norm is an overweight older person.
In most Western societies, the “mythical norm” includes those in society who are white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. That image is so strong that we entirely miss the possibility of the surgeon being a woman.
Those who do not fit the norm are classed as “the other.” If you do not fit the norm, you become vulnerable—without necessarily anyone thinking about it—to being excluded, unseen, patronised, subordinated, exploited, oppressed or otherwise treated as somehow less.
And “the other” is not static. Twenty years ago, no-one was bothered by Muslims. And no-one felt other than pity for refugees. Now, they have both been cast into the pit of “otherness”. What we have is a constant process of “othering”—constantly creating shining an evil eye on groups whom we previously ignored.
Dimensions of Disadvantage
The idea of intersectionality, then, is the idea different forms of prejudice work together: they intersect.
They intersect in two ways.
First: they are all aspects of the same process. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia—these are not all different prejudices. They are all the result of the process of bothering, by which we at different times select certain groups that do not conform to the mythical norm, and pick them out for demonisation and ill-treatment.
They become scapegoats: for crime, terrorism, unemployment, rising taxes, or a dozen other persistent. Someone has to be blamed. It can’t be our fault. Therefore, some group has to be othered. Some group has to be scapegoated.
Second: if you are at the receiving end of this process, you are lucky if you only deal with one form of othering. If you are only Black (but male and rich and heterosexual, like Kanye), then you have fewer problems than if you at the intersection of multiple others. Right now, the group at the highest risk of being murdered, in the United States are Black trans women.
And these forms of prejudice don’t just overlap: they work together. Black trans women for instance, are so excluded that many turn to sex work just to survive: sex workers are also othered. Multiple forms of prejudice will also work together to make you poor: and poverty is also a form of othering. Being poor is seen as proof that there is something wrong with you.
Everything I’ve just described is part of feminist theory. This theory helps me understand that in my culture, my society, my place, there are powerful processes which seek to find and punish groups that are not “normal”, as scapegoats for social problems. A friend of mine has compared this to the Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings: an eye atop a tower, constantly scanning, scanning… looking for the Ring. And woe betide you if the it’s gaze falls on you.
All prejudices are just one prejudice. And in order to fight one we have to fight them all. And if we are subject to just one prejudice, we have to be aware that we are the lucky, compared to those who sit at the intersection of many.
I’m in debt to feminism for giving me this insight into what ails my world.