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“Intersectionality” is term coined by the academic scholar Kimberle Crenshaw to recognize the dimensions of identity when classifying an individual by gender, race, class, or sexuality. Each group holds a space of distinctive experiences that allows them to identify with unique struggles. Two written works that are examples of intersectionality are Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Both works give unique experiences that intersect the identities of race, gender, and sexuality through the journey of Black females in America.
Identifying the unique experiences of the main characters in both works presents a common theme about the effect of discovering identity within the aspect of intersecting categories while living in an ultimately racist and sexist environment. Understanding women and their identity is significant in order to recognize the unique experiences that occur because of intersectionality. This paper will explore the Black female experience in America by identifying intersectionality of the significant characters in the works of Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison, and determining how having multiple identities effects their everyday lives. It will also support the claim that individuals with intersecting identities experience unique and different struggles.
The first written work being analyzed through intersectionality is the novel Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a biomythtography, or a form of biographical storytelling with the unification of fact and fiction. In the novel, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, the author Audre Lorde uses this opportunity to take a reflective account of journey growing up as a Black, lesbian, woman in 1960’s America, a time of Jim Crow, sexism, and homophobia. A critical perspective of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name demonstrates a journey of a young woman navigating her way through issues such as identifying her sexuality, and confronting racial oppression and poverty. Through the figurative journey of Lorde’s search for herself, her multiple oppressed identities are not separated. All in all, she is impacted the effect of discovering her identity within the aspects of the intersecting categories of race, gender, and sexuality.
In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Lorde faces the racially oppressed system otherwise known as the Jim Crow era. At a young age, she finds a hard time comprehending the “rules of racism” as her mother was a light skinned woman who could pass as white, while her father was undeniably Black. She took her trait from her father and experienced racism first hand while growing up in New York. Lorde shows the readers how she experienced racism even as a young age. “She had divided the class into two groups, the Fairies and the Brownies. In this day of heightened sensitivity to racism and color usage, I don’t have to tell you which we the good students and which were the baddies…” (Lorde 36). This quote is an example of the environment of Lorde’s childhood. Essentially, during this time period, light was seen as good while dark was seen as bad. This is also a point in the beginning of the novel and her life in which she is confronted with racism. As Lorde grows up she begins to identify the racism that affects her life. She realizes the racial oppression of society. “But in high school… my teachers were racists; and my friends were that color I was never supposed to trust.” (Lorde 81). By the time she is in high school, she experienced racism through her teachers and peers, and recognizes what her own struggle will be as an African American.
In part, the reason for Lorde’s struggle in comprehending the “rules of racism” while growing up is because her mother often tried to keep her ignorant to the oppression of racism. The impact of Lorde’s relationship with her mother, in result, closed her off to the struggles she may later on face as an African American. “They [Lorde’s parents]… believed that they could best protect their children from the realities of race in America and the fact of American racism by never giving them name, much less discussing their nature.” (Lorde 85). Lorde had to discover through her own experiences with racism the effect and oppressive nature of racial discrimination. These examples of racism in the novel helps the reader identify racism as a factor of the unique experience of the author. Racism effected the way she grew up and how she reacted to her environment. After realizing that the effects of racism are more complex for her and other African-Americans than society makes it out to be, it begins to influence her views on what makes her journey different from the other women she meets. Altogether, racism even affects how she lives and encounters her environment and surroundings. Lorde’s experiences with racism from the ignorant eye of those expressing racist ideology against her shows that society overlooked the plight of racism and discrimination on African-Americans.
Understanding the plight of racism on African-Americans can guide the identification of the unique experiences that people face while living in America. In “Invisibility Syndrome: A Clinical Model of the Effects of Racism on African-American Males” the author states that, “…adaptive behavior and psychological well-being of African-Americans can be affected by personal experiences of perceived prejudice and discrimination. Encountering repeated racial slights can create within the individual a feeling of not being seen as a person of worth. This subjective sense of psychological invisibility takes the form of a struggle with inner feelings and beliefs that personal talents, abilities, and character are not acknowledged or valued by others, nor by the larger society, because of racial prejudice.” (Franklin 33). From this information, the racist culture in America ultimately effects African-Americans psychologically and socially. This disparity is unique to the identity of being African American. The result of years of racial discrimination and prejudice makes the recognition of racism significant to identity of being Black in America.
Using the same context, Lorde experiences gender oppression or sexism, at a young age. The gender oppression that Lorde faces growing up is another unique quality that society overlooked. Lorde, a feminism advocate and activist, was also involved in the Civil Rights movement, which accomplished many goals for the African-American community during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, being published in 1982, is criticizing the lack of women recognition in regards to the Civil Rights movement. In “Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race, and Class”, Barnett states that “…women (such as Septima Poinsette Clark, McCree Harris, Shirley Sherrod, Diane Nash, Johnnie Carr, Thelma Glass, Georgia Gilmore, and JoAnn Robinson) remain a category of invisible, unsung heroes and leaders. Utilizing archival data and a subsample of personal interviews conducted with civil rights leaders, this article… offers explanations for the lack of recognition and non-inclusion of Black women in the recognized leadership cadre of the civil rights movement… most illustrative of how the interlocking systems of gender, race, and class structure Black women’s movement leadership and participation.” (Barnett 162). The media often portrayed men at the forefront of the movement and didn’t recognize the contributions of women. However, women were in as many positions of leadership as men. Lorde’s identity as a woman gives her a unique position within the movement that isn’t recognized by society because the movement took place during a time period when men still appeared to dominate in every aspect. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is an example on why identifying the different identities of a person’s struggle impacts the understanding of the unique challenges they face. Lorde’s criticism of the Civil Rights movement questions the rights given to African-Americans because of the movement’s lack of recognition of women within the movement and misunderstanding of the plight and struggles of the Black woman. In the novel, Lorde states “The first rude awakening came when she announced that the boy chosen would be president, but the girl would only be vice president. Why not the other way around?” (Lorde 77). Lorde was confronted by sexism when she was denied the right to be class president because she was a girl. She questions this action for the moment but accepts it as the way things are. This is an example of the way male-dominated patriarchal views shaped this country in aspects of everyday life.
Lorde also interlocks the struggle of racism to relate to the feminist movement, which was dedicated to exposing the inequality between men and women as a result of living in a patriarchal society. By the time Zami: A New Spelling of My Name was published, it was well after the height of the feminist movement. As stated in “Theorizing Difference from Multiracial Feminism”, “Since the late 1960s, U.S. women of color have taken issue with unitary theories of gender…the wide spread concern about the exclusion of women of color from feminist scholarship and the misinterpretation of our experiences… Speaking simultaneously from “within and against” both women’s liberation and aintracist movements… as women whose lives are affected by our location in multiple hierarchies.” (Zinn 321). Lorde was using the impact of racism on her experience to criticize a flaw in the feminist movement that didn’t identify with African-American women or other women of color.
In another light, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name portrays sexism through sexual assault. Lorde, at a young age, is raped by a boy. “…because a boy from school much bigger than me had invited me up to the roof on my way home from library and then threatened to break my glasses if I didn’t let him stick his “thing” between my legs” (Lorde 92). She also befriends a girl named Gennie, who is discovered by Lorde to have been molested by her father. These reoccurrences of sexual assault toward women by men in the novel are acts of violence by way of sexism that Lorde faces throughout her journey. In Kimberle Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” she states that, “…battering and rape, once seen as private and aberrational (errant sexual aggression), are now largely recognized as part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class.” (Crenshaw 1241). Recognizing that women as a class face sexual assault as part of a larger system of domination, shows that this form of sexism they face is unique to their experience. Lorde expresses how her identity as a woman makes her journey unique. She used examples of sexism and gender oppression that she experienced while growing up to let her audience know that identifying as a woman makes your experiences different from that of a man; and your experience is even more unique if you are a woman of color.
Through Lorde’s journey she is also confronted with the issue of understanding her own sexuality as lesbian. This is the final piece in understanding Lorde’s identity in society. Lorde is trying to criticize society’s lack of recognition of those in the LGBTQ community. People in the LGBTQ community have a unique identity and face oppression in America, but this identity is often unacknowledged as it is a topic of taboo for the conservative thought and mindset of society. An excerpt from Michele J. Eliason’s “Identity Formation for Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Persons: Beyond a ‘Minoritizing’ View” states that, “The very concept of homosexuality is a social one, and one cannot understand the homosexual experience without recognizing the extent to which we have developed a certain identity and behavior derived from social norms.” (Eliason 36). Lorde, in her novel, explains how discovering and developing her sexuality as a part of her identity made her struggles and experiences growing up different from those of a straight, African-American woman.
In the prologue of the novel, Lorde states “I have always wanted to be both man and woman, to incorporate the strongest and richest parts of my mother and father within/into me… I would like to enter a woman the way any man can, and to be entered…” (Lorde 15). This prologue gives the reader insight on the sexuality that Lorde identifies herself with. In the duration of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Lorde shares her experiences on discovering this identity. The beginning of Lorde’s desire for female companionship was when she met a little white girl while waiting on the steps for her mother to get dressed. She and the girl arrange to play and Lorde began to undress her out of curiosity. Her curiosity fills her with excitement but her mother interferes without discovering her true intentions. Another instance when Lorde is trying to come to terms with her sexuality is when she gets her first boyfriend and doesn’t enjoy the sex. Though her friends try to convince her that she’ll “get used to it”, she never does. Lorde, later in her journey, drops out of college and essentially begins to label herself as a lesbian. “That summer I decided that I was definitely going to have an affair with a woman…” (Lorde 140). She then shares her experiences with women as sexual partners and companions.
Even during 1982, LGBTQ identity was a taboo topic to discuss. However, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name criticizes society’s lack of recognition of the struggle of those who identify as LGBTQ. Lorde’s experiences in discovering her sexuality, identifying it as a part of her identity, and living in an environment of homophobia, that refuses to acknowledge this part of her identity, has impacted her life as an African American woman. Understanding that this is a unique experience to her journey will help to expose the homophobia and unwavering opinion of society in regards to what is believed to be morally correct.
These examples of race, gender, and sexuality present themselves within the novel Zami: A New Spelling of My Name to identify with struggles of the narrator, Audre Lorde. Although these examples are presented in categories, her oppressed identities of being a Black lesbian woman are all synonymous. Recognizing her multiple oppressed identities helps to better understand her challenges growing up and living in a white patriarchal society. Lorde experiences her life challenges in all the dimensions of her identity and not each dimension separately. Therefore, she confronts and reacts to these challenges in her own unique way.
Later in the novel, Lorde discovers this intersectionality between her identities. “It was hard enough to be Black, to be Black and female, to be Black, female, and gay in a white environment…” (Lorde 260). She begins to identify with her distinct and diverse experiences as they differ from those of her white lesbian friends, and she realizes that her white lesbian friends cannot identify with some of her struggles as a Black lesbian woman because of the specific dimension of race that separates their experiences. The quote, “Those who embrace multiplicity of social identity dimensions and explore how they intersect also posit that uneven power distribution in a society complicates situated identities by more firmly entrenching some people at the center and others in the margins.” (Pompper 45) as stated in the article International Perspectives on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is referring to the lack of acknowledgment that one can have multiple identities. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a written illustration that exemplifies the effects of discovering one’s own intersectionality.
Acknowledging one’s own intersectionality criticizes society and the norms taken towards social justice and equality. Discovering how multiple identities intersect will essentially further the understanding of the inequality and injustice that many people face in America. Identifying the dimensions of intersectionality can help society recognize what needs to be done in order to achieve equality and justice for all. “The author’s dream of a community of women free from sexism, racism and classism falls to pieces as soon as she begins to frequent lesbian circles in New York. Lorde criticizes Black women’s homophobia and white lesbians’ racism. She is conscious that women’s inability to cope with their differences and the response of silence produce a simplification of women’s oppressions, which is a mistake because the variety of differences require diverse responses.” (Sanchez Calle 165). These “diverse responses” are steps toward receiving social justice for those with intersecting identities. Lorde, in writing Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, wanted to express why the understanding of intersecting identities is needed in order to achieve social justice. She used her own life as an example to why identifying all parts of her struggle and experiences made her journey unique. Thus, the idea of intersectionality is present within the novel in order to emphasize change or social justice in society.
Similarly, to encourage change and social justice, specifically within the Black community, Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye in the 1960’s during the “Black is Beautiful” movement. With her novel she wanted to reclaim African-American beauty by exposing how internalized racism and societal norms can have negative impacts on young Black girls. Her inspiration to write the novel came from her recollection of a time when a black girl she knew told her how desperately she wanted blue eyes. The novel also takes place in her birth place of Lorain, Ohio during the Great Depression in which she herself grew up.
This coming of age tragedy places the reader in a journey that portrays the specific struggles of young Black girls while they encounter experiences of racism, gender expectations, and sexual exploitation. These aspects of struggle place significance on understanding the unique identity of Black females in America. The novel gives insight on the impact of a society that places importance on standards of beauty for women, particularly Black women, and how this affects young Black girls.
In The Bluest Eye the impact of racism and racial disparities is powerful in the lives of each of the characters. The characters in the novel experience a system of internalized racism encouraged by the concept of white supremacy. “Whiteness” is essentially the standard of beauty. This in itself takes a large toll on the lives of the young Black girls and adult women. The characters are somewhat obsessed with the ideas of acceptance, beauty, and purity which “whiteness” represents for them. For example, “Frieda and she had a long conversation about how cute Shirley Temple was. I couldn’t join them in their admiration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles… giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels.” (Morrison 17). This quote from the novel is expressing how the idealization of white women and European standards of beauty affects young Black girls. “Lighter skin color was positively related to higher levels of racial identity attitudes (immersion/emersion); the more satisfied darker skinned individuals were with their skin color, the lower their self-esteem, and gender differences existed in perceptions of others’ preferences for skin color. Implications of this study for providing therapeutic clinical services and fostering the healthy psychological development of African American men, women, and children…” (Coard 2256). Internalized racism or colorism within the Black community led people to place favoritism on those with lighter complexion because they resembled European standards of beauty more than those with a darker complexion.
The adult women play a huge role in this internalized racism and idealization of white standards of beauty toward their Black daughters. In essence, the adult women build a hatred of their Blackness and take this out on their daughters. In the novel, Mrs. Breedlove tells her own daughter, Pecola, that she is unattractive because of her blackness, which Mrs. Breedlove believes for herself as well. There is even a time where Mrs. Breedlove places preference of the little white girl she works for over her own daughter. “The Breedloves did not live in a storefront because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and Black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly.” (Morrison 31). The “Breedlove” surname is ironic for this family because they essentially represent self-hatred and don’t actually “breed love”. This is significant because, Pecola is one of characters who suffers the impacts of internalized racism the most. She begins to believe that if she had blue eyes she would be loved and that the tragic experiences she faced would have never occurred.
The novel at this point is saying that this desire to fulfill white standards of beauty can lead to madness. This is seen by the end of the novel when Pecola is labeled as a crazy woman because of her obsession with obtaining blue eyes. “She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days, walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind.” (Morrison 204). The obsessive need to fulfill white standards of beauty caused an intense case of racial self-loathing. Knowing the novel’s aspects of internalized racism, these experiences can be related to the uniqueness of the identity of Black females in America. Black women are affected by a standard of society that idealizes “whiteness”. Black girls grow up learning that European standards of beauty are right which can ultimately lead to racial self-loathing.
Understanding this unique experience that Black women face can allow the understanding of racial self-loathing and other aspects of internalized racism. Acknowledging these challenges and struggles that specifically impact Black women can have a positive effect on Black communities as a whole. Understanding the plight on the shoulders of Black women can stop the degrading of Black women in the media and the lead to the respect of Black women as people in society.
The Bluest Eye’s context surrounds the experience of Black women during this time period. The general life course for women of color were either working for white families or becoming prostitutes. The culture of women throughout the novel appears as Morrison describes the idealization and obsession with beauty magazines and celebrities. Throughout the novel, Black women are consistently placed into boxes of expectations. Overall, the narrator, Claudia, has a negative attitude toward gender restrictions and often responds to the expectations that other women have of her with a loathing. When she received a white baby doll, “To hold it was no more rewarding. The starched gauze or lace on the cotton dress irritated any embrace. I had only one desire: to dismember it…but apparently only me…all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” (Morrison 18). Other girls did not understand Claudia’s feelings toward the doll because they believed the doll was beautiful. Her parents figured it was something all little black girls wanted.
That was just one example of an anti-feminist tone within “women culture” taking place in the novel. Women were expected to idolize celebrities, gossip, and correlate their acceptance in society to the standards of beauty. In this specific setting, Black women were expected to idolize white celebrities, gossip, and correlate their acceptance in society to the standards of white beauty. This is anti-feminist because the women are only to have a restrictive lifestyle. As stated before, Black women were either mother working for white families or prostitutes. These restrictive options impacted the way women saw each other and influenced self-hatred. This type of culture essentially brought uneasiness between women who didn’t fit into these boxes and allowed women to conform to this oppression by objectifying the women that live different a lifestyle. The respect of women came from whether the women conformed to society’s expectations what women should look like or become. Claudia’s experience with the doll baby led her to be ostracized for being different. Acknowledging this restrictive culture that women, specifically women of color, face helps in understanding the unique experiences that Black women face in America. Revealing this voice of women of color challenges the restrictions that society sets for women and criticizes the oppressive nature of a patriarchal society.
The sexual exploitation of Black women is also present in The Bluest Eye. The women characters most often face violent acts of rape and sexual abuse by the men characters in the novel. The younger Black girls that are usually the main victims of these violent acts of rape and sexual abuse. The sexual exploitation of young Black girls influences them in believing they are sexually and socially powerless. The young Black girls in the novel are essentially deprived the opportunity to discover their own sexuality for it is used to make the men that abuse them more powerful.
An example of this power dynamic between Black males and females would be, “He would rather die than take his thing out of me. Not until he has let go of all he has, and give it to me… when he does I feel a power.” (Morrison 91). Sex in the novel is associated with the empowerment of men. Morrison presents a controversial point of view in the novel that this empowerment that men get from the sexual acts of violence taken against women somewhat plays a role in the justification of the acts of violence. Pecola is also raped by her father. “What could he do for her – ever? What give her? What say to her? What could a burned-out Black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter? If he looked into her face, he would see those haunted, loving eyes. The hauntedness would irritate him – the love would move him to fury. How dare she love him? Hadn’t she any sense at all? What was he supposed to do about that? Return it? How?” (Morrison 112). This is an attempt to justify her rape because of his (her father’s) inability to express his feelings toward her. However, this concept is similar to today in rape culture and sexual abuse. Women are victims of such violence believing that there is some justification for these acts of violence taken against women. Morrison showing how this concept of justifying and contextualizing sexual abuse can have negative impacts on the mental health and confidence of Black women. As a result of this, the women and girls in the novel are seen as powerless as well as embodying large amounts of self-hatred. Understanding this power dynamic that Black women encounter through acts of violence, such as rape, can lead to identifying reforms that need to be put into place in order to prevent them. The Black female experience in The Bluest Eye is a unique one because the women are affected by the negative impacts of their multiple identities. They face specific disparities because of their intersecting identities.
The common theme between Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison is the effect of discovering identity within the aspect of intersecting categories while living in an ultimately racist and sexist environment. Black women hold a space of distinctive experiences that allows them to identify with unique struggles. Society must recognize these different dimensions of a Black woman’s identity in order to create and develop law practices that help Black women and to ultimately encourage American culture to acknowledge their struggles as human beings. This idea of recognizing the dimensions of one’s identity for legal or social reform is called The Critical Race Theory.
The Critical Race Theory is a development in legal studies by many progressive intellectuals of color whom believe that “the historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy (and concomitant hierarchies of gender, class, and sexual orientation)” (Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement) exists in American society. The laws and practices that are fundamental to American society were developed through the eyes of white supremacy and patriarchy. It shows how law plays a role in maintaining “social domination and subordination”. The Critical Race Theory explains “the way in which race and racial power are constructed and represented in American legal culture and, more generally, in American society as a whole” (Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement). The theory explains the extent in which racial power is practiced both legally, through law practices, and ideologically, through social norms, within American culture.
More specifically, in Kimberle Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” she states that “the embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant concepts of social justice. Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination – that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different” (Crenshaw 1242). Identity politics is a legal theory dedicated to the recognition of the social and systemic struggles of people of color and LGBTQ. Crenshaw is saying that the issue with identity politics is identifying the struggles of categories within the larger scope. For example, in examining the violence against women, in order to fully understand the violence against women one must recognize and acknowledge the violence women face shaped by the multiple dimensions of their identities, including race and class. “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices” (Crenshaw 1242). Black women are therefore marginalized within both practices of feminism and antiracism because of the lack of recognition of their intersectional identity as both Black and female.
In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde acknowledges this intersectionality through her own life example as a Black woman. Not only was her experience unique because she was a Black woman, but her sexuality gave her another dimension to her identity. Lorde’s used her own life as an example to show how knowing these different dimensions of a person’s identity can impact how their journey is seen and how their struggle is understood. As shown in previous examples, Lorde faced many issues within her race that identify with her struggle as a woman and coming to terms with her own sexuality. All in all, this journey made her who she was. Understanding that her multiple dimensions made her who she was, allowed her to acknowledge her struggle and confront the issues she faced, living in a white supremacist patriarchy.
In The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Morrison uses her characters to examine of lives of Black people in America during the Great Depression. She specifically focuses on the issues that Black women and young Black girls face in their own communities as a result of a racist and sexist culture. She compares the experiences of Black men and women and their roles in society. Then, Morrison emphasizes on the disregard of the space and identity that Black women and girls have within the overall struggle of Black people living in America. Morrison uses, like in Kimberle Crenshaw’s article, the violence against women to help express how unique the struggle is for Black women. In this particular novel, Morrison showed how not acknowledging the ident
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