There are an infinite number of aspects that makes up a person’s identity. For example, I’m blonde, from Seattle, a vegetarian, a journalism major, the list goes on. However the main categories that affect a person’s identity are race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, age and religion. These aspects affect us most in our daily lives, but we only really notice the identities that are marginalized. For example, I hold every dominant identity except for gender, so “female” is the only identity I consider. I don’t think of myself as a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, college-aged, agnostic female member of the upper middle class. I think of myself as a woman: I only have one identity. This way of thinking is extremely problematic and skews my perspective. My experience as a woman is valid and comes with a lot of institutionalized prejudice and barriers. However, if I only focus on this one identity, I undermine other marginalized populations. This issue was very publicly highlighted by Patricia Arquette’s speech and post-speech comments at the Oscars.
While the video celebrates her comments, the comments make it very clear that our worldview is dictated by our experience. The experiences of a white woman are very different compared to a woman of color, a queer woman, a trans* woman, a queer trans* woman of color, or any other identities or intersectionality. To quote Audre Lorde,“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
We can’t “move on” from race issues to women’s issues because millions of women are a race other than white. We can’t “move on” from sexuality issues because many women are queer. These issues are separate in Arquette’s mind because she lives with only one identity that affects her. Her heterosexuality, race, and high economic status mean she holds an immense amount of privilege. I have heard some critics complain about the fact that Arquette was just trying to speak out for a good cause. Some people are actively working against equal pay, are misogynistic, are doing a lot of harm to women. In comparison to those people, Arquette looks great. Her only mistake was ignorance.
I think there is some validity to this; the social justice movement can often get caught up in pointing out ignorance. This is important, but sometimes we seem to focus on tearing someone down, whether it’s Sean Penn, Patricia Arquette or anyone making harmful comments that come from ignorance. Are we intimidating people from speaking out because they could be criticized for being uneducated? I understand those who say, “Why criticize Arquette? You’re just segmenting a movement where we all want the same things.”
However, do we want all the same things? Arquette hasn’t considered the needs and difficulties of the populations she’s ignoring in her comments. Just because she’s working toward a greater cause for women, her speech could be doing more harm than good. It is also worth considering historical context: white upper class women have always benefited the most from the women’s movement. I feel she is being dismissive and ignorant of those who are marginalized, when she should be using her position of privilege to acknowledge and support these populations.
Educating ourselves on these issues allows us to interrupt and deconstruct the institutions that marginalize. As residents of a largely white university and city, many of us hold privilege we need to be aware of. Our position of higher education also negates many of our marginalized identities. For instance, a lower socioeconomic class is overshadowed by a college degree. A degree holder gains access to many places someone else would not. It’s important for all of us to identify what biases we hold, what privileges we hold and the way they affect every minute of our lives. For example, I never have to think about my race when I’m walking down the street. I will never have to sit my child down and discuss how the color of their skin will affect how police view them. If a store clerk is rude to me, I never have to take a second and wonder if they are treating me this way because of my race. Race is a non-issue for me, and it is just one of identities that I take for granted.
What can we do?
We should take advantage of the resources we have all around us. A college campus is the perfect place for this type of education. We have a number of organizations that provide resources such as books, videos and discussions on these social justice issues. For example, this month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month; go to SAMM events, see the documentaries screened on campus and participate in discussions on these topics. Actively seeking out this knowledge is the first step to making a difference. This Buzzfeed quiz on privilege is the perfect place to start.
The next step is taking that knowledge and examining your own life. The action of saying, “I’m a white woman,” or “I’m a straight woman” brings up context and reminds me of the aspects I don’t have to think about every day. Even though “I’m a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, female member of the upper middle class” is a mouthful, it’s important for me, and for all of us, to recognize the dominant identities we hold and to check our privilege often. Collegian Interactive News Team Member Catie Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @catieperrycc.