The In-between: Looking for Unity in Diversity

8/22/2018

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Hey there in-betweeners! I am back after a two-week long, conference-filled hiatus and there is sooooo much in-between to talk about. So, if none of y’all mind, I’ll just jump right into this week’s topic: intersectionality.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to New Orleans to attend a conference for progressive activists called Netroots Nation. It was the first conference I had been to since earning my Ph.D., and I was excited to be back in that highly intellectual space where I could talk passionately with other nerds about pressing social issues. I was also excited to be attending as a representative of the AIB, which is the organization that runs bi.org.

Because of my affiliation with the AIB, my first several days in New Orleans were spent in pre-conference trainings, where I connected with a number of other queer activists who were also working from the left on a variety of different social justice issues. I was a little nervous initially because it was my first public foray into the world of queer activism, and like many other hardcore nerds I felt somewhat self-conscious about entering a new field where I had so much to learn.

I was also a bit self-conscious about articulating my identity, which had always been organized primarily through the lens of race, such that I had always seen myself as “Black” first, well before I saw myself as “bi,” a “woman,” a “nerd” or even a “former stripper.” Although each of these elements converge inside me to form my complete sense of self, this hierarchy is an important part of that process, which helps me understand and articulate who I am. At this conference, however, I found myself struggling with this hierarchy, particularly because I was there as a bi activist, which implicitly warranted, in my eyes, at least, a foregrounding of my sexual identity.

During the first few days of this pre-conference training, my attempts to privilege my bisexuality felt a bit awkward and clunky. Not only is race, at least in theory, a more visible marker of identity, but because I am situated on the heteroflexible side of the bi+ umbrella, the queerness of my sexuality is not the primary lens through which either I or the world typically sees me. As such, I struggled internally to maintain this reorganization of my identity labels, which I felt was somehow necessary to be authentic in my role of representing the AIB.

In an effort to maintain this new hierarchy, I found myself shying away from spaces where this internal, intersectional tug-of-war might be brought to the surface. In the third day of pre-conferencing, for example, I was very aware of the fact that I did not sit at the table where most of the other Black queer folks were. In part, I told myself, this was because of logistics, since I was there at the conference with two other colleagues from the AIB and we were all sitting together at the next table over. However, if I am honest with myself, I also chose to sit elsewhere because I didn’t know how to navigate both worlds simultaneously. As a biracial woman, I have long been accustomed to code switching to clarify my racial identity; however, I had never before been in a space where I felt it necessary to speak multiple codes concurrently.

Once the actual conference began, however, this tension somewhat subsided. Not only were the workshop formats replaced by panels requiring only minimal interaction from attendees, but also, the topics addressed by these panels focused on specific interests that were more easily separated along identity lines. Furthermore, to avoid having to choose one, I mostly steered clear of these spaces altogether, opting instead to attend sessions that focused on practical knowledge, like how to create a GIF or the use of Snapchat in political campaigns. I told myself these sessions were the best use of my time, because they gave me tangible skills that I could apply right away to my work.

One afternoon, however, a day or two into the actual conference, I decided to take a break from these digital training sessions to check out a panel on the political power of Black immigrants. My doctoral research had largely centered on twenty-first century African migration, so I was intrigued by the focus on this group and wondered what the presenters might have to say about them. As I listened to the presentations and the conversation that ensued, I felt myself relaxing in ways I hadn’t realized I was tense. Momentarily, I allowed my internal restructuring of identity to take up its regular form, and set aside the modified hierarchy I had been toting around with me all week.

The conversation that arose out of these presentations was significant. Speakers illuminated the unique perspective of Black US immigrants, and the discussion that ensued about them touched on many of the distinctive challenges to engagement that characterize the community. Not surprisingly, focus eventually turned toward the internal frictions within the larger Black community between those Black immigrants and African Americans, which was also a reoccurring theme in the research I had done on the African Diaspora. In general, this theme centered on the difficulties in acknowledging a person’s unique experiences of Blackness, while at the same time still enabling it as a common point of connection.

Notably, this familiar friction within the Black community was caused by many of the same challenges of intersectionality that I had been struggling with myself. In order to encourage a sense of community, folks both within this room and outside it often tried to emphasize commonalities amongst members of the African Diaspora by minimizing differences, just as I had been attempting to do within myself to feel a more legitimate member of the queer activist community at the conference. Popular phrases like “it doesn’t matter where you are from or what language you speak,” and “at our core we are all the same” were uttered frequently throughout the discussion, in large part because participants on some level believed that difference was the enemy of unity. However, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall explains in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” these differences are at the very core of our conceptions of ourselves, and therefore matter undeniably. As such, any attempt to minimize or collapse these differences can only achieve a sense of unity temporarily, because ultimately all members must inevitably go back to embracing the full notion of themselves.

The solution is therefore instead, I think, to embrace this diversity, and reposition it as a key component in the process of building a sense of who we are as a community. As I said aloud to the room that day, our strength lies not in pretending differences don’t exist between us, but rather, in recognizing them as essential markers of the community to which we all belong. We are diverse, we are complex, and our unique blend of difference is precisely what stitches us together into a coherent community. No one should have to ignore the rest of who they are to belong because the truth is out: we are not all the same.

I reminded myself of this as I left the panel that afternoon, feeling a little bit more grounded and centered within myself. My identity hierarchy was and still is a living document, so to speak, open to countless more revisions and modifications in the future as I continue to grow and get to know myself. There are as many different ways to be a queer Black woman in the world as there are queer Black women, and as one of them, I am free to organize these experiences internally however they most make sense to me. While undoubtedly, I will sometimes still forget and find myself agonizing over authenticity and acceptance of some kind or other, my most powerful gift to myself and these communities is to remind both that all this difference and diversity is, in fact, our strongest point of connection.

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Lorien Hunter
Lorien Hunter is a writer, researcher and aspiring world traveler who currently lives in San Jose, California. In 2017, she earned her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Southern California, where she examined digital media, popular culture and marginalized communities. Today, she is a regular contributing writer at Bi.org, where her weekly column, The In-between, centers on her experiences as a biracial bi woman finding comfort and belonging in the spaces between worlds.