Revisiting Intersectionality & Life in the Margins in Development Work

I’ve taken a conscious effort to take a break from this blog for quite some time. While this act was deliberate, apologies are in order. I am sorry.

I invested so much into this blog as a place of escape from what seemed a constant barrage of forced otherness within a community, country, and culture I didn’t think twice to count myself as part of and expected others to do the same without a question.

I went from excitedly describing my intersecting identity stories to relative strangers in search of connection, friendship to a new and deafening silence. It is when we become familiar with the forced censorship of all that we are or all we aim to be that dangerous things happen.

I began to judge others.
I concluded nasty things about the worldviews of others based on the conclusions or statements of finality they made about me.
My patience ran thin.
Second chances didn’t exist.
Relationships broke down.
I had no places where I fully felt home and the places that served as my temporary abodes bode no solutions to my ills.
I desperately wanted to find those like me. I wanted solutions but my brain felt too racked to have any come of any fruition.
I retreated within myself. I commiserated with others that felt similar pains but were similarly lost on solutions to their own problems.

We sat in our misery together but we were alone.

It is in that space of loneliness where idleness and self-doubt become bedfellows. Self-doubt poisons the process to understand the inquiries of all that we are, how we came to be, and all that we can be. Self-doubt and Potential have never been close. It is understandable. Inaction never knew how to accommodate the fire that aimed to keep burning; so she stomped her out.

I don’t want the story of my own fire to ever end that way. So I’ve chosen to understand my own process of ignition as well as the interactions that fan or dampen that flame.

Reconceptualizing identity, the politics around identity, and revisiting intersectionality have helped me heal from some of those burns.

As of late, sadness has hit me strongest when I took all that was happening to me as isolated and uniquely individual.

“Few can relate to what I am going through as a black woman, Canadian national, raised in the States in a Burundian home” I thought.

When I talked to other black women working in development, I felt some sense of coming home. They too, were going through deep frustration with the things they were experiencing in predominantly white, voluntourist settings. In development work, “women of color continue to occupy positions both physically and culturally marginalized within dominant society” as critical race theorist, Kimberle Crenshaw, notes. This familiarity with marginalization was an aspect of this work we hadn’t expected to be so taxing to our already weary souls.

But I didn’t feel full solidarity until I began to diversify the people I turned to for help that were experiencing varied forms of oppression in their experiences abroad. It then became clear that across geographies, experiences of “racism” and sexism, among a range of other “isms”, were not just isolated and individual events but rather social and systemic conflicts. I found strength in sharing experiences.

The issues we experienced occurred within and across our varied racial, gendered, and classed ideas of ourselves. And I believe that the solutions we will create will be as diverse as the group we are; the group of friendship and community that has become my home.

Moving through my experience in Burundi does not have to involve a negotiation of my multiple identities. Nor does it require expecting the Burundians, expats, and all in between I meet to automatically “get” how I identify myself because I am realizing that I can’t hold myself to that same standard for others. In fact, being Burundian for me cannot mean the same thing for another Burundian unless we went through all of the same life experiences and intersecting histories. I can either remain alone and keep dreaming that someone exactly like me exists but what would such an unfulfilling search do for the greater goal of tackling interlocking systems of domination that oppress so many like and unlike me.

In bell hooks’ piece on “Home Place as the Site of Resistance,” I am reminded that the site of intersectional negotiation doesn’t need to be centered within the realms of a single identity such as race, class, gender. Rather, the site for negotiation can occur within the margins, and the language of resistance is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way we choose to live. It is there, within the margins where I will find and learn to resist in solidarity with others. It is there where I will never be alone. It is there where joy and love coexist and will challenge us and the systems we live in to grow.