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.

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The Continued Irrelevance of Black Life by Karen Maniraho

After a 15-month trial and a jury deliberation that left many on the edge of their seats, a verdict was finally reached on the Florida killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn. Dunn was charged with four counts of attempted murder and a mistrial was declared on a first-degree murder charge for the death of Davis. 

That verdict hurt. As a compassionate person living in America, it hurt. As someone that believes in justice being served to innocent grieving families, it hurt more. And as a black person living in America, it hurt most. The context and color of a young black male’s skin translated to enough ammunition for a white man to feel disrespected and threatened yet again.

Jordan Davis was a good kid. As was Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo; the list of good black men and women that have died unfortunately goes on and people in the black community know why. It is not enough to boil down these deaths to “Stand Your Ground” laws or gun laws or the useless, circular race reversal imaginations of “if the races had been reversed,” x” would have happened.” Rather, it is clear to us that the justice system is not yet adequately prepared to uphold the value of black life before the law.

No matter how good of a student, friend, man, or citizen, a black person, particularly a black male is, we are reminded that our characters can’t protect us from unfair death. And in death, no matter how much we attempt to canonize our lives, our legacies can’t afford us justice.

I’m tired of expecting disappointment with these cases. I’m tired of it feeling like the victim is the one on trial in these cases. I’m tired of black parents fearing their kids won’t come back home to them because of realities like this. Today would have been Jordan Davis’ 19th birthday; I’m tired of birthdays being missed and replaced by funeral anniversaries. I’m tired of black parents having to restrain talking publicly about how good their sons were until after an unjust verdict is reached concerning their son’s death. I’m tired of watching black parents having to pray for the killers of their children because having faith in the justice system will never be enough.

I am not alone in my pain. Talk to a black male and see how it feels to live while black in America. Ask the black mothers and fathers grieving with the Davis family, how it feels to not be able to fully protect their children from the harm of a country that sees race before character. Ask black youth living in predominantly white communities how it feels when their anger about black deaths is characterized as “dramatic,” “misplaced”, or ” overreactions.”

These high profile, racially charged cases capture the attention of so many Americans largely because it is easy to make up your mind when these events get trivialized as a “good black child” left dead because of a “bad white man” or when they are trivialized as a “loud music trial” or when the story is summed up by hoodies and skittles.

But living while black in America means grappling with the fact that our skin color or the coded perceptions of our identity could be reason enough for our demise and justice will most likely be denied to us. And with each verdict, a great majority of Americans remain with an insufficient vocabulary to discuss the daily and institutional effects of systemic racism that black Americans live and die with every day.

We cannot apologize for the pain of our community and our continued crushed hopes in the justice system. Davis’ case shows us that the justice system is not yet the place to discuss race relations but unfortunately for now, it seems that it’s all we’ve got. In the meantime, we will not remain quiet against injustice. As Ron Davis, the father of the slain Jordan Davis said, “…My son will not be just another day at the office.’ You won’t kill my son and be stoic.” 

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