What Is Intersectionality in Yoga and Why Does It Matter?
This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal
"Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world." -bell hooks
As a yoga community, we are joined in our shared humanity, but the details of our human experience are incredibly different. While we may share a specific identity with others, we also differ in our experiences, opportunities, and concerns. Those differences may be extremely challenging for marginalized groups, especially for Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), and particularly for women of color and their queer and trans siblings (QTBIPOC). In order to have whole, healed, and unified communities, including the yoga community, we have to acknowledge the historical and contemporary evidence that indicates and affirms this truth.
That begins with understanding that we each also have a position in the social hierarchy--what sociologists call our "social location." Our race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education level, and other factors combined create an aggregate that defines our position within that stratification system. Some elements of our identity put us closer to social rewards. Others push us to the outskirts of society where resources are scarce. The closer you are to accessing rewards and resources such as education, health care, housing, safety, food, property, and power, the more advantages you have. These may be unearned and are often invisible but, ultimately, they impact your success in life.
Taking stock of privilege
Consider the ways you may experience unearned advantages or forms of privilege while simultaneously experiencing some form of structural oppression or disadvantage. For example, at the height of the women's movement in the '60s and '70s, many white women focused on the fact that they had experienced sexism and sexist oppression. At the same time, they ignored or overlooked the ways in which they experienced white-skin privilege. In this way, they centered or foregrounded their sex and backgrounded their race.
During this same era, men in the Black Power movement similarly focused on their experience of racist oppression, while not taking stock of their male privilege. In both examples, the sexism and racism were real, yet so was the white-skin and male privilege respectively. You can see, then, how it's possible to experience sexism and benefit from racism. It's possible to experience racism but experience heteronormative or class privilege. It's possible to experience homophobia but benefit from sexism or ageism.
We are multidimensional beings, yet it's common for us to overlook that fact to center the ways in which we may experience oppression while overlooking the various forms of privilege in their lives. It's important to shine a light on the ways we're oppressed or challenged, but we must also take stock of the ways in which we're privileged as well. We must acknowledge the well of resources we can access based on our position within any social location. We must consider the unseen advantages we may have by virtue of the social locations we occupy.
What is intersectionality?
To create equitable spaces-including yoga and other wellness spaces--we must consider the myriad ways we intersect, overlap, and diverge from one another. Black feminists have been speaking to these varied and overlapping differences since the late 1960s. The feminist author bell hooks referred to it as the “matrix of domination.” Poet Audre Lorde, another Black, feminist, queer icon, wrote about “the mythical norm (where cis white Christian males were the apex of society)." They were addressing "intersectionality" as a concept and a practice.
That now commonly used term was first coined by scholar and activist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. She used "intersectionality" as a metaphor to explore the multiple forms of oppression experienced by Black women, given that most antiracist and traditional feminist ideas excluded them, and overlooked the fact that they experienced simultaneous racial and gender prejudice.
Crenshaw, a legal scholar, explained it in a 1989 paper called "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex": "Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren't being appreciated by the courts. In particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see."
Intersectionality asks us open our eyes. It demands that we consider the relationships among and intersection of multiple social locations in shaping our world view and our experiences. It also recognizes the fact that, while people may share one social location--for example, sexual orientation or age--there are variations within that experience based on additional factors, such as education and economics. Not all members of any group share a universal or monolithic experience with every other member of that group.
Putting yoga in action
Through svadyaya (self study), the fourth niyama in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, our yoga practice offers us the tools of discernment (viveka in Sanskrit), to go deeper in unpacking our own biases so we can unlearn and relearn. We must utilize svadhyaya and viveka in tandem to dismantle harmful spiritual bypassing, cultural appropriation, sexual objectification, ableism, size-ism, ageism, and toxic masculinity. We must stand against the concept of the "yoga body," as well as the commodification of yoga practice in the West.
Intersectionality is the path forward and the future of wellness so we can be more inclusive of all marginalized voices and experiences. It allows us to examine the truth in a holistic way without giving in to denial, distorting reality, or leaning out of the conversation due to guilt or shame. Like our lived yoga practices, intersectionality allows us to step out of perceived and socially constructed binaries to hold the full spectrum of experience and move into conscious action to create social change.
This movement must not diminish or ignore the power and truth in our differences. As Audre Lorde wrote, "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences." In fact, our differences can be a source of both individual and collective strength.
When we gloss over the distinct contributions and the unique issues and concerns facing the many members of our local and global society who face racism, sexism, gender bias, classism, homophobia, transphobia and many other factors, we feed oppression and inequality. We must not overlook or ignore the historical and contemporary evidence that indicates and affirms the truths of marginalization and systemic oppression. We cannot have unity without accountability and we can't experience healing without repair.
Acknowledging our differences allows us to use our position, influence, and voice to advocate and activate powerful change. Honoring our differences gives us the opportunity to commune, to cultivate solidarity, to authentically support one another, and, with a sense of integrity, to collectively heal.
This is the first in a series of essays conceived by Melanie Klein, co-founder of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and Anusha Wijeyakumar, co-creator of Women of Color + Wellness. They and other BIPOC and QTBIPOC yoga teachers will write essays that apply an intersectional lens to their experience of the yoga world. "Our goal is to build an inclusive community for dialogue, introspection and direct action," they write. "We invite you to join us on this journey to transform your yoga practice from the inside out and compel you into meaningful, authentic and sustainable action."
See also: I Saw the Truth of the Wellness Industry. Here's How I'm Disrupting It.
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