Imagine you're playing a flashcard game with a preschooler.
The point of the game is to match words with their opposites. Some of these are easy: Tall is the opposite of short, fast is the opposite of slow, and clean is the opposite of dirty. But then you pull a card with the picture of a dog. You might instinctively know that "cat" is the correct response, but how do you explain that to the preschooler? Why is a cat the opposite of a dog? Why isn't the answer a bird or a hamster or a lizard? Why have we selected these two random pets to be the opposite of one another?
The reason we intuitively feel cats and dogs are opposing forces is because our society loves binaries. Putting two things in opposition allows us to reduce complexities into simple terms: Chocolate and vanilla. Salt and pepper. Water and fire.
We do it with people too: Are you a boy or a girl? Black or white? Gay or straight?
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the world isn't nearly as clear-cut as these binaries suggest ( as those who are genderqueer, mixed-race, and bisexual prove ), there's another hidden danger in this kind of binary view. By thinking solely in opposites, we erase the fact that many people identify with more than one label. Binary thinking doesn't encourage people to embrace multiple descriptors, it asks them to think of each label in isolation and in opposition to our "default" sense of normal: a straight white man.
Of course a straight white man shouldn't be the "default" example of a human being, but thousands of years of history has taught us to think this way. And while we don't necessarily do it consciously, when we hear the term "woman" we are trained to think of someone who is the opposite of this default straight white dudenamely a straight white woman. Unfortunately that means mainstream feminism can often unintentionally overlook the specific needs of women of color or LGBTQ women.
For instance, the feminist movement has done a wonderful job of educating the country on the fact that women earn just 77-cents for every dollar a man earns. But that simple binary statistic ignores the fact that Black women earn 64 cents and Hispanic women only 54 cents for every dollar a white man earns. The reality of the wage gap isn't a simple binary, and by ignoring the role race plays in gender inequality, mainstream feminism is failing women of color.
And similarly when we hear the term "person of color," we might first think of a straight man of color who stands in clear opposition to our default straight white man. But that means women of color and LGBTQ people of color are often erased from struggles for racial justice. For instance, while we celebrate the legacies of 1960s civil-rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson, female activist Ella Baker and gay activist Bayard Rustin have been pushed to relative obscurity. While the Black Lives Matter movement has rightfully lifted up the names of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, it hasn't given the same attention to Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, two female victims of police brutality.
In social justice terms, this idea of dealing with multiple forms of oppression at once is called "intersectionality." And it's a term we need to start using more. Because in the real world people cannot divide their identities the way we do on paper. A Black gay woman is not only a woman when dealing with gender issues, not only a lesbian when dealing with LGBTQ issues, and not only a Black person when dealing with racial issues. Her Black, gay, and female identities intersect all the time.
We might fear that making our movements more inclusive will water down the messagethat fighting for racial justice on top of LGBTQ rights might confuse people. But that's only true if we accept the lie that our world must be understood in simple binaries. If we instead embrace complexity and find overlaps between feminism, racial justice, and LGBTQ activism, we can strengthen all three movements.
Trying to unlearn the binaries that have been ingrained in us since childhood is no easy task. But just as we once learned to accept the false truth that dogs and cats are opposites, we can reteach ourselves that, in fact, the world isn't quite so black and white.
Caroline Siede is a freelance writer living in Chicago where the cold never bothers her anyway. You can also find her work on The A.V. Club and Boing Boing.