Intersectionality and IndividualityBy: Andrew S
What makes a person unique? If people are unique, then why do we still find so much in common with others?
I was participating in a Facebook discussion about whether there could be non-literal wards or a “reform Mormonism” in a similar vein to reform Judaism, and the conversation transformed into a discussion over whether Mormonism is an ethnicity. Some people in the discussion argued — as is inevitable in a discussion on this topic — that Mormonism isn’t an ethnicity. Mormonism, as a religion, is about beliefs and practices. If you don’t believe certain things or practice certain things, you aren’t a Mormon.
I don’t deny that Mormonism is in a major sense a religion, but I resist calling it just a religion because I can’t make sense of my own experiences with Mormonism if it is just a religion. So, even though I can’t really fully articulate what is “ethnic” or “cultural” about it, I feel like I can give impressions.
I toyed with trying to deconstruct myself. What would I look like if I had never been Mormon? The simple answer is…there are many possible ways I’d be different and I can’t tell for sure which is how things would actually turn out. All I can say is that I would be a totally different person.
A totally different person?
I asked myself…what does it mean to be a totally different person? I think it is synonymous with saying that I would have a totally different personality, but where does personality come from? When I think of the word personality, I think of something internal. Personality is neurological, and neurology is biological and chemical. So, it’s in my genes.
Still…I don’t think that is completely accurate. I don’t think that another person with my exact genes would necessarily turn out to be me. I cannot deny the fact that experiences that I’ve had have shaped the way that I think. That’s why I believe that growing up Mormon has made me a different person than the Andrew prime who may not have grown up Mormon.
I find it interesting, though. I want to say that I’m a unique individual, but I can recognize on this level that right from the start, I share something in common with other Mormons. I share even more in common with doubting, disaffected, marginalized, or former Mormons. It’s a nearly automatic kinship as soon as I hear their story or as soon as they hear mine. All of a sudden, what I thought was unique to me becomes something that is part of a group.
I know that many people decry identity politics. They say that we should treat people as individuals, not as members of a group. After all, everyone is unique…right? There is that ideal of individuality sticking out again.
Yet…I think people naturally identify as members of groups because they feel that the group membership says accurate things about them personally. It’s that kinship thing about which I was talking earlier…if I didn’t feel that the word “Mormon” accurately captured something in my experience, I wouldn’t identify with it. Yet, here I am, nonbelieving and nonpracticing, and here I identify.
I understand that the “Mormon” label isn’t perfect. I recognize that I have disagreements with Mormons on several issues. Maybe my disagreements are sign that I shouldn’t play identity politics and should instead treat people as individuals? Maybe my disagreements are where my individuality comes in?
Individuality through Difference?
As I mentioned before, I share something in common with other Mormons. I share even more in common with doubting, disaffected, marginalized, or former Mormons. So what I thought would be the source of my individuality — my doubt and disbelief — turned out instead to be a point of commonality…but with a different group. It’s not that my incompatibilities with the Mormon identity are evidence of my individuality…nope, they are just evidence of my compatibility with atheist, agnostic, secular, and doubting identities. So, instead of being a point off the grid…I’m really just an intersection on two grids.
…but I have disagreements with secular, atheist, agnostic communities! So, maybe that’s where my individuality lies?
The problem is that my disagreements there point to agreements elsewhere. For example, some of my disagreements point back to my Mormonism — my Mormonism has shaped me in a way that I have a different way of viewing things than a non-Mormon agnostic atheist. But those differences just become similarities to other Mormon agnostic atheists.
I’m not just a Mormon. I’m not just a disbeliever. I’m a man. I’m black. I’m middle class, and depending on where you draw the lines, maybe upper-middle class. With a master’s degree, I am pretty well-educated. Gay. Introverted. A millennial.
Each of these traits is an identity — an identity that fits me, but that also doesn’t fit me. But the parts where I don’t fit are accounted for by other traits. I’ve been called an “oreo” — black on the outside; white on the inside. But isn’t this more a reflection of other traits threatening to impinge upon my blackness? My Mormonism. My upper-middle class background. My education. I don’t experience Mormonism precisely the same way as others do, and just as before, it’s just a reflection of the other traits impinging upon my Mormonism. My race. My skepticism. My orientation.
But here’s the thing…”Impinging” is the wrong word. It’s like rock paper scissors…every element is perfectly matched by another element. But it’s also not like rock-paper-scissors in the sense that one doesn’t really “defeat” the other. Just because people think that my command of the English language is uncharacteristic for a black dude (or, in the words of our vice president, “a story book man”) doesn’t mean that I’ll ever become unblack. But all of these factors do come together to create me.
Individuality from Intersectionality
Could we say that what makes me me is the fact that I am at the intersection of a thousand different planes? That as I meet people that share many of my intersections, I will end up meeting people with whom I share things in common, but I preserve my uniqueness through the fact that there is no one else who will also intersect at all possible points?
I can say that taking away any of these major factors would make me a drastically different person. And that too gives me problems with several hypotheses that people have shared with me:
Oh, in the next life, you’ll be white and delightsome.
But I won’t be me.
Same-sex attraction didn’t exist in the pre-mortal existence, and it won’t exist in the afterlife.
So neither will I.
Do you ever really think about the numerous ways in which you could cease to be you?