How to Navigate the Fraught Weight of Whiteness in Intersectionality

Intersectionality is Hard for White Folk

White people carry the power of white privilege in every conversation on intersectionality. And in all Western spaces, white privilege weighs more than any other privilege. It is heavier than male privilege, wealth and power privileges, able-bodied privilege, neurotypical privilege — you name it, white privilege is heavier.

And that means that our whiteness, because it exists, makes our impact on a conversation larger. Outsized. All out of proportion. We can’t rely on intent to balance it. We must consciously and consistently consider it when weighing in (pun very much intended).

And the fact that intersectionality is hard for white people doesn’t give us a pass. In fact, it does the exact opposite. It gives us an obligation.

First, Take the Time to Listen

One of the best things any white person can do in any conversation about human rights is to listen before speaking. And I don’t mean the sort of listening that waits for a space in the conversation to interject. I mean listen. Allow yourself to learn. Allow your biases to unfold and be challenged. Do. Not. Speak. Intersectionality is complex. There are endless variables involved. Age and gender. Sexual and gender orientation. Neurodiversity and disability. Wealth and power (and the lack thereof). Religion and culture. And above all, race. Before interjecting your whiteness, listen to all of these concerns.

A poster that says "Human Rights means EVERY human" on a grey background with a picture of stylized human silhouttes in multiple colors. A depiction of intersectionality
Intersectionality ensures as many people at the table as possible

Second, Value Support Over Leadership

If you’re white, you’re used to having your opinions valued and prioritized. In intersectional conversations, your role is often going to be supporting someone else in their opinion versus voicing your own. Redirect the conversation back to the expert on the topic. Defend their point with the authority of your whiteness and any other privileges you have. Respect requests to step back and reflect. In the battle to win and expand human rights, those of us whose privilege is so powerful it overrides the rights of other must cede the center in order for the focus to shift. We should always be conscious of this.

Third, Accept the Consequences of Privilege-Blindness

You are likely to be wrong. Sometimes, publicly wrong. And you might find yourself at the bottom of a pile-on. And that’s part of the work of being an advocate for human rights. It is also a consequence of the weight of whiteness. It is often more urgent, when considering intersectionality, to leaven the weight of whiteness than to educate you. Your feelings and thoughts will sometimes be put aside in favor of the larger goal.

Fourth, Make the Effort to Learn

If there’s one complaint I hear more than any other from marginalized people in my circles it’s “I’m sick and tired of being asked for a free education”. If you want to learn about racism or transphobia or ableism or ageism, read. Buy books or check them out from the library. Follow creators in those populations on social media and do nothing but listen. Listen to audio books. Take college courses. Pay your teachers. The resource tab of this website contains lists of resources on various aspects of mental health and human rights. Feel free to explore them. Some authors to start with are Ijeoma Oluo, Mikki Kendall, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Links are to Amazon. Buy their books).

A lot of the 101-level content for privileged people is provided by other privileged people in order to relieve some of this burden. That is what I’m doing here. So finding well-regarded allies like Jane Elliott and Robin DiAngelo and others and reading what they have to say might be a good start.

Fifth, Remember that Intersectionality Affects All Populations

No group is a monolith. In fact, that’s what “intersectionality” means. While we talk about “Black culture” or “feminism” or “queer culture”, it would be more accurate to say “Black cultures”, “feminisms” and “queer cultures”. At any given time there are as many debates going on within groups as between them. Just because one person in a group agrees with you doesn’t mean that you’re right. It’s important to use critical thinking and seek out multiple points of view in order to contribute more effectively.

Finally, Focus on the Goal

It is uncomfortable to shift your point of view. Becoming a side character versus a leading role is hard, too. And whatever you’re working on, your shift to one of many is essential. One of the biggest hurdles for white people in intersectional spaces is the wave of feeling that overcomes us as we deal with situations that we didn’t experience growing up and believed would only happen to others. There is some evidence that it is more common for queer folk and neurodiverse folk to do the work to become allies for work on racial issues. It’s likely due to the fact that queer folk and neurodivergent folk, even when white, grow up being “not the default” in at least one area of their lives growing up.

The goal of learning how to get your whiteness out of the way when working with intersectional groups is to improve human rights for every human. We seek to make a better world not for some, but for all. We are building community with roots deep in the past and with thoughts toward several generations into the future. Because of this focus, not only do we improve the world for its human inhabitants, but for its non-human ones.

Let go of your fear and uncertainty, listen, learn and contribute to the many conversations that are going on. Be a force for the world you want to see. It’s all worth the work in the end.

As always, if you are part of the vast human rights movement and think that I’ve gotten something wrong here, feel free to comment. I do not open my space to people who don’t support human rights, so if that’s your concern, debate it elsewhere.

A special shoutout to Kat and Kathy and L Kate and Asim and Lashonda and Tonya and Alecia and Monica and Sonny and Ibrihim and Cindy (today!) and all the other friends of color who have generously told me when I’m being a jerk (or a racist) over the years. It’s greatly appreciated.

Jennifer Liles is the owner and webmistress for Jenni's Space and Responsive Mental Health Services LLC. She is dedicated to mental health and human rights for freaks, geeks, and queer folk. She uses the Jenni's Space label for places where she combines education about, advocacy for, and celebration of mental health and human rights. This information is primarily for neurodiverse people, people with mental health issues, people who are on the queer spectrum, disabled people, and Black and Indigenous and other people of color. There are also discussions for privileged people about privilege and how it intersects with human rights work.