immersion + intersectionality = a new way of educating ourselves about each other
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person's social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. The term was conceptualized and coined by Dr. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. [wikipedia]
The concept goes deeper than just the understanding that we all belong to multiple marginalized and privileged identities; in Dr. Crenshaw's legal article, she wrote about employment discrimination cases in which Black women were specifically discriminated against as a group, but the law only recognized sexism and racism and separate identities, and the women struggled to make a case for the obvious discrimination toward those who belonged to both identities.
Why is this important?
When we look to engage in Immersion-Informed Practices, it is important that we are immersing ourselves in the right places, and are including all of a person's intersections.
When lived experience fails to consider intersectionality
It should be mentioned that many lived experience resources are the experience of one person. In these instances, the experience is of course going to be that of, well, that person. A white, middle-class, college-educated autistic person's blog is going to relay a white, middle-class, college-educated autistic experience. Does this mean we should not include it in our immersive experience? No, not at all. It means that we should make sure we are not looking at only or mostly white, middle-class etc. experiences of being autistic, and should make sure we are including a diverse array of autistic experience if we are immersing ourselves in autistic lived experience. It also means that, sometimes, there are going to be people of lived experience who are so unaware of their white privilege or other privileges that their experiences will not generalize well to those who do not share them, or the way they are relaying their experiences without this awareness will be frustrating and alienating to many folks. When resources glaringly lack intersectionality or awareness of privilege, they will not be included here.
When engaging in Immersion-Informed Practices, it is not enough to just choose lived voices that speak to each experience. For instance, someone looking to increase understanding of a Black family with an autistic child who seeks out voices of white autistic folks speaking about autistic experience and Black folks speaking generally about Black experiences will miss many experiences that are important to understand in order to understand the family in question.
This article from Mother Jones exemplifies one area in which the considerations of white parents and Black parents are starkly different: A caseworker from the family regulation system (New York City's agency is called ACS) is having trouble locating a family's apartment and approaches a white neighbor, who asks, "what's ACS?" The article continues: "I never met one single Black family that asked me, 'What’s ACS?'" she said. "There’s one group of people walking around not knowing that ACS exists, and there’s another group of people walking around living in fear of ACS."
Someone who is looking to understand this family needs to be surrounded by voices of Black parents raising children with additional support needs, plus Black autistic adults, as they will come to understand that Black and brown folks receive substandard healthcare and education and are at high risk of unjust involvement with family regulation systems and the carceral system. They will also then learn to include voices of families affected by these systems even if their clients or students are not, given that a majority of Black children will have contact with the family regulation system, and most families of color live in very reasonable fear and distrust of systems in general.
A member of our advisory board once attended a training on parenting with disabilities. The speakers were all white, upper-class, conventionally attractive, highly educated women with specific physical disabilities such as limb differences or spina bifida who presented with stable health. While the training was run entirely by those with lived experience, and was very useful in terms of seeing that school personnel and medical professionals operate under extreme levels of misconception about fitness to parent even when someone has a relatively straightforward solely physical disability, it very much failed to address most of the issues facing the broader population of parents with disabilities. The trainers suggested things such as making videos showing how they did infant care tasks using adaptive equipment and interviewing multiple pediatricians to find one who was accepting. When asked how one would manage securing such interviews with Medicaid providers, they stated the parent should just ask to meet with the providers as they did with their private practices in upper-class communities. They lacked understanding of most of the parents with disabilities who become court-involved: poorer Black and brown parents with psychiatric disabilities and/or conditions involving pain/illness/fatigue, who cannot just show a provider a video to explain that they do not pose any danger to their child. This is not to suggest that these parents do not face very real disability stigma, nor that their voices are not important in discussions of disability; it simply highlights how those engaging in Immersion-Informed Practices can easily make the error of only considering a very narrow view rather than a broader and intersectional view of all of a person's experiences.
Common examples of failing to consider intersectionality:
Assumptions that all people are free to change providers or decline services recommended by professionals
Conceptualizing cultural expectations of rote manners ("good morning," "thank you") as oppressive and in opposition to children freely expressing themselves
Information about puberty, sexuality, etc. that are not queer-inclusive/trans-inclusive
Implications that people have financial ability to easily access to things like attorneys, tutors, private clinics, extracurricular activities, childcare, transportation, travel, cooking facilities (as well as assumptions that poorer folks can't possibly have access to these)
Resources that seem to omit that people with disabilities, youths, folks of all religions, seniors, etc. experience the usual spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities
Excessive food moralizing or diet talk, weight stigma, discussion of "ob*sity" as a public health concern
Portrayal of cultural Christianity as fully secular and unaffiliated with any religious tradition
Failure to recognize options such as homeschooling, telehealth, online learning, prepared foods, delivery services, etc. are accessibility options for many rather than frivolous or inherently inferior options
Suggestions for hygiene and grooming routines that are applicable only to white folks
Frameworks that portray neurotypical/white/middle-class communication and body language as the only correct ways of behaving and interacting
...and really, anything that fails to acknowledge the limitations and specify the exact experience it is encompassing. A training on pragmatic language differences in autistic people states something along the lines of "autistic people often have trouble understanding people with accents" rather than the more accurate "autistic people from ethnically homogeneous environments often have trouble understanding people with different accents from theirs" which reflects that while this is a very real issue for many autistic folks, autistic folks of color who code-switch themselves and are in daily contact with speakers of many languages and dialects usually do not experience this same experience of difficulty with different accents.
Leaving space for intersections:
We can avoid microaggressions as well as seek and disseminate more accurate information when we specify exactly who we are talking about. Are we discussing "women" or are we discussing "people who menstruate?" They are not the same group. Do we want advice from "parents" about something like schooling or routines, or do we want advice from "parents who gave birth" about a pregnancy/postpartum issue? Addressing "parents" to ask a question about infant care is a microaggression toward parents who have only parented teens as well as non-parents who have been primary caregivers, while "mothers" is as well, and additionally excludes fathers and nonbinary parents. If we want to address a question to "those who have cared for an infant," we should say that.
Similarly, if we share an article that has some great information, but is made up of the stories of four white, cisgender, hetero, nondisabled, middle-class women who live in New York City, we should say that and acknowledge the vast limitations of the article, rather than saying that "four New Yorkers" share their expertise. Caveats go a long way to make things more inclusive as well; we can suggest something as a potential resource someone might consider if they are physically able, financially able, feel safe bringing up their issue, etc. The common saying in Unitarian Universalist churches of "please rise as you are willing and able" is a great example of giving a suggestion while acknowledging that standing is not physically feasible for all and that the particular ritual might be one in which some are not interested in participating.