Welcome back to the Coming Out Happy Blog, we're your queer life coaches, Dani & Keely.
This month on our podcast, we met with Dr. Andrea Baldwin, a professor at the University of Houston – Clear Lake, to discuss intersectionality and authenticity in relationships. Dr. Baldwin has a PhD in Communication Studies from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, and has focused her career primarily on storytelling, performance, and rhetoric, which has helped her develop a deep understanding of intersectionality and how that affects our relationship to the world.
Before we go any deeper into the topic, let’s clarify what intersectionality really means. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” In layman’s terms, it means that every individual's experiences, culture, and identity affects how they “intersect” with other people’s experiences, culture, and identity, which heavily influences how marginalized groups experience systemic or institutional discrimination.
Dr. Baldwin pointed out that every person’s identity is communicated through stories. You can see that in the ways that shared cultures and beliefs are spread, but also how different groups use communication to share their points of view to each other. Every individual has a different experience in life, and sharing these stories often offers a new perspective to people who haven’t had the same lived experiences.
When you’re trying to develop a romantic relationship, you usually get to know each other by sharing. Most of the time, storytelling is an enjoyable experience that brings people closer together. You get to laugh at the good memories, comfort them when they recount the sad memories, and overall gain insight into the other person’s perspectives and worldview.
On the flip side of that, when it comes to some topics, sharing stories may make people uncomfortable or angry. Usually, according to Baldwin, this can be attributed to a lack of empathy for the other person. Most of the time, these interactions come when discussing race, gender, sexuality. These kinds of identity markers can so deeply affect how a person sees the world, and, for people outside of the group, it’s impossible to know exactly what the other person has experienced.
Dr. Baldwin offered her romantic relationship as an example. Her partner is a white man, and she is a Black woman. There are some experiences that Dr. Baldwin has had that her partner can simply never truly understand, and vice versa.
There are three ways that their “intersection” could have gone in regards to discussing race:
Dr. Baldwin shares her experiences as a Black woman in America and the challenges that she has faced because of that identity marker.
- Her partner listens to her story, but lacks to empathize with her point of view by expressing that, “Everyone has challenges. Life is hard. I don’t see how your experience was different from mine just because of your race.”
- Her partner listens to her story, recognizes that he can’t fully understand her experiences, and empathizes with the hardships she has faced, ready to support her in any action she may take to address those hardships.
- Her partner listens to her story, recognizes that her experiences are different from his, and feels guilty that he doesn’t understand. He apologizes for her experiences, but decides to stay away from the topic of race in the future.
I think everyone can agree that option two would be a much more positive experience, leaving Dr. Baldwin feeling validated, supported, and knowing that, while her partner can’t fully understand her point of view, he’s there for her.
It all comes down to this: you don’t know what you haven’t experienced, and it’s not up to you to tell someone else if their experience is real or not.
Dr. Baldwin encourages everyone, especially those hoping to create an aligned relationship, to look inward at your own story first. Acknowledge where you may have privilege, and be aware that not everyone’s experience is the same. If you find that you do have privileges that they do not, don’t be ashamed or guilty or try to apologize. The other person is sharing their experience so that you can understand them, not to make you feel bad or blame you for issues outside of your control.
Once you have the ability to recognize experiences you can’t relate to without guilt or shame, you’ll be able to acknowledge your limitations in any “intersection” and mindfully empathize, validate, and offer support to people who experience the world differently from you. A great phrase to use in conversations like this would be, “I don’t identify with your experience specifically, but I understand how it feels to be x.”
These kinds of conversations are the key to cultivating authenticity in your relationships. Relationships need this dialogue to understand what it fully means to be a part of the other person’s world and determine their place in it. When you tell these stories to a partner, you are getting closer and closer to being fully known by them, and having a relationship where you are yourself in every way.
Sharing stories is within everyone’s capacity no matter their race, gender, sexuality, or culture, and it’s the best way to share your individuality with the world. Each person spends their entire lives learning through stories, and it’s up to them whether they are open to other people’s points of view and willing to admit when they simply can’t understand.
We hope you can take this advice into your own relationships, and find that authenticity is possible with communication, empathy, and respect.
To listen to the full podcast episode, click here.
Dani & Keely
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