Intersectionality and Plural Identities

To speak of crossing is to speak of boundaries, margins, and thus, those who are marginalized. Identity, and the ways we tend to compartmentalize it into static categories, is often described in terms of boundaries and, especially, intersections. Since Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term in 1989, intersectionality has grown into an analytic framework for understanding the combined effects of oppressive systems and discourses on multiply marginalized persons.

The core metaphor of intersectionality, like all crossing metaphors, is a spatial one (Woods, 2012): the meeting of two (or more) roads. Such metaphors are useful in the ways they help us to “see the bigger picture” of identity in context. Intersectionality conceptualizes identity as positionality, a matter of “where one stands” in relation to others, similar in some respects to how Reynolds (1993) has formulated ethos as location to frame rhetorical dimensions of identity.

A map of a city with two intersecting lines overlaid onto it
One's identity could be thought of as a set of coordinates, incomplete without at least one other set of numbers to infer or triangulate where independent axes will meet. In addition to the coordinates, a map or landscape (context) is an essential reference for these coordinates to actually mean anything.

The fields of rhetoric, writing, and literacy studies have begun to take up intersectionality more substantively as research again and again affirms the importance of identity in all acts of communication. Kerschbaum (2014), for instance, attempts to define a new rhetoric of difference, where educators “consider their students not in terms of single identifiers but as the embodiment of a complex set of identifications that must be considered together, rather than independently from one another” (p. 10). Otis (2019), meanwhile, constructs a theory of intersectional rhetoric, in which rhetors intentionally create dynamic spaces where they can “choose the margins” (hooks, 1990). Intersectional rhetoric, Otis argues, forms “junctures between theory and experience, discourse and materiality, and academic and activist intellectual spheres to develop nuanced political arguments about structural oppression on multiple axes” (p. 371). According to Otis, intersectionality is not just an analytic tool for understanding identity (which helps us understand rhetorical practices); intersectionality is also a rhetorical tool, a way of framing identity and a way of persuading through identity’s relational characteristics. It is a rhetoric of location, of crossing points.

While scholars like Kerschbaum (2014) urge us to attend to intersectionality as a way for educators to better understand our students, and scholars like Otis (2019) highlight the rhetorical potential of intersectionality, there is still much work to be done to explore how these frameworks translate to the applied praxis of pedagogy and to situated acts of composing. Promising research is beginning to emerge. Kryger and Zimmerman (2020) demonstrate the uses of intersectionality as means of pedagogical critique as they theorize how labor-based grading contracts and other practices designed to promote equity for marginalized students can simultaneously serve to exclude others when deployed uncritically. Both Shivers-McNair et al. (2019) and Gonzales and Butler (2020) articulate a the generative possibilities of intersectional frameworks as they describe collaborative user experience methods with community stakeholders that include diverse participants in design processes. What these intersectional pedagogies and rhetorics have in common are ways of imagining writing across difference. With theorists like Barad (2007) defining difference fundamentally as a process of marking boundaries, or agential cuts, that isolate and stabilize parts of a phenomenon (rather than difference being an inherent quality), intersectionality promises a way of marking boundaries by crossing them, stitching the social universe of identity back together again in a way that doesn’t erase fractures.

Hybridity and Border Identities

If intersectionality acknowledges the multiple converging identities created by taxonomizing difference (Kerschbaum, 2014), what of the identities that straddle multiple definitions or that fall in between readily legible identity categories?

Many rhetorical scholars have noted not only the complexities but also power of these border identities, located in what Bhaba (1994) calls “Third Spaces” and Reynolds (1993) terms “the Betweens.” Malinowitz (1995) observes that such ambiguous spaces “produce not only abject outsiderhood but also profoundly unique ways of self-defining, knowing, and acting… though people usually want to leave the margins, they do want to be able to bring with them the sharp vision that comes from living with friction and contradiction” (pp. 251-252). In addition to the analytical “sharp vision” Malinowitz describes, those who locate themselves in border spaces often develop the rhetorical agility that comes from performing identity differently across a shifting landscape to multiple audiences, but this agility comes at a cost: Hybrid and border identities are often subject to being erased, overlooked, or denied legitimacy. Rhetoric, literacy, and writing studies scholarship has tended to rely on narrative and autoethnographic inquiries to explore hybridity, since these methods afford the kind of thick description and nuance needed to address complexity.

In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, which is perhaps the most-cited example of such a narrative in writing studies, Anzaldúa (1987) defines her chicana identity as literally and figuratively situated in a borderland. In addition to theorizing explicitly what cultural and linguistic hybridity mean, Anzaldúa’s text enacts hybridity by toggling fluidly between English and Spanish, creative and analytic styles. Anzaldúa’s definition of the New Mestiza argues that the negotiation of boundaries is both a discursive and political act, a theme that has been echoed on numerous occasions by many other writing scholars since (e.g., Baca, 2008; Cisneros, 2014; Connal, 2004; Cuellar, 2020; de la Piedra & Guerra, 2012; Lang, 2019; Scenters-Zapico, 2010; Villanueva, 2016).

Not all border and between identities involve the negotiation of national or racial identities. In their webtext on deaf, hard-of-hearing, and CODA literacy narratives, Brueggemann and Voss (2013) construct a theory of betweenity, a concept they use to describe how deaf and hard-of-hearing identities and literacies are relational and mediated by people, signs, and technologies. Betweenity directs our attention to how identity is entangled with literacy materially, through things and people, which makes performing identity a “dance”—between passing and claiming identity, between moments where identity is foregrounded and moments where it is backgrounded—as material and social conditions shift.

Transgender rhetorics represents a growing body of research that similarly explores cultural and discursive boundaries and boundary-crossing related especially to gender (Patterson & Spencer, 2020). Rawson and Williams (2014), in tracing the rhetoric and etymology of the term, define transgender as a broad umbrella term that encompasses those who “transgressed the boundaries of their birth-assigned gender.” The prefix trans-, which means “across,” “over,” or “on the farther side of” may initially imply a movement from from one binary point to another, like crossing a river with opposite banks, but transgender theories and rhetorics increasingly imagine gender as a galaxy (Yep et al., 2016) rather than duality. Thus, while all trans identities involve transgressing, transcending, or crossing out of rigid gender boundaries, there is no fixed destination where that boundary crossing must lead to. Instead, transgender rhetorics invite space for movement and redefinition, as suggested by the undefined X in gender inclusive terms such as “latinx,” “womxn,” and “folx.” Yep et al. (2016) posit that the fluidity and nuance and “sharp vision” (Malinowitz, 1995) offered by the “global assemblage” of the term transgender open up rich possibilities for transing communication.

Yep et al.'s diagram depicting degrees of difference and degrees of mediatedness
Since the ways gender affects communication are never static, always contingent on a culture's norms, Yep et al.'s (2016) diagram attempts to depict transing communication by describing gender in relation to difference from gender norms and degree of mediatedness.

Identities are in many ways performances, and performances are rhetorical. As such, hybrid and border identities offer us lessons in practicing hybrid and border discourses that resist hegemonic norms and simplistic binaries and provide pathways for negotiating shifting and overlapping cultures. These border discourses, Connal (2004) writes, “allow speakers or writers to create new uses of language and rhetorical gestures within old contexts, as well as in new ones… to create and use gestures that meet the needs of multiple audiences” (p.216). These crossing rhetorics are increasingly becoming recognized as something to be embraced rather than avoided, crucial in a globalized, mediated world where movement across boundaries (literal and figurative) has become common.

A map of a city with two intersecting lines overlaid onto it
An illustration from Guaman Poma's New Chronicle, which Mary Louise Pratt uses as a case study to construct her theory of contact zones.
A dense web of overlapping red threads from an installation by Chiharu Shiota
Social Interaction

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021