How our intersectional identities inform our personal definitions of sustainability
By Moji Igun
I have likened solving issues related to sustainability to solving a Rubik’s cube. We cannot accomplish anything by looking at it from only one perspective. We must examine problems from all possible angles to better understand how the different parts interact with each other. By ignoring intersectionality, we fail to access a more holistic perspective of ourselves, others, and the problems we are trying to solve.
We all define sustainability differently. At its core, it is the practice of treating every natural resource, plant, animal, and human being in a way that allows them to endure. Our individual priorities, preferences, and privileges determine the amount of resources (time, money, and energy) we are each able to allot to this practice. In June,I wrote about the difference between individual and systemic action and why we must actively engage in both as we move towards a more resilient future. Now, let’s take a closer look at how our intersectional identities inform our personal definitions of sustainability.
Intersectionality, a term created by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender which creates overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. In her work, Crenshaw demonstrates the importance of acknowledging that Black women exist at the intersection of both racism and sexism. It’s not as simple as addressing these issues separately, but as a distinct and interwoven set of issues.
As a Nigerian-American, I’ve been lauded for speaking English articulately even though I was born in Michigan and the first language in both countries is English. As a woman, I’ve watched my female colleagues bend over backwards to be promoted or paid fairly as compared to our male colleagues. While these examples of racism and sexism are easy to articulate, the layered reality of experiencing both at the same time is much more difficult to communicate.
Unfortunately, many diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives designed to create space for people of color are deemed successful when men of color exist in the spaces (see: corporate boardrooms in America) and initiatives to increase access for women are deemed complete when white women achieve success (see: the 19th Amendment). What about all the other different combinations of identities? None of us can disconnect the benefits or burdens of any single one of our identities from another because we have to exist in all spaces simultaneously.
So, how does intersectionality influence our personal efforts when it comes to sustainability? According to the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, people of color are more likely to live near sources of pollutants and breathe polluted air. These are the same communities where residents are blamed for the very pollution that makes them sick. Globally, women are more likely to be discouraged from or denied access to receiving education. Yet, educated women tend to have higher incomes, better housing, and access to cleaner water which brings about social, economic, and environmental benefits. With so many social factors to consider beyond race and gender, how can we possibly expect every person to pursue sustainability in the same way?
Some of my personal sustainable habits include reducing waste, growing my own food, championing circular and sharing economies, supporting small businesses, and staying informed on issues that affect my community. These are all activities that are conscious choices I make about the way I interact with the world. These come, in part, from my values of resourcefulness, resilience, and self-sufficiency which have been shaped by my life experiences. I can’t delineate which parts come from being Nigerian-American, which parts come from being a woman, or which parts come from the various other social identities I hold. However, some unique combination forms my understanding of who I am and my relationship with the natural world.
For me, growing my own food is a stress-relieving hobby that allows me to experiment with and appreciate the abundance that nature can create. For another person, this action might be the best method for gaining access to food that is both nutritious and affordable. Yet another person who may already have been able to meet this basic need, might opt to outsource the labor of growing food and purchase from their local farmers market instead. None of these approaches are more correct than another which is why it is important to make space for all of these personal expressions of sustainability.
When thinking about our roles in social change, we need to be aware of the interconnectedness of the layers of social injustice which create complexities and contradictions. I have likened solving issues related to sustainability to solving a Rubik’s cube. We cannot accomplish anything by looking at it from only one perspective. We must examine problems from all possible angles to better understand how the different parts interact with each other. By ignoring intersectionality, we fail to access a more holistic perspective of ourselves, others, and the problems we are trying to solve. Understanding the diverse ways we all interpret sustainability may be the key in creating solutions that better serve us all. How has your identity shaped your definition of sustainability?
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"As we continue the work towards dismantling white supremacy, I urge you to pay attention. I challenge each of you to unpack, unlearn, address how you’ve been subjected to harm and perpetuated harm in this context. Don’t be fooled, remember white supremacy is clever, it’s seasoned, it’s why it’s survived for so long. It needs the model minority myth, it needs to manipulate us, through racism, classism, ableism, ageism, capitalism, homophobia, transphobia etc. Look at your own story, your family story, look at the ways in which this system has fooled you into not seeing the truth of your own agency, your own power."