Our identities shape our place in the world. Inevitably, they play a large role in influencing the sort of point of view and experiences that one has. I suppose at it's most basic, the point is that identities/experiences are not discretely cumulative.
I'm a math person at heart so I can't help but think about in those terms. So what would it mean if identities were discretely cumulative? If we assume a norm of experiences as humans, you might think, each identity then adds a certain amount of experience. So let's say this baseline experience is b. Being white might add specific points of view/experiences,W; being black, B; and being gay, G. Thus being a gay, white male might give you the life experience of b+W+G and being a gay, black male might give you the experience of b+B+G. This would imply that the only difference, on average, between a gay, white male and a gay, black male, is their difference in race. Their experiences being gay would be identical.
It's a simple way to look at the world and superficially maybe it makes sense. Don't all gay people, regardless of their other identities have something in common? Certainly. But it would be naïve to believe it could be compartmentalized. If that were true, it would mean that every interaction would be between only one part of yourself and one part of the person you were talking to. For example, when catching up with a friend, you could tell them about how it's been going parenting and how your relationship with your partner is going. However, you could never talk about how becoming a new parent has affected your relationship with your partner. Allowing that interplay would mean that a single parent and a partnered parent might have different experiences as parents. We would no longer have a concrete set of experiences for parenting.
In reality, things are far more complicated. Shared identities do often indicate a certain commonality, but it would be remiss to not recognize that a person's other identities' play a role in shaping how they see the world, how they interact with the world, and even how they relate to their own identities.
For example, I've often heard LGBT, white folks compare the LGBT civil rights movement to the Black civil rights movement. Far less often have I heard black, LGBT folks say so. Neither group is wrong. The LGBT rights movement is similar in the sense that its a marginalized community fighting for equal legal rights. Both groups have had members of their own community lose their lives due to bigotry. There are no stakes higher than life itself. On the other hand, without diminishing the plight of LGBT folks, it's true that it's also not quite the same. LGBT people were not systematically enslaved and treated as property by straight people.
The consequences of intersecting identities are not only personal, they ripple far beyond our own individual experiences. I think some of the most articulate examples of this come from black, feminist writers. bell hooks writes in her essay, “The Integrity of Black Womanhood:”
“Assailed on the one hand by white patriarchy and on the other hand by sexist black men and racist white women, black women must be ever vigilant in our struggle to challenge and transform the devaluation of black womanhood. Those of us who advocate feminist politics must continually counter representations of our reality that depict us as race traitors. Throughout our history in the United States, patriarchal black nationalism has consistently represented any black female who dares to question sexism and misogyny as a betrayer of the race.”
I often feel simultaneously torn between two worlds and yet not fitting in either. I often feel as though I have to give up my identity as Asian if I want to be queer since it so often seems like the queer community is white. On the other hand, if I want to find community around a Chinese food and culture, being queer has to be left at the door.
I think it can be a difficult feeling to understand for some folks. I imagine someone asking, “Why do you feel like you have to leave something at the door or that both identities must be expressed?! I play basketball AND I love greek philosophy. I don't feel like I have to leave my basketball playing at the door when I go to my classics meetings. It doesn't even come up anyway.”
I can understand this confusion, I mean, it's not like I only feel comfortable in gay bars that serve Chinese food. But I think the difference is the overarching feeling that one of your other identities might not be understood or accepted. If basketball came up at a classics meeting, you could talk about it and you wouldn't give it a second thought. However, imagine if you knew that the culture in classics departments was that athletics were an immoral activity that only stupid, barbaric people pursued. Chances are that your basketball playing would never come up at a meeting; after all, what happens in one's own basketball court is nobody's business. However, something that you consider an important part of your life shouldn't be talked about.
For me, the feeling that I have to sensor certain parts of myself no matter where I go is tiring. And it's alienating. Sometimes it's hard for me to engage in a room with all white folks, even if they are LGBT, because I'm still on guard. If I let myself relax, I might get hurt when one of them says something really ignorant due to their white privilege. It's hard to form genuine connections.
I think one of the best examples is when I returned from Taiwan. There's this TV show, The Diamond Club. It's my favorite Chinese variety show ever. I think the host and her friends are hilarious. I often describe it as “watching youtube with your friends, but you don't have to click around to find the best videos AND all your friends are clever and funny and goofy.” I loved it and watched it nearly everyday with my grandmother.