Navigating our Paths: Intersectionality, Situatedness, and the Foundations of Difference
Brooke Silveria, Division 3, Graduate school #ws17e-s1d3

Many people take pride in their uniqueness, embracing the sense of self and internal borders that delineate who they are and separate them from others. Biologically, however, humans are a rather homogenous group. Any two strangers, whether on a different street or on a different continent, are made up of at least 99% of the same genetic material (National Human Genome Institute, 2016). Shared behaviors and traits inherent to all humans--such as crying, laughing, and other responses to stimuli, similar anatomy, and a propensity for social interaction--ensure an ease of identification with others, even when language and cultural norms are mismatched. If viewed through a purely biological lens, then, our delight in our nonconformity is unfounded.

There exists, in contrast, a more socially-based description of the human condition, which argues that despite our physiological sameness, we manage to vary wildly in ways of thinking and acting due to our wide range of communities, societal values, and experiences. Essentially, we all live different lives, and thus we as humans are different. This assertion comforts our egos, but it too is inadequate when examined alone. A crucial element is missing in the attempt to answer whether humans are unique, and if so, how they differ.

This missing link can be found by applying the theories of situatedness and intersectionality within the study of feminism and social justice, which are used to explain a person’s worldview and circumstances as well as how these have come to be. An individual’s situatedness locates them on the broad map of human experience, pinpointing exactly where each of their identities, both biological and social, converge to determine how they can expect to navigate life and with what resources. Intersectionality further expounds that these converging identity lines are inextricably bound and build on one another to further influence the course of a person’s life.

These theories use an interdisciplinary approach to confirm that we are indeed all unique, and we see our world with different perspectives that have been continuously shaped by the experiences we have had since birth. Such ideas support the premise that, even despite predetermined biological factors that influence behavior, it is possible to be different from every other human on Earth--a remarkable feat given the high odds of sharing attributes and situations with at least one of the seven billion inhabitants of this planet.

As an illustration of these concepts, my identities, both self-determined and bestowed upon me, include the following: I am a young, white, upper middle class, cisgender woman in the LGBTQ community. I am a twin. I am a feminist. I am nonreligious. I am American. I am a Chico State alumni. I am a cat owner. I am a resident of a small town. These identities determine my place in the world, influencing who I become friends with, what jobs I pursue, what advantages I am afforded, and the reasons behind and consequences for the choices I make. Citing these facets of my existence, however, is not enough to make the claim that I am wholly distinct. I have no doubt that somewhere in the world another human can claim most if not all of these characteristics as their own, meaning they may live their life in ways that reflect how I live mine. The key factor that is missing, however, and that which separates me from my hypothetical counterparts, is the all-encompassing concepts of situatedness and intersectionality, which imply that no one has ever held matching identities and lived through matching occurrences at the exact same place and time, in the exact same order, with the exact same people. Everything we do differs, even if very slightly, from the actions of all others.

By adulthood, we all develop a sense of self that dictates our thoughts and viewpoints, which in turn influence the choices we make. It is the examination of the path leading to this formation of selfhood that reveals how we diverge from one another. Let us take as an example my choice in career and how that choice solidified. It is quite common for those entering the field of social work to do so because they have faced adversity and want to take action to mitigate the suffering of others, so much so that an explanation of that adversity is expected in applications for admission to many graduate level social work programs. I do not stray from this norm, and my choice to pursue social work was a result of the challenges I have endured and my ability to overcome them. For this reason, it could be argued that my decision-making follows a certain path that others have forged before me, which also suggests that I have little support for a claim that I am different. After all, this is one of many expected patterns I have followed. (I am the child of college-educated parents, for example, so I went to college myself. I am a feminist, so I work in a socially progressive arena.) However, though many social workers have faced past trauma and subsequently worked towards healing, no one has experienced the exact same domino effect that led to my application to graduate school. I may have made a choice that many others have, but how I came to that choice, including the interactions, relationships, thoughts, and emotions that occurred along the way, cannot be replicated.

What is different about me is not my individual circumstances taken out of context; it is the nuanced sequence of these circumstances, with a special order of steps as unique to each individual as our very DNA. There is no other person who has ever existed who has taken an identical journey. My uniqueness is not the steps along my route but rather the way I navigate it. I might walk sideways, double back, leap over a few stones, circle a tree, cut through a barrier with the help of a friend, all the while another person forges ahead, zig-zags through a field, and even skips several of the steps I have taken altogether to reach a destination far away from my own. Therein lies one of the most remarkable aspects of human existence: that we can share so much of our nature, our emotions, our habits, our hopes and dreams, our biology, and yet, looking deeper, we each represent a tiny world apart, orbiting along a special path all our own.

National Human Genome Institute. FAQ about genetic and genomic science. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.genome.gov/19016904/faq-about-genetic-and-genomic-science/
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