This is the third entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. See more about the series or ask your own question here.

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Via and Twitter, from @scorpiogrrl78:

What can I do to be a better ally as far as intersectionality is concerned? 

I’ve hesitated on answering this one, for a couple of reasons. Allyship is a process, not an identity, as @FeministGriote says — Melissa McEwan has written about that as well — and a big part of doing ally work usefully is responsiveness to context.

An example: Yesterday Elon James White tweeted about being studiously avoided by a bartender while she served all the white people in the bar around him. Several of the white patrons, he said, were visibly confused by the bartender’s neglect of him, but none said anything.

In response to those tweets — and having today’s questions in mind — I tweeted this:

It wasn’t terribly profound, but I figured it was something.

In response, though, two different people pushed back. One said that one time she’d handled a situation that way she’d been cursed out for her “white savior attitude,” and another said that in those situations she tends to defer to the person on the receiving end of the crap — if they don’t want to make a big deal about it, she doesn’t want to make a big deal on their behalf.

I pushed back a little on the pushback, noting that you can address a situation quietly, without escalating, and that intervening on someone’s behalf can be subtle and non-adversarial. I also suggested that in many situations it’s possible to intervene without implicating the person who’s being targeted in your intervention. My friend Andrea also offered some good suggestions, pointing out that a simple “hey, not cool” is often both more effective at changing behavior and less mortifying to the person you’re trying to assist than a big scene would be.

But ultimately, yeah, the responses were reasonable, because yeah, these kinds of interactions are complex and it’s easy to react in ways that’ll make things worse.

I offered a few other suggestions for specific things a person could do to be a useful ally in various situations (here, here, here, here, here, and here), but each of them is highly context-dependent, too. Attempting to grope toward a unifying principle, I came up with this:

Not a quote for the ages, but maybe a start.

Okay, so there’s all that. But that’s all general allyship stuff, and the question @scorpiogrrl78 asked was specifically about intersectionality. What about that issue?

One thing I find really useful about the much-maligned concept of intersectionality is its reminder that identities can’t be mapped as Venn diagrams — that the experience of being a woman of color, say, can’t be broken down to “experience of being a woman” + “experience of being a person of color.” Our identities aren’t just overlaid on top of each other, and they don’t just mix together like paint. They interact with and inflect each other in complex, particular, and constantly shifting ways. Identity categories are concepts — important concepts, but concepts — and nobody lives life as a concept.

Building off of that, it’s crucial to remember that all of us inhabit intersectional identities. (Whiteness and maleness are identities, for instance, and they’re ones that absolutely operate intersectionally.) “Intersectionality” is sometimes used as a shorthand for discussing the experience of being oppressed or marginalized along multiple axes simultaneously, but that’s a huge and harmful misreading of the idea.

Beyond that, I’d say that trying to come to grips with productive allyship though an intersectional framework serves to bring to the foreground the tensions that exist in all ally work. A lot of folks I know who want to be allies find themselves paralyzed by the contradiction between two imperatives — the demand that allies recognize their own ignorance and marginality in others’ struggles against oppression and the demand that they act forcefully against injustice. As a wise man once said, “you’ve gotta play this game with fear and arrogance,” and without succumbing to either.

Which, I guess, brings us back to where we started. There’s no template for ally work, no comprehensive set of rules. There’s no formula to follow to ensure you’ll never screw up, because confidence that you’re safe from screwing up is itself a way of screwing up. A commitment to not screwing up, a willingness to screw up, and an ability to repair the damage done when you screw up are all essential to the project.