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The Puzzle of Intersectionality

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I love seeing the confusion that flashes through the eyes of a straight white man as he tries to decide what aspect of my identity to attack first. Should he go with the tried and true misogyny, or sneer at my caramel skin? Or perhaps he should settle for the low-hanging fruit and comment on my hijab.

Intersectionality, or being at the crossroads of several different social identities, sets me up to be targeted in more ways than one. But in a way, it equally impacts the posture of the victim and the perpetrator. Just as my distinct identity as a brown Muslim American woman leaves me vulnerable to several avenues of slurs, a white cisgender man’s distinction leaves him in the perfect position to pick at such opportunities with few repercussions. If even one aspect of this man’s identity was different, these encounters would go very differently.

For better or worse, I no longer feel bothered by the casual racism I encounter daily, whether that’s families choosing the stairs to avoid an elevator ride with me or classmates glancing across the room when discussing another terrorist attack in the news. I’ve grown accustomed to the slight jabs at my feminine physique or the condescending way that male employees talk to me when I need help.

These aggressions have the opposite of their intended effect; when I am judged by the outside world, I’m drawn closer to the exact groups that I am singled out for being a part of. Each patronizing compliment of my parents’ accent makes me love my Bengali language more, and each tug at my hijab makes me prouder to tie the scarf around my head.

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The real burden of intersectionality, however, arises from the biases within the multiple communities we claim to be our own.

I remember when my family was preparing for our trip to Bangladesh in 2016 — my first visit back to my parents’ homeland in over a decade. I was ecstatic at the chance to travel to a country where I would be surrounded by people who looked like me. It didn’t take long for me to learn my fantasies were just that.

In an environment where I expected to be my most comfortable, I found myself feeling ogled at and ostracized. My dreams of sitting around the dinner table and gorging on the Bangladeshi food my mom cooks at home in its native setting quickly turned sour when every host offered me some pasta or fried chicken instead. We spoke the same language but mine was heavily doused in my American accent and punctuated with hesitation between sentences as I searched for the right words. My relatives did not see me as purely Bangladeshi — I was the American coming to dabble in their culture. Despite their best intentions, I felt like a misplaced puzzle piece. While I belonged to the broader picture, I’d been oriented incorrectly and jammed in, impersonating who I expected myself to be. More than anything, I felt guilty for growing up in America, where I hadn’t devoted as much time to developing my identity as a Bangladeshi because I was too caught up trying to balance my other identities as well.

I experience the same song in a different tune at home (in this case, home as in America). Many mosques across the country embody a type of segregation, whether willingly or unwillingly. In some cities, there are distinct mosques for Bangladeshi communities, Pakistani communities, Indian communities, and so on. In other cities, like my own hometown in Texas, mosque-goers will inadvertently section themselves off and only associate with their ethnic group. Our tendencies to gravitate towards our own can be comforting but also obstructive: We no longer feel connected to others who share a facet of our character. We become separate groups of brown Muslims and Arab Muslims, white Americans and Black Americans.

Even at Harvard, we are not immune from the complications of intersectionality. Like before, I feel these divides peeking through the various affinity organizations I associate with. When searching for belonging in a new environment, intersectionality can almost feel more like a hindrance than a highlight of one’s identity.

I don’t fit in perfectly with my family in Bangladesh or my mosque in Texas or even among the diverse student body at Harvard. I find often that the only place I can truly fit like a puzzle piece is when I am surrounded by individuals who share the exact same intersecting identities as me, rather than among a diverse group.

But I don’t think that should be.

There is no “perfect fit.” I don’t believe that our communities are best pre-sectioned or that we should feel like we “fit in” only when we match perfectly. Rather, everyone should feel at home among any community that they recognize as theirs.

If we wish to welcome individuals outside of our niche spheres of social categorization, we must first learn to be comfortable with our own identities, as complex as they may be. Once we can accept that diversity goes beyond a handful of shades — that part of diversity is the wide range of intersecting identities and not just stand-alone affiliations — I believe we will be able to expand our horizons and expose ourselves to incredibly unique perspectives.

We need no longer be confused when we see individuals with intersectional identities that, to our minds, don’t usually overlap. We need only to love.

Labiba Uddin ’25 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column “BeLonging” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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