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On Embracing Intersectionality and Decolonization to Foment Personal and Societal Change

How to flip the script on identity politics.

People listen to speakers during a protest held to draw attention to current social justice issues on the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. April 4, 2018, in Chicago, Illinois.

In 2018, the term “identity politics” is often associated with the promotion of tokenized personalities rather than on the representation and advancement of oppressed communities within society. This form of identity politics often revolves around empty partisan placards and exclusive single-issue platforms rather than on forming inclusive alliances meant to stimulate fundamental structural change. As such, it reinforces a populism that serves white supremacy and patriarchy.

The crisis of identity politics has undermined the concept of intersectionality, which is viewed as critical to the struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression. The recent assassination of the Brazilian Black queer activist Marielle Franco and the consequent public uproar demonstrate the threat intersectional leaders pose to the ruling establishment that uses division and preserves privilege to stifle change. Leaders such as Franco serve a vital unifying role in a peoples’ transnational solidarity movement that embraces — rather than eliminates — identities.

Ashanti Monts-Treviska co-manages a social enterprise, Cascadia Deaf Nation, which focuses on creating a member-owned cooperative model that co-creates thriving spaces with Deaf Black Indigenous People of Color (DBIPOC*) in British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon. Monts-Treviska is currently a doctoral student in transformative studies and consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell is a Pacific Indigenous scholar and transformative coach who intermingles Indigenous epistemology and Western philosophies.

Together, Monts-Treviska and Ebalaroza-Tunnell facilitate spaces for dialogue that shift paradigms and challenge the status quo. They are currently working on producing a resilience and adaptability workshop to address the dynamics between trigger and response.

In this interview, Monts-Treviska and Ebalaroza-Tunnell discuss the importance of intersectionality and decolonization as fundamental aspects of building a just and equitable society.

Yoav Litvin: Discuss the various components of your identity and the prejudices they invoke. Do you give preference to one over the other, or do you agree with Audre Lorde, who stated that “there is no hierarchy of oppressions”?

Ashanti Monts-Treviska: I appreciate the term “intersectionality,” coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Without the understanding of intersectionality, it would be difficult to express exactly what I have experienced with all of my identities.

I view the various components of my identity as aspects of my experience. They are not separated from each other. The complexity of my identity is unique because it allows me to interact and connect with almost everyone through resilient empathy, compassion and conscious understanding, while dealing with a whole stack of biases against me.

Charity is practiced out of a sense of pity and is a means to avoid questioning the system of oppression.

Before I unpacked myself several years ago, I primarily adopted my most oppressed component, being Deaf, because of communication barriers due to audism in my family, in my learning environments, in various communities including Black communities and communities of color and other spaces.

Audism is best described as oppression or discrimination against people who identify with the spectrum of Deaf experience (Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing, late deafened, etc.). It is basically a normalization of the devaluing of the experience of an inability to hear or inability to hear everything in the normal range of sounds. Audism is one of the manifestations of the white patriarchal supremacist system, which defines the parameters of ideal model citizens. It is an overarching paradigm of lateral and horizontal oppressions. Within audism exists cultural-linguistic audism, linguistic audism, lateral audism, dysconscious audism, and passive and active audism. Most hearing people practice dysconscious audism, intentionally or unintentionally.

Ashanti Monts-Treviska

Through the journey of unpacking myself, I realized it was a deep mistake to stick with the most oppressed aspect of my identity while ignoring or repressing its other components: being a Black Indigenous womxn. Each aspect has its own contributions to my overall growth.

My choice of a complex identity as a Deaf Black Indigenous Womxn of Color (DBIWOC*) means that I equitably acknowledge and embrace the Afro-Cuban and Native aspects of myself along with the resilient experience of being a Deaf womxn. As a womxn, I am gender fluid when it comes to clothes, and I am a queer when it comes to relationships. It means I would be with a person because of the soul attraction and the way they carry themselves.

In terms of my own deafhood, most people tend to pity me because I cannot share an experience defined by sound. I am extremely sorry for people who choose to believe that deafness, as a pathological or medical anomaly, needs to be cured or fixed. I view the Deaf experience as an organic one (including the ability to express myself creatively in American Sign Language) because it is a different way of processing information. There is an uncontaminated beauty in that.

How does the Hawaiian anti-colonialist struggle play into your personal experience of decolonization?

Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell: Growing up on the island of Oahu meant that I was part of a unique culture that is a blend of many ethnicities that make up Hawaii. On my birth certificate, it states that I am of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese descent. But according to my DNA test, I am also 32 percent Polynesian.

In Hawaii, everyone looks like me, speaks the same Native tongue as I do, and experiences life under the collective banner of “Aloha.” In mainland US, I discovered that people live under an individualistic banner and in doing so, isolate themselves from one another.

Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell.
Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell.

My genetic makeup and life experiences meant that I was not only a member of those oppressed, but also the oppressors. My partaking in the system of hierarchical oppression, regardless of where I stood within it, was one of the colonizer.

The struggle to de-colonize myself came through education — colonized education. As I worked on my Masters, and then my Ph.D., I read, processed and struggled. Finally, I came to understand that my mind was not my own: It had been colonized.

I have come to appreciate Audre Lorde’s statement that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But throughout my studies, I believed this statement was false; that colonized education could be used to dismantle the systems of oppression. I eventually discovered that the decolonization of one’s mind is not only rooted in the access to knowledge, but in the willingness to dismantle rooted and programmed belief systems. I utilized Western epistemology to inform myself about myself. It is now apparent to me that as a Pasifika Indigenous scholar and cultural practitioner, I must learn and teach to walk in both worlds to ensure that my voice and the voices of all future generations are not oppressed.

If we are to decolonize ourselves collectively, we must start with decolonizing ourselves individually.

In fact, it was through the lens of the Hawaiian struggle for de-colonization that I have come to find my de-colonized self. I came to realize that Hawaii, through Aloha, retains a fragment of an un-colonized civilization. By its very nature, the collective spirit of Aloha welcomes all to participate and be a part of it. The practice of Aloha on an island far out in the Pacific creates a bubble of potential that could be leveraged toward a de-colonized culture of modern human beings.

What have been some of the difficulties in cultivating a nurturing social environment that respects all components of your identity? How do you define your community?

Monts-Treviska: It was very difficult to work with or fit in with various communities because of my intersectional experience. It is hard to ignore my Latinx and Native background as well as my Deaf experience when interacting with Black communities. My unique intersectional background left me with almost no community because most people do not understand the meaning of co-creating a cohesive community.

Many are taught that charity is the best way to help those who are in need. Charity is practiced out of a sense of pity and is a means to avoid questioning the system of oppression. At Cascadia Deaf Nation, we believe in “sharity”: a sense of sharing the collective wealth within thriving spaces.

In order to acknowledge privilege, one first needs to understand its roots.

I work on reframing the cultural-linguistic narratives through a new concept of Deafhood of color as a possible third space. Deafhood, in contrast to deafness, is a spiritual or transpersonal journey of discovering the Deaf experience and expressing it truthfully and creatively. Deafhood is also a decolonization process of dismantling the dominant status quo. Audre Lorde’s work, along with various third spaces, validated the need for a deeper understanding of Deafhood to co-create a shift in collective awareness on multiple social levels.

What is the importance of deconstructing privilege with the goal of building a just and equal society free of colonization?

Ebalaroza-Tunnell: If we are to decolonize ourselves collectively, we must start with decolonizing ourselves individually. To do this, we must reach back and connect with our own Indigenous ways and the means in which they were colonized.

Throughout the process of my decolonization, I found myself shying away from the principles embedded in traditional knowledge and moving toward the Western cultural values of acceptance and integration. I stopped believing that my Indigenousness was an integrated state of being and I unwittingly gave up this important component of my identity. The realization of my oppression caused me to mourn, and I felt a deep sense of loss and sorrow as I became aware of the broken relationships and pain that I caused due to my shallow sense of power and privilege. Part of me inclined to take shelter behind the excuses for my behavior. I detached from those who I injured to safeguard myself.

It is instructive to examine the ancient story of the Tower of Babel, which has different versions in many global cultures: The tale of humanity and its great ability to work together to build a tower toward the heavens and touch the gods. In this story, humanity is scattered and languages are confused to ensure such a feat could never happen again.

Symbolically, this story exudes the self-organization necessary to build a tower and the collective imagination to dream it. What it also exemplifies is a disempowering force imposed on humanity. This power is colonization. We have come full circle here at the dawn of the 21st century: We have built a tower of human culture in which the stones are made up of a monetary illusion that is incredibly effective at allowing [nearly] 8 billion of us to simultaneously exist on this planet. To do so, we have erected a system that is very structurally demanding; a reality that requires reckless consumption. This is sustained through the protection of privilege and the establishment of firm hierarchies.

This societal structure was born through the dismantling of Indigenous epistemologies. All human cultures have been assimilated into this tower that we have created for ourselves.

What is the nature of the transition from oppressed to the oppressor?

Monts-Treviska: In our culture, privilege is often unexamined. Deconstructing privilege is one of the first steps to decolonizing the self from the narrative of the privileged group. In order to acknowledge privilege, one first needs to understand its roots. Second comes the question [of] whether those privileges help to preserve or dismantle the system of oppression.

I am especially interested in the expression of privilege in social justice and equity spaces as it provides insight into how these dynamics work in society in general.

Most people associate violence with physical and sexual manifestations, but are unaware or desensitized to many other, subtler forms.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed afforded me deep insight into how people become oppressors within their oppressed group. As a Deaf person of color, I could be an oppressor toward another Deaf person of color or Deaf-Blind person or a Deaf-Disabled person within the Deaf community because of my privileges that were either earned or awarded. Owning privileges and keeping them in check through humility enables a person the ability to share power and relinquish a hierarchical power structure. This is achieved by harnessing the power of listening, solidarity, humility, mindfulness, words and intuition.

Without acknowledging privilege, people easily fall into a dynamic of lateral oppression within oppressed communities. For example, in my case, a Hearing Black person can choose to represent him/herself by using voice to overshadow a Deaf Black person such as myself. As such, I had to learn to be more creative in bringing a different narrative to the critical issues. Unfortunately, I have to work harder to make that happen because I have less privileges in some areas.

How do you view violence? What are safe spaces, and how do you go about constructing them?

Monts-Treviska: Most people associate violence with physical and sexual manifestations, but are unaware or desensitized to many other, subtler forms. In fact, many people are oblivious to the fact that they are being consistently violated through various channels of violence.

The problem is that we do not know how to honor each other’s existence because we are taught to exist in survival mode rather than in an internal space in which we can thrive. Thus, we compete and are violent toward one another.

Audism is violence. Racism is violence. Saying something to disempower yourself and to disempower people around you is violence. Reading something that makes one group of people look bad through destructive stereotyping is violence. Dictating how a womxn’s body should look like is violence.

We lack an understanding of what actually creates a nurturing culture that provides both “safe” and “sacred” spaces simultaneously. But what is really safe? All-Black or all-POC or all-Deaf spaces are considered “safe” for these marginalized groups, but they are not always safe for people who have intersectional identities. Here, people can become oppressors toward their own people through lateral violence because of the systemic internalizations being unchallenged.

Words either disempower or empower us individually and collectively.

That’s why I would rather go with “sacred” spaces — to acknowledge that each person’s journey and life experience is sacred. In the “safe space,” we unintentionally project our privileges onto different people who are underrepresented or who are less privileged within that space. If I were to reframe the meaning of “safe,” I would use the word “sacred welcoming” — similar to the approach of welcoming a newborn every minute of our lives. Each person’s soul is sacred; however, we contaminate the sacredness of our souls by internalizing the toxicities of our oppressive systems, which serve to divide people.

Discuss the importance and transformational qualities of storytelling. What role does it play in effectively countering colonialism, while rebuilding community?

Ebalaroza-Tunnell: Alo — meaning “front” and Ha — meaning “breath.” Aloha means the exchange of the breath of life. That is what storytelling is: the exchange of ideas, the resolution of conflict, the changing of perspectives and the evolution of our collective being. Much can be accomplished by the sharing of individual stories.

From a Pasifika Indigenous worldview, storytelling is the most natural way for Indigenous wisdom to be passed on. The method of story gathering and story making/building can help us make sense of complex interconnected situations. It can serve as a tool for people to explore better ways to connect with each other by engaging in deep listening and transformative dialogue about issues that divide us.

Whether in caves or cities, the stories we tell remain the most typical and essential form of communication. All of us tell stories. We do not see our own stories as “stories” because we see experience through them. Narratives are not abstractions of life, but how we find ourselves engaging with it. We make stories, and those stories make us human. We can awaken into stories as we awaken into language or culture, which is present before us and will continue after we are gone.

Our stories possess truths and motivations, and they are wholly our own. We come together collectively — as two or more — with the incredible feat of melding these narratives together. These collective narratives could be anything we wish them to be and [we] should not settle for what we are told they should be.

Media and screens have us tethered and tied to a collective truth that is growing long in the tooth: The story of what it is to be a modern human — a colonized human. The reality of ourselves is so much grander than this foolish tale of dominion over all we survey. We could be way finders once again, navigating across the sea by following the stars if only we chose to weave such a story for ourselves. The things we believe to be fictions are only a collective agreement away from becoming our reality.

How do you view the culture of “political correctness”? What are some of its qualities that lend to oppression and the oppression of language?

Monts-Treviska: Most people think that they know how to say the right things. However, they do not bother to inquire about the intersectional experiences of different people, including Deaf POC. It happens because most people are afraid of what they do not know or understand.

Words either disempower or empower us individually and collectively. A deep understanding of the power of words is an essential key to uncovering the root causes of oppressions. Political correctness is similar to an easy “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to dealing with various critical issues. Political correctness instills fears in people about appropriateness rather than encourages them to investigate the “other.”

When Deaf people internalize the political correctness from the dominant majority (i.e. hearing people) and project it into their culture and communities, it creates oppression of subgroups within Deaf communities.

If I were to reframe “political correctness,” I would frame it as “reality experience;” each person’s reality is different from another person’s. We need to give people the space to embrace their own journeys. In order to decolonize our views on political correctness, we must learn from different people’s reality experiences without judgement. In that sense, we could embrace different people’s journeys and acknowledge their ability to contribute to humanity’s evolution of collective consciousness in an equitable manner.

How do you avoid being used as a token within a predominantly white supremacist and patriarchic culture?

Ebalaroza-Tunnell: I take my work as the opportunity to teach. I wouldn’t consider myself very popular within the supremacist and patriarchal models of our culture. If I were, these entities would approach me not to co-create communities, but along the lines of self-aggrandizement. Thus far, that has not happened. When it does — if it does — I suppose it will be as much of a battle as it would be for any teacher who challenges the status quo.

I must be true to myself and willing to sacrifice. I am no different than anyone else in this world. I would welcome more comfort than I currently have and relief from the discomfort I experience. How to find that and not sell myself out is the trick. It is a challenge to avoid self-colonization and that is the very struggle for enlightenment we all seek. Some days I am successful and others, I am not.

*For more information on third spaces, see this link; pages 23-25.

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