Intersectionality in Between the World and Me.

This book is not written to incorporate all audiences. Coates seems to leave out the struggles of many people, but provides a detailed look into being a young black male in America, offering insights which may not be otherwise shown. That comes with less attention to the intersectional nature of inequity and discrimination. Should we be discussing this in the context of Coates’ book and how might we do so?

6 responses

  1. Throughout Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks out about his personal struggles, and this individual story of discrimination acts as a cornerstone for discussions about the intersectional nature of inequity. The social construction of oppression can easily become an umbrella of confusion if one only ponders the extensive breadth of it all. Instead, one should begin the conversation of discrimination with the root of society: the individual. Coates’ novel creates this base of discussion and hints at the scope of intersectionality. While Coates emphasizes his own experiences, several passages in the novel allow for the reader to consider the broader aspects of discrimination. At one point, as Coates notes African American’s lost bodies, he considers, “Perhaps the Irish too have once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named “black” had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named “black” was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned object, object turned to pariah” (55). Within this passage, Coates creates a gateway from his personal struggles to its intersectional nature. By closely considering his own life, he begins to note that being “black” might not constitute the whole of oppression. Other people, other human objects, deal with inequity. Suddenly, being at the bottom doesn’t feel quite as lonely. Close consideration of one human experience enables people to better understand the immensity of the whole of oppression. Although no life of discrimination is similar, people can understand the grand scale of it all by first studying the individual. When reading Between the World and Me, people should discuss and connect with other experiences of discrimination. These conversations can arise from Coates’ own connections to other systems of oppression, such as sexism. From one life of struggle, people can build a bridge of applications and connections to better comprehend inequity as a whole.

    • I was about to make a comment very similar to this, so I’ll just build off of Laura’s. I think that Coates’s book is intersectional. He doesn’t give equal time to every social issue since the book is truly centered on the black male experience in America. However, he doesn’t disregard other experiences either. Multiple times Coates discusses the ways in which he will never know the kind of insecurity that women face in their bodies. He even addresses ways in which he was an oppressor, citing his use of homophobic slurs earlier in his life (58-60). While the point of Between the World and Me is not an intersectional look at the history of America, it doesn’t disregard various experiences either. The fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a black man writing a letter to his son limits the scope of his narrative. But this is not a bad thing, and Coates does an exceptional job balancing his experience while validating the experiences of other oppressed groups.

    • I agree, Laura. I believe that to ask this book to describe the intersectional nature of inequity and discrimination would be to ask an orange to produce apple juice. This book was written with the intent of sharing the struggles of being a young black male in America, not to discuss inequity and discrimination as a whole. However, the insights that Coates offers allows for reflection which can lead to the discussion of discrimination as a whole. Reading and studying a personal account from Coates allows the reader insight to the harsh realities of being a young black male in America. This book, however notes fundamental wrongs that are being committed in America which lead to the oppression of black people and can be broadly generalized to lead to the oppression of any group of people. For example, Coates states that the nature of human includes the need to organize, but that humans believe that organization and hierarchy is directly chosen by Mother Nature. Coates describes “the need”(7) to organize caused Americans to “ascribe bone-deep features to people”(7) in order to create this hierarchy. This note on race and racism can be examined cross culturally in various historical contexts. In this way, Coates provides insight to the general human experience and how it directly relates to his life and those who are black.

      • I agree with the comments above and will just add to them. I don’t believe that this book was meant to discuss the intersectional nature of inequity. This book was written by Coates to his son as a description and reflection on the racism faced by African Americans. Because that is the focus of his book, I don’t believe that we can say that he is not acknowledging other types of racism because that is not the purpose of his book. He is not writing a book on the general issue of racism in America, he is writing about African Americans. Now that is not to say he does not touch upon some of the other races that have faced racism as mentioned by the comments above, but he does not spend a lot of his focus on them because that is not his purpose. By simply acknowledging them, he is proving that he is aware of the breadth of racism and the amount of lives it touches. Though this book is focused on the racism faced by one race, I believe that it can be used as a catalyst for discussing the large topic at hand, the amount of racism that still exists in the United States.

  2. I agree that this book does not, nor should it be required to, give equal time to many social issues. It is a book specifically aimed at addressing the struggle of a black man in America. As a letter from a black man to his son, this is the struggle that Coates needs to, and does, address. And yet, I still find that Coates’ is still very aware and inclusive about other struggles as well. He acknowledges that women need to “be responsible” for their bodies in a way that a man will never know (71). And he even relates the Dreamers’ pillaging of the black body to their same pillaging of the earth (151). I find one of the most powerful things about this book to be that it does not give answers but rather gives insight. Coates is laying out his own experience for us to relate to or, if we cannot relate, to begin to understand. He is coming from the experience of a Black man living in America. This is a classic American experience, and yet Coates’ book is revolutionary in that this reality is not often visible to those who do not experience it first hand. Similarly to Laura, I agree Coates’ book opens a place for us to all discuss our own experiences. Maybe by getting insight into Coates’ life, examining our own realities, and listening to the ways that those around us face discrimination the path forward will become clearer.

  3. *note: this is intended as the sixth part of an extended response to all of the questions.

    6) As I’ve already written a veritable short novelette, I’ll keep this one, and the next, as short and sweet as I can. Simply put: no. More aptly put: it depends. Coates’ book is Coates’ book positively because of its insights and what he shows; it isn’t about intersectionality so much as the perceived and timeless universality of inequity and discrimination towards one particular group—or, rather, any “out-group,” as I believe he referenced the Irish, who faced severe hardships upon first coming to America—but I digress. This is not to claim that either he, nor I, regard there to be only one or two groups to ever face such things in America, let alone the world, but the message is singular because that is what Coates feels is most pertinent; thus, we would need to dictate the terms of our discussion: are we covering intersectionality all-around, or just its racial element? If we decide upon that latter, then the discussion would largely revolve around Coates and other relevant reading material insofar as issues of race go; however, if we are talking about the former, then perhaps the easiest way to tackle Coates’ book through the lens of intersectionality is to use it as exactly what it is: a valuable insight into the experiences of one “out-group” existing within a much larger “in-group.” That is to say, we can find a resource on, say, the difficulties of the Irish, or on inequity and discrimination on nonracial grounds—like gender or religion or political or whatever—and use them to compare and contrast different perspectives and how they may overlap or amplify one another.

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