All Perpetrators, All Victims: Some Reflections on Intersectionality
by Victor Chang, PhD, LPC
Intersectionality allows us to understand our various social identities, which are often associated with both privilege and oppression. Understanding this dynamic is crucial to informing our clinical and social justice work. We can start by acknowledging our own experience.
As a boy, I experienced the privilege that comes from being a straight, cisgender male. Growing up in the 1970s as a son of Korean immigrants, however, I also experienced both overt prejudice and, more frequently, microaggressions. The classic began with “Where are you from?” and continued towards the inevitable insinuation that I couldn’t be “from here” or “American.” Sometimes, to get along, I would appear to shrug off slights aimed at immigrants who others perceived as “fresh off the boat.” I quietly demonstrated that my English was flawless – I was one of them. I remember feeling ashamed when clerks “struggled” to understand my mother’s non-native English. The pride I felt in passing as an all-American kid with my Little League games, “American” friends and other “non-Korean” interests would be intermittently shattered when someone else treated me as “other” or a “foreigner.” It was my privilege alongside my oppressions, arising from my intersecting identities that got me through those difficult times.
In school, I experienced the positive stereotypes associated with being the “the model minority.” At the same time, I wondered what part of my success or personality was me and what was due to other influences. Was my dislike of math or science, my party animal persona really me or just my reaction against the stereotype? In college, I began to grasp my complex
multicultural upbringing and the number it had done on me... and I grew from shame towards self- acceptance. Simultaneously, I began to glimpse how removed my social identities were from the “enlightened liberal” stance I’d assimilated. There’s nothing wrong with my stances, except that my critical consciousness was not yet involved. My overlapping identities and my role as a counselor were not yet integrated.
As a mental health counselor on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, I thought I had a good biopsychosocial perspective on the traumas affecting my clients. I thought I understood Navajo culture and the historical effects of oppression on the Navajo. I also was participating in protests against the Black Mesa coal mine on tribal lands. Although the coalition was tribal members and (mostly white) environmentalists... I never connected my clinical work with my protesting. I must have had as clients some families whose lands were impacted. My clinical and social justice efforts could have been integrated and genuinely client- centered as my protesting would have been “work with” and not just “work on behalf of.”
With an intersectional lens, I can integrate my multiple social identities, their associated privileges and oppressions, and how they ebb and flow over time and contexts. In college, I wrestled incompletely with the words of Juan Moreno who said “when it comes to oppression, we’re all perpetrators and we’re all victims,” but now I understand more deeply and can act more consciously. Society has changed, even as it remains stagnant. I no longer hide my love of kimchi - now I get to relish Korean food’s momentary hipness!
Victor Chang, Ph.D, LPC is an assistant professor of psychology and clinical mental health counseling at Southern Oregon University. His clinical and research interests include: the therapeutic alliance (common factors), integrative approaches to psychotherapy, and trauma treatment. He can be reached at: email@example.com.