When Patricia Arquette accepted her Oscar for “Boyhood” earlier this year, she issued a well-intentioned plea for wage equality in a way that made some people cringe. “We have fought for everyone else’s equal rights,” she said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Backstage, Arquette made matters worse by indicating that “everyone else” meant gay people and people of color--inadvertently implying that the fight for equality for “women” affects only straight white women.
The concept of “Intersectionality” suggests that because our identities are complex, our approaches to social justice issues--like Arquette’s cry for wage equality--should also recognize and embrace complexity. Race, class, gender, ability, and ethnicity don’t exist in isolated bubbles, but have lots of intersections.
For example, when we read about social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, the Fight For $15, and the movement for Marriage Equality, they’re often treated as separate, distinct causes. But are they, really? What if you’re an LGBT person of color who makes minimum wage?
Aurielle Marie is a 20-year-old artist and activist living at exactly that intersection. She’s been making a powerful impact through her work in the Black Lives Matter and marriage equality movements, and in support of the Fight For $15. She is the co-founder of #ItsBiggerThanYou, a coalition of youth activists, and a teaching artist at Atlanta Word Works, where she teaches other young people how to use their voices and their art as tools in social justice work. MTV News caught up with her to talk about what it’s like to live and work at the intersection of so many pressing issues.
“It definitely feels like all one effort,” Marie said. “It’s a pretty complex network of conversations, but they all have one central point…there’s a line of continuity between economic disparity, racism, homophobia, and misogyny.”
“It’s easy for me to see all those things working in tandem both statistically and in real life,” she continued. She pointed out that for a young, single black mother in Atlanta, it’s equally important to her survival that she is protected against police violence as it is that she has access to a living wage.
“There are so many things that can be included in one person…I talk all the time about not putting oppression into any kind of hierarchy. It does us no service to put one issue at the helm and the others in the background. ...why would I just fight for the color of my skin, and not also fight to be allowed to marry the partner I've been with forever who I love? Or for the lives of trans women, who are much more likely to be killed by someone who doesn't think their life is valuable? It's dangerous to put one of these issues in front of the other.”
She pointed out that there was recently a backlash within the Black Lives Matter movement over the fact that everyone knew the names of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown, but no one was talking in the same way about all the women who were victims of police violence -- like Shelly Frey, Yvette Smith, and seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, to name a few. The outcry generated the #SayHerName campaign on Twitter and multiple days of action for women affected by police violence.
“Black Lives Matter -- as an organization and not just a battle cry -- was founded by three black queer women on behalf of a heterosexual black man, Trayvon Martin,” Marie said. “There have been so many black queer and trans women doing this work on the front lines. So what does it mean for us to stand up for them?”
Marie also pointed out that you don’t have to be black to support the Black Lives Matter movement, or gay to make a difference in the fight for marriage equality, or make the minimum wage to be involved in the Fight For $15. Ultimately, we all have battles to fight, and we’ll be stronger when we’re all in it together.
“There’s never someone who has so much privilege that they’re not oppressed in some way,” she said. “And there’s never someone who is so oppressed that they don’t have any privilege.”
“I definitely see a lot of people who are very involved in these movements because they are fighting for their own safety, lives, and livelihood,” she added. “And that is the case with me. But the work of allies is just as important. ...For example, several straight, white male allies of the Black Lives Matter Movement in Atlanta went to the SEC Championship football game between Alabama and Missouri. They organized a demonstration that was high impact and high visibility...and no black person had to put their bodies on the line like they did.”
The activists faced some aggression from football fans, but for the most part, the demonstration was peaceful and productive. “There were a lot of conversations that happened that day that I don’t believe would have happened if it was a couple of black kids storming up in an SEC Championship game,” Marie said. “That’s the beauty of a good ally...they know how to speak in the language that their demographic understands.”
Marie pointed out that the same thing is true for straight LGBT allies who keep conversations about LGBT rights and marriage equality alive within their own communities--especially among communities of faith.
She also called attention to the “even less visible people who have great wealth and great access to resources, knowledge and education who extend their allyship to people who are of a lower class or who don’t have the same level of access….advocating for the minimum wage to be raised, advocating for women of color who are working part-time jobs at Walmart and McDonald's to have the same access to livable income and resources that they do.”
This level of involvement from allies with greater access to resources has helped to create meaningful change in the Fight For $15 movement. “That’s when the pendulum shifted,” Marie said. “That’s when people started to move. The work of allies is so important because they can really help to bring an all-incorporated, holistic lens to what people on the ground have been doing for a very long time.”
Marie’s own transition from artist-activist to being “on the ground” was mostly accidental. She said that after Michael Brown was killed, she realized that each time a new incident of police violence occurred, her community would have passionate discussions about it (mostly on Twitter), but then they would get exhausted and just go back to their daily lives--until it happened again.
“I was like, ‘I’m tired of talking.' We’ve talked about three other deaths at least and we have to be more diligent, involved, and proactive,” she said. “At the time I didn’t know what that would look like...my talents were being in a classroom or being on a microphone and using my artistry to raise consciousness. ...But this time my anger was almost crippling. I needed to figure out how to strategically utilize all that rage.”
Marie put her phone number on Twitter and asked others to join her for a discussion about next steps, using the hashtag #ItsBiggerThanYou. She told MTV News that the first night she got a handful of calls, and the day after that she got a dozen more. The day after that, she said she woke up to over a hundred missed calls and twenty voicemails, and went online to find that her tweet had trended.
After several meetings that drew young people from across Atlanta, the group planned what they thought would be a small Black Lives Matter march. Instead, it ended up being massive.
“We wanted people to understand that even though we’re in Atlanta and it ‘hasn’t happened here yet,’ it’s still important for us to get involved with making sure this doesn’t happen anywhere,” Marie said. “Why don’t we all take responsibility for what happens in Cleveland and Ferguson, instead of leaving it all up to the people who live there?”
“It was the biggest movement that Atlanta had seen in quite a few decades, and at that point we realized that...we had a responsibility to keep it sustainable,” Marie said. “So we created an organization that utilizes hip hop culture...and social media and art and youth advocacy as a vehicle for raising consciousness and getting people actively involved…”
Marie said she hopes that we’ll learn to take the time to consider our own talents and figure out how to best put them to use to support the social justice movements that will carry us all forward. “We have artists and poets and also people going into law school working with us,” she said. “Regardless of your identity, there’s a place for all of us. And we can all make things better for the people coming after us.”