Heather Brook Adams is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research investigates discourses of gender, reproduction, and shame as well as decolonial/intersectional methodologies. Adams’s work has appeared in journals such as Rhetoric Review, Women’s Studies in Communication, Peitho, and Composition Forum as well as in various edited collections. Her book manuscript-in-development is entitled “Rhetorics of Shame: A Recent History of Righteous Reproduction.” Adams teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary rhetoric, rhetorics of health and medicine, feminist pedagogy, and advocacy and argumentation.
Intersectionality and Age
I encourage us to ponder three ways that considerations of age might enrich our work toward more fully intersectional feminist scholarship in rhetoric and writing studies. In the words of intersectional scholar Ann Russo, I propose we do so in a cautious and accretive manner, taking up “new directions” that “do not sacrifice anyone’s needs” (312). I especially wish to guard against surreptitiously recentering whiteness through a focus on age. I invite us to think about age as a site of potentiality and exploration and to strive for what Leena Alanen refers to as a more “entangle[d]” approach to exploring experiences of privilege, subordination, and inequality (158).
Let us also remember that we are able to be in this conference space doing feminist work in part because of our own relationships—direct and indirect—to systems of power and oppression including settler colonialism, enslavement, and transhistorical practices of exploitation and erasure. In acknowledging our gathering on land that for most of us is not our own, let us conjure not only past violences but also put in the work of situating ourselves in relation to injustices and identifying our subsequent responsibilities.
My remarks are offered in the spirit of collaboration; it is my hope that they open a space for listening and discussion that will extend beyond my contributions this evening.
Now, my three proposed considerations related to age and intersectionality: first, thinking about youth; second, thinking beyond youth; and third, attending to the ideological implications of discourses of age.
The first way we can reimagine our intersectional work through a focus on age is to more fully account for youth and childhood perspectives. Already, scholars such as Risa Applegarth, Erin J. Rand, and Henrietta Rix Wood—those in our very field—illustrate that age is a meaningful aspect of subjective experience, while remaining a marginal site of feminist rhetorical studies. In her compelling work on public memory and statuary, Applegarth rightly asserts that “[e]ven as our field has embraced theories of agency that include objects, environments, and nonhuman animals, we still have difficulty perceiving children as rhetorical agents” (52).
What new insights can be gleaned if we take up theorists’ perspective that children are young people who experience life with the texture of intersecting structural positionings? According to Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, young people “are often among the first to see the interconnections among systems of power that put them at risk” (117). Noting the value of Gwendolyn Pough’s intersectional scholarship, these authors encourage us to recognize hip hop culture and performance types such as rap and spoken word as especially meaningful forms for negotiating the “contested space between the conformist pressures of neoliberalism and the participatory ethos” of genre (118). From the activism of Malala Yousafzai to sex and health literacy zines produced by young artist-advocates to the button poetry that my students help me understand is so important to them, I have started encouraging myself to look for and more fully value emergent, genre-bending, and non-traditional sites of rhetorical expression by young people. Intersectional scholars in other fields, such as Sarah Reddington and Deborah Price and Natalie Clark, provide additional, excellent models for this work.
My second proposal for considering age and intersectionality involves mindfully accounting for more than youth. Leni Marshall warns of a tendency to frame the category of youth in relation to reproducing bodies. Centering reproduction performs a violence that threatens to erase non-reproducing bodies while reifying an interest in—a preference for—futurity. In the process, we risk uncritically associating development with only young bodies. As we expand from youth as a primary category of significance, we can look to the recent work of Cheryl Glenn, who explores “transaction[s] of ageism” to call for the recognition that ageism is both a feminist and scholarly issue (207). Simultaneously, we should be suspect of epistemologies of chronological age that undergird our feminist efforts. For instance, Marshall warns of age-focused moves such as “renumber[ing]” (ix), that is, refiguring the associations of chronological age to reflect what currently signifies youth in a way that degrades oldness. Such a practice re-centers youth as desirable in especially anti-feminist ways. Intersectionality demands that we shuttle between the truths and constructions of age as experiential and numeric, disrupting what we think we know in order to consider anew. To interrogate our own potential for essentializing, our focus on age and intersectionality could rely on Leena Alanan’s call to consider age as one iteration of a relational system of generational difference, much as the category of “woman” is one iteration of the relational and hierarchical system of gender. We can examine the generational divisions we invent, whether these apply to people or to scholarly conversations and contributions, where newness is often a privileged category. We would be wise to also interrogate the intergenerational trauma we often fail to account for, leveraging scholarship by Barrie Thorne and Gloria Swain to explore these terrains. We can take a cue from public efforts, such as the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s writing on age as an intersectional and community concern, to infuse our thinking with insights from civil servants, advocates, and activists. And we might also ourselves what such demarcations and elisions say about our assumptions of age as ontology. For instance, the contemporary rise of intergenerational living spaces might yield intersectional insights; what might a study of such places contribute to valuable extant scholarship on rhetoric, gender, and space?
Finally, let us more fully explore age’s discursive and ideological implications. I consider this work critical for us as a Coalition as we commit ourselves to doing intentional and systematic intersectional work. A starting point is our historiographic understanding of intersectionality itself, which involves troubling notions of intersectionality’s origin stories (see: Hancock; Collins and Bilge). Along with putting in the work of reading intersectionality’s long and rich intellectual history, we must guard against our own discourses of periodization—discourses that imply we have “developed” or “come of age” as an intellectual community because of a shift to more intersectional commitments. If we don’t exercise this precaution, we risk reifying white feminists as—in the words of Andrea Smith—the “central historical agents” of intellectual change (qtd. in Collins and Bilge 74). Sari Edelstein’s scholarship is particularly helpful here, as she highlights the entanglements of maturation discourses and notions of age to illustrate how age can come to ideologically mark cultural privilege and “success.” She makes a persuasive case drawn from our nation’s practice of slavery: “the denial of numerical age [for instance, by trying to prevent enslaved peoples from knowing their birthdays] enforced the racist ideology that bolstered” the institution and “trapped [enslaved people] in a developmental purgatory” (125). This specific example illustrates that age is a “biopolitical tool” with simultaneous material and identification-building implications (Edelstein 125). As we gather this evening to discuss our individual and coalitional responsibilities and aspirations for intersectional teaching, research, and writing, we must be mindful of how we discursively “age” ourselves and how we can strive toward more transrhetorical histories (in the words of Rachel Jackson) and “pluriversal possibilities” (in the words of Ellen Cushman) (Cushman et al.). We, scholars who have shaped our own field’s historiographic methodologies, must teach our students that the long tail of intersectionality as an intellectual activity has emerged from outside the academy and from the lived experiences, intellectual contributions, and activist work of various people.
I have left out far more than I have been able to include in these brief remarks. Thank you for your time and attention; I look forward to the conversation to follow.
Download Heather’s Microtalk Handout Here
I was of two minds about participating in the Coalition’s 2019 Meeting “Building Out from the Margins: New Directions in Intersectionality.” On the one hand, I greatly valued the opportunity to contribute a microtalk on age and intersectionality. I was also pleased to see the Coalition use its meeting time to explore several perspectives on what intersectionality means at this moment and in relation to our feminist organization and to our roles as teacher-scholar-activists. The Coalition must keep the needs and concerns of underrepresented and marginalized people central to its feminist work. It must also continually seek to do this work better. Coalition leadership envisioned the meeting as a time to leverage our gathering together and collectively labor toward more critical and responsive forms of intersectional commitments and practices.
On the other hand, as a cis-gender white woman, I was not entirely sure if I should be giving a microtalk, despite my commitment to read, engage, listen, and work collaboratively with various colleagues as an ally and as a feminist. I ultimately decided to take advantage of the microtalk opportunity, focusing on how age is a lived concept with powerful intersectional implications.
Feedback from the interactive portion of the meeting helps me consider age and intersectionality—and intersectionality, more generally—with greater nuance and from perspectives other than my own. From participants’ responses, I have drawn the following five guiding points:
- Remember that age is an experience. Age is an embodied and experiential phenomenon. As feminists, we can rely on and revise familiar methods to more deeply interrogate age as lived experience and as conceptual construct.
- Be mindful that intersectionality itself has a “life course.” I need to resist my own tendency to learn intersectionality in a way that fixes it as a thing that I do correctly. Feedback from the microtalks reflect that intersectionality is, itself, a mutable and in-flux approach that might be thought of as living and adapting through its own various life “stages.” We should not approach intersectionality-as-living in a way that adopts limiting narratives of ideological development and maturation. We should remain responsive to intersectionality as mutable. We must consider intersectionality as, in the words of meeting participants, “life-long work” and not “a box to be checked.”
- Collaborate and support one another across life stages. Accounting more fully for age as part of our intersectional work means reaching out, sharing, listening, learning. We can do this in our professional lives and in our personal lives despite the many social factors that group and divide us based on all forms of identity, including age. We should resist lionizing youth (and the parallel allure of the intellectually “new”) and should replace especially gendered practices of dismissing those of older ages.
- Resist reifying whiteness. This challenge must be central to all forms of intersectional practice, particularly as the scholar-activists explore various avenues for pursuing equity, inclusion, and justice. It should be a mantra that shapes the practice of white allies who read, engage, listen, think, and labor to work in more intersectional ways.
- Imagine and make manifest opportunities for extending these microtalk-inspired conversations. Feedback from the meeting provided some exciting ideas in this regard. How can we foreground attention to age as a site of power and privilege (or not) through, for instance, writing center conferences? Faculty gatherings? “100th day of school” celebrations? Courses that incorporate varied age-related perspectives (e.g., as reflected in popular culture)?
Finally, despite the micro-length of these interventions we must resist practices of erasure and “rhetorical tokenism” that Eric Darnell Pritchard has recently critiqued as a guest essayist on Carmen Kynard’s blog, Education, Liberation & Black Radical Traditions for the 21st Century. In “‘When You Know Better, Do Better’: Honoring Intellectual and Emotional Labor Through Diligent Accountability Practices,” Pritchard notes that “one of the most inhumane scholarly practices is to ignore and minimize what someone’s intellectual work and full presence in the space-time we share with them has done, is doing, or can do.” So in sharing and remediating an impossibly compressed micro-genre, I encourage us all to labor with slowness and deliberateness. Labor to honor fully the various contributions, past and present, that can help us all strive toward a coalitional effort in doing work that is more equitable, shared, beneficial, and just.
From the Microtalk
- Alanen, Leena. “‘Intersectionality’ and Other Challenges to Theorizing Childhood.” Childhood, vol. 23, no. 2, 2016, pp. 157-61.
- Applegarth, Risa. “Children Speaking: Agency and Public Memory in the Children’s Peace Statue Project.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 1, 2017, pp. 49-73.
- Clark, Natalie. “Red Intersectionality and Violence-Informed Witnessing Praxis with Indigenous Girls.” Girlhood Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2016, pp. 46-64.
- Collins, Patricia Hill and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality. Polity, 2016.
- Cushman, Ellen, Rachel Jackson, Annie Laurie Nichols, Courtney Rivard, Amanda Moulder, Chelsea Murdock, David M. Grant, and Heather Brook Adams. “Decolonizing Projects: Creating Pluriversal Possibilities in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 38, no 1, 2019, pp. 1-22.
- Edelstein, Sari. “Reading Age Beyond Childhood.” ESQ, vol. 62, no. 1, 2016, pp. 122-27.
- Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
- Hancock, Ange-Marie. Intersectionality: An Intellectual History. Oxford UP, 2016.
- Marshall, Leni. “Aging: A Feminist Issue.” NWSA Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 2006, pp. vii-xiii.
- Ontario Human Rights Commission. “Age and Intersectionality.” Ontario Human Rights Commission, www.ohrc.on.ca.
- Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Northeastern UP, 2014.
- Rand, Erin J. “PROTECTing the Figure of Innocence: Child Pornography Legislation and the Queerness of Childhood.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 105, no. 3, 2019, pp. 251-72.
- Reddington, Sarah and Deborah Price. “Pedagogy of New Materialism: Advancing the Educational Inclusion Agenda for Children and Youth with Disabilities.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1, 2018, n.p.
- Russo, Ann. “Epilogue: The Future of Intersectionality: What’s at Stake.” The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, and Gender, edited by Michele Tracy Berger and Kathleen Guidroz, U of North Carolina P, 2009, pp. 309-18.
- Smith, Andrea. “Indigenous Feminism without Apology.” Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality, edited by the Unsettling Minnesota collective, Unsettling Minnesota, n.d., pp. 159-61. (unsettlingminnesota.org; Also see Smith’s article at newsocialist.org)
- Swain, Gloria. “The Healing Power of Art in Intergenerational Trauma: Race, Sex, Age and Disability.” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, pp. 15-31.
- Thorne, Barrie. “Theorizing Age and Other Differences.” Childhood, vol. 11, no. 4, 2004, pp. 403-08.
- Wood, Henrietta Rix. Praising Girls: The Rhetoric of Young Women, 1895-1930. Southern Illinois UP, 2016.
From the Response
- Pritchard, Eric Darnell. “‘When You Know Better, Do Better’: Honoring Intellectual and Emotional Labor Through Diligent Accountability Practices,” Education, Liberation & Black Radical Traditions for the 21st Century, 8 July 2019, http://carmenkynard.org.
To cite this page:
Adams, Heather Brook. “Intersectionality and Age: CFSHRC Micro Talk.” Peitho digital insert, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2019. https://actionhour2019.cfshrc.org/heather-brook-adams/