Intersectionality and My Adoptive Family
That’s how I answered a question from my then 9-year-old daughter. She asked me what I was reading about. As it seems like many pastors were busy doing in 2020, I had retired for the evening to my chair to ponder one of our many social challenges. The rest of our brief conversation went like this:
“What is intersectionality?”
“I’ll teach you about it when you’re older.”
“Why not now? Is it a scary idea?”
“Yes, it is.”
I’m not the first dad to be faced with a decision like that. Corrie Ten Boom once asked her father, “What is sexsin?” She heard two words as one and was confused. He didn’t answer. Instead, he asked her to pick up his traveling case, filled with gear for his work on watches. “It’s too heavy,” she said. “Yes,” he replied, “and it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger, you can bear it. For now, you must trust me to carry it for you” (The Hiding Place, 42).
What Is Intersectionality?
I am carrying a growing list of thoughts and theories about the world for my children. Intersectionality has been one of them. Some days, this knowledge feels quite heavy.
Intersectionality began as a way for legal scholars to recognize a phenomenon. An individual can be discriminated against as a woman and as a minority at the same time. Simple enough. But the picture is more complicated than that, as I was learning.
Intersectionality emerges from the worldview of critical theory that views all human relationships through the lens of power dynamics. In this worldview, the story of humanity is that of a grand struggle for liberation from oppression. Intersectionality makes three assumptions: first, that every human interaction is characterized by an oppressor-oppressed relationship; second, that this oppression can be traced along impersonal group-identity markers such as skin color and sex, even weight and age; and third, we know oppressor groups from oppressed groups by disparities, which are always the result of discrimination. Each combination of intersecting traits represents a unique victim group. Only by elevating the voices of these victims while silencing “privileged” oppressors can we tear down the structures that hold humanity captive.
How Intersectionality Oppresses
The Scriptures are emphatic: sin is pervasive and oppression is real. No individual or group is exempt. Sin can even be systemic. But intersectionality presumes that we can sort out oppressed people and oppressors by mere demographic details. No surprise, the fruit of this false worldview not only undermines the gospel but also advances its own oppression.
My family feels that oppression in a unique way.
That day I declined to explain intersectionality to my daughter, and she skipped off to play with Legos. But her perfect 9-year-old question — “Is intersectionality scary?” — has stuck with me. Why didn’t I want to tell her about intersectionality? What was I scared of? Sitting in that chair, the subtle but socially corrosive power of the intersectional worldview was palpable to me. I don’t think I was scared for her. But I was sad for her and for all my children. My whole family has skin in this game that’s being played on us. Insight into how that is a reality for our family will be instructive for anyone living in our intersectional age.
So, let me introduce you to my family.
Test Case for Intersectionality?
Kristi and I were married in 2003, and today we are a family of seven. No two of our kids are alike.
Our oldest two, a boy and a girl, are 13. We call them “the twins.” My oldest son is a ferocious reader with an interest in history. He’s not into sports, but he can school you in Greek mythology and dominate you with the yo-yo. My oldest daughter is a nurturer. She will feel your feelings before you do. Her sensitivity is a strength with typical challenges that come from sensing what others are thinking. She’s also a budding artist.
Then, there’s our 11-year-old daughter. She’s by far the most imaginative. No one can play as she does, and no one can get us laughing at the dinner table as she can. She has all the marks of a typical youngest child, which was her badge of honor until the two babies were born. In 2019 God gave us a little girl who has an amazing poker face and a little boy who is all smiles.
I see all this and more when I look at my kids. Just like any parent. Each child has a unique profile of strengths and difficulties, interests and insecurities, birth-order traits and unique potential.
So, what makes our family a unique test case for the impact of intersectionality? All but one of our children came to us by adoption.
Wait, Who Are We?
If you stand my kids in order of age and then squint, you’ll see a beautiful shade of color that moves from dark to light. The oldest two are from Ethiopia. They’re four months apart. Our middle child is from Jackson, Mississippi, probably of Haitian descent. Our baby girl is older than her brother by six months. She’s from Atlanta, Georgia, part Cherokee, part African origin, and part Caucasian. The youngest and only biological child is a white male. He is as pale as mom and dad, with blood that goes back to Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. We’re America under one roof. You can see where this is going.
When my daughter asked me that question about intersectionality, to whom was she talking? A white man? To whom was I talking? A young black girl in America? What is our relationship, exactly? Am I her colonizer? Is she my victim? Are we guilty of murder or of cultural genocide, having killed her ethnic heritage? We’ve been told this by academic journals and our social media feeds.
Should my brown-skinned children hold a grievance against my white-skinned son? Does my part-Cherokee daughter have a trump card over all of us? When my white son figures out that he holds no moral authority, should he search out and hold the atrocities of his siblings’ ancestors against them?
No, no, and no.
Compassion or Cruelty?
Oppression is a reality, and people can be exploited and despised on the basis of skin color. We need to say this. Though the ideology I’m addressing is parasitic and destructive, we must not overlook the history of racism in America. Some, to be sure, wrongly make racist oppression the main thing about America. Nevertheless, we must remember our own country’s history in appropriate ways.
“Oppression is a reality, and people can be exploited and despised on the basis of skin color. We need to say this.”
In recent years, however, sincere but vague and misguided feelings of compassion on account of that history have undermined a proper remembrance and growth. People we love have come to view the world through the lens of oppression — seeing “white people” as villains and “black people” as victims. Though they wouldn’t put it that way, this perspective is evident when they comfortably mock white people as ignorant and out of touch and respectfully, even reverently, speak about black people as an enlightened class due to their lived experience. For some, seeking absolution for sins they didn’t commit is a way to deal with false guilt; for others, accepting responsibility, even if they are uneasy about doing so, is a means to avoid cancellation. No doubt, it is a means to power for some who feel powerless and a means to innocence for others who feel guilty by association with America’s past. In the midst of these are opportunists of every kind.
We can assume the best concerning many well-meaning friends. People can be sincere and decent in their intentions even if there are sinister designs behind these ideas. But none of this has felt compassionate to our family. It is false compassion when others tell my kids — over and over — that their neighbors are secretly afraid of them, that police officers are at war with them, and that their teachers don’t believe in them. Cruel is a better term for it.
It’s cruel to tell children that their future will be determined by the moral improvement of intractably racist people.
It’s cruel to tell my children that they can make it in life as long as others hold them to lower standards.
It’s cruel to tell my children that potential employers won’t hire them because of their skin color. It is equally cruel — and equally racist, it seems to me — for businesses to treat my children as particularly valuable hires because of the color of their skin. Implicit in this are two conflicting and crushing messages: no one wants you because of your skin, but we want you because of your skin. At its best, it’s a misguided attempt to right historic wrongs that short-circuits a natural process of development. At its worst, it’s a self-serving attempt to avoid the charge of racism that treats real people as pawns. Either way, these practices send a subtle message that undermines the dignity and confidence of my children as they face the future.
Discerning adults may reject this intersectional framework but then downplay its impact. I can appreciate that spirit. But my children are at impressionable and tender ages, and they are the battlefield targets of this teaching. If our family took these ideas seriously — as serious proponents intend — they would suffocate our love, steal our joy, and destroy my family. Intersectionality brings the division of mother against child and son against father in very different ways than Christ does.
It has been a while since my daughter asked me that question. Since then, I’ve come to realize that our family is not only a good test case for the impact of bad ideas, but also a good testing ground for a more biblical and beautiful way of seeing one another. That’s one reason we are talking about intersectionality now. How is that going for us? How am I protecting my family at the intersection of race in America? If an intersection got us into this mess, maybe an intersection can get us out.
Right of Way
New drivers tend to avoid busy intersections for fear of hurting someone or getting hurt. They are not being unreasonable. Yet a simple rule keeps everyone safe: yield to the car that arrived first. Instead of yielding to an ideology that just recently arrived on the scene, we give the right of way to God’s word, spanning all the way back to Genesis and the beginning. Understanding right-of-way protects us from confusion and collision.
Thinking further on this analogy, this occurred to me: if right-of-way protects us at a driving intersection, perhaps it can help us at the intersection of our many differences. Perhaps the best way to protect my family against the group-identity framework of intersectionality is to do what we have always done with them: to tell them who they are. My children are individuals, yes. They also belong to various groups. But the way forward at this intersection is to get these aspects of their identity in the right order.
I want three identities especially fixed in the minds of my kids. These are not the only important facts about them, but these are the especially objective and therefore orienting facts about them.
‘You are made in God’s image.’
It’s this basic truth that helped me understand the first reason I didn’t want to tell my daughter about intersectionality: by fixing our eyes on color, intersectionality reduces the resolution of our shared humanity. That is, it takes out the detail. It focuses our attention on incidentals, not essentials. It settles for what we can know about a person when we squint.
I can remember being asked as a new adoptive father, “Are you going to teach your children about where they’re from?” Of course. How could we not? Why would we not want to? But there is more. I want to go back further than their country or state of origin. Our children came to our family from various places and peoples, but all those people go back to our common ancestor, to one man named Adam (Acts 17:26). Adam understood this when he named his wife Eve, “because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). In Adam, we share a common origin and divine purpose for humanity.
Intersectionality must assume some basis for human dignity in order to ground its appeal to justice. But without moorings in a transcendent worldview, it fixes our attention on our differences, judging differences as disparities. We may certainly assume the best of many who hold this worldview — namely, that they promote our differences to protect persons from hostility. Some disparities, to be sure, represent difficult and sad realities that should concern us all. But a relentless focus on differences — and especially superficial distinctions — undermines not only a proper understanding and productive response to real problems, but also the deepest truth that holds humanity, and my family, together.
Intersectionality dehumanizes my family when it prioritizes our skin color over our basic humanity. That’s why, in our home, we prioritize our common humanity. This stands in stark contrast to what we see and hear when we step outside our home — from the wall of books at Target, to an advertisement before the movie, to the messages on jerseys of our favorite basketball team — the world tells my children, “You are Black” or “You are White.” That might not be a problem except that these categories — impersonal colors as they are — come preloaded with an ideology that tells them what team they are on, where they come from, what they are to think, and how they are to relate with the rest of their family.
Instead, we say, “You are a person made in the glorious image of God,” and after that, “You are a man,” or “You are a woman.”
‘You are Hunters.’
That’s our last name, Hunter. Sometimes we’ve been asked what we know about our children’s “real parents.” We have never taken offense to this question. We know what they mean. But it has thrown us off balance when someone asks that question in front of our children. That’s because the second most important truth our children need to grasp is that they are indeed our children. After the fact of their humanity, the priority is their human family.
In fact, on reflection, this way of talking to our kids is the second reason I didn’t answer my daughter that night: taken seriously, intersectionality would make us foreigners first, family second. This is its intention, and not just for families like ours.
There’s a reason why the Bible teaches us about the origin of marriage and moms and dads by the second chapter of Genesis (Genesis 2:24), and why the apostle Paul prayed to the Father, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14–15). Family is a basic source of meaning for us all. But intersectional thinking undermines all of this for a family like ours. It teaches my children that they are not truly at home among family. It teaches my children that the primary sphere of belonging is that of a group identity assigned by skin color or some other victimhood status.
Intersectionality aggravates our already fragile relationships owing to sin by leading my children to hold the deepest motives of their parents and siblings in suspicion. Intersectionality teaches my kids that people who are white, like mom and dad, brought them into our family for wicked — even if unconsciously sinister — purposes. Intersectionality teaches my children that racism is as alive as ever, albeit in a covert way, underneath the surface of our interactions as a family. At worst, intersectionality stokes the fires of racism in their own hearts against the people who love them most.
Simply put, intersectionality hurts my family by prioritizing the color of our skin over our family name. That’s why, in our home, we make a big deal about being Hunters. We come from a line of morticians, creative inventors, brilliant managers, war heroes, and yes, so we imagine, hunters. Inside our home we are real brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. This is what we see in the mirror, and it’s who we talk to across the dinner table. Adoption is not an asterisk to this picture. It’s a part of our family history.
‘You are Americans.’
Even if I couldn’t articulate it that first night, I hesitated to tell my daughter about intersectionality because of the concentric circles of personhood and interaction. The first reason was personal, having to do with whom she sees in the mirror. The second reason was familial, having to do with whom we sit across from at the dinner table. A third reason is social, having to do with our interactions with people in our community and country: intersectionality alienates my children from their neighbors by discounting the value of our shared citizenship as Americans.
Citizenship can be a neglected grace. When Paul picks up the image with reference to our heavenly citizenship, he draws on our experience of earthly citizenship as those who belong to nations (Philippians 3:20). Earthly citizenship is a reality, and, though a fleeting one, a good reality.
It is true that, considering eternity, our earthly citizenship is relativized when we become Christians, but it’s not reduced to nothing. Paul was not only comfortable in his Roman citizenship but claimed it when he was persecuted, arresting the attention of the authorities hundreds of miles from Rome (Acts 22:22–29). Paul’s citizenship meant something for him and for everyone else. Everyone in the room knew it.
It seems virtuous in some circles these days to be cynical about America. There are aspects of our country (past and present) that are heinous. Decent Americans agree. But that’s at least an indication of one of America’s strengths: honest self-criticism. We’re not unique for having a history of slavery, but we are unique for our literature on that history. That’s because our nation was born suspicious of humanity. The very structure of our government reflects that creaturely humility. The ideas that define America are humble, even if the humans who penned them were sinners.
No, our American citizenship is not the final ground of our interactions with one another or our neighbors. That belongs to our shared humanity and, for Christians, our new humanity. Nevertheless, our American citizenship is a meaningful category and a way for my children to understand who they are and where they are when they walk into a room.
Intersectionality hurts my family by prioritizing the color of our skin over our earthly citizenship. That’s why, in our home, we remind one another of our earthly citizenship. We are Greenvillians, we are Carolinians, and we are Americans. There’s no place we’d rather be as a mixed-ethnicity family. We are surrounded by all kinds of people, including many who do not look like us but who nevertheless share the same nationality, a nationality rooted not in ethnicity but in an idea held in common and expressed in our nation’s founding documents. This includes our gymnastics teacher, the cashier at the grocery store, and the neighbors we meet on our evening walk. We teach our children to embrace a healthy solidarity as those who share a common citizenship.
Is color of any importance? Yes, color is beautiful! So are the stories that our colors represent. Our colors are not only beautiful, but they also raise good questions. Yet intersectional thinking isn’t interested in our answers — only its answers. And that’s why it’s scary. It is perniciously reductive. In the name of promoting color and diversity, intersectional thinking mutes our voices and mangles our actual stories. Worst of all, it attempts to steal the sense of belonging my children know, need, and should cherish as image-bearers, as Hunters, and as Americans.
But of course, there is more to say.
We Are Christians
My children will remain siblings, but if they take the logic of intersectionality seriously, I don’t see how they can remain honest friends. They will forge their righteous standing on each other’s backs. They will use one another in the pursuit of their own power or innocence, just like our fellow Americans are doing around us. Intersectionality displaces the gospel, making Christ’s atoning sacrifice unnecessary for some and never enough for others. In its place, its logic demands never-ending penance to appease the unappeasable grievances of whole classes of people. Like a parasite, it feeds on our grievances and our guilt, real and perceived.
“Intersectionality displaces the gospel, making Christ’s atoning sacrifice unnecessary for some and never enough for others.”
I don’t see how love can breathe in that air. I want my children to take on the identity that puts into proper perspective every other human difference, to say with their parents, “We are Christians.” That’s why, in our home, we tell our children: “You are sinners in need of grace.”
And that’s why we go to church on Sunday.
A newcomer to our church recently commented, “I noticed your church is mostly white. What are you guys doing about that?” One sister in our church who is from Colombia would have laughed had she heard that. She raves about our “beautiful mix.” This brother, however, was born in America, where majority culture is inherently problematic — even shameful — when it looks “mostly white.” Questions like this entice pastors to apologize or, alternatively, boast in the ethnic diversity of their churches. It’s a reason why a church’s ethnic makeup is increasingly the first question asked or the first credential offered when some pastors meet. At its worst, it’s a worldly obsession with looks and approval. That doesn’t make a family like mine feel more welcome. It makes us feel needed for all the wrong reasons.
Candidly, for a moment I felt ashamed of our church. That shame did not come from the Spirit of Christ. That was the spirit of the age enticing me to objectify Christ’s precious bride. But I’m grateful that I didn’t speak out of that shame. I was direct:
Everyone is talking about color these days. We talk about Christ. What would he have us do? He would have us obey all that he commanded. Which means we go to all the nations and would be glad if they came to us. When that proves hard, we welcome one another as Christ welcomed us. We show hospitality to everyone, the high-resolution kind that is interested in everything about every person. And we show partiality to no one, not for membership or discipline, not for leadership or a smile. We think this kind of simple obedience to Christ is the way forward.
Would that put him off? To my delight, he was strangely refreshed. This brother was from a place where a church’s color palette was a first indicator of faithfulness. In that moment, he needed discipleship in the truth, and our church needed protection from error.
Safest Intersection in Town
We love our church. For my family, it’s the safest intersection in town.
Why? Because there is a Lamb on the throne in the middle (Revelation 5:9–14). The blood of that Lamb tells us that we are fellow sinners, all of us, but also forgiven sinners and fellow citizens, members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19). His blood is both necessary and enough. It tells us that the line between the just and the unjust does not run horizontally between humans but vertically between all of humanity and our God. Yet by the blood of this Lamb we are made just. This throne tells us that we are a people under the authority of a righteous king with all the power, one who uses that power to love his people (Ephesians 1:20–23; 3:18–19). It’s the love of this king that compels us to love one another in deep and personal ways (Ephesians 4:1–6). In this love we see the Father advancing his cause to “unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:9–10). It is here at church that we find an identity more fundamental and precious than our nation, our family, and even our shared humanity. In baptism and the Lord’s Supper we see the death — the tearing down — of sin and the making of a new humanity in Christ.
It’s also at church that the world can see the beginnings of a truly better world to come, with all of its manifold beauty. In that day, Christ will be surrounded by men and women from every tribe and language and nation. That kind of diversity, I take it, is beautiful to him in this age when it shows up within faithful churches, but also between faithful churches united in his worship. Our church’s ethnolinguistic profile is downstream from many factors: history, geography, socioeconomics, our faith tradition, and my own education and accent as the preacher. We’re not here to preserve our church’s unique flavor — we are comfortable in our own skin and happy to be stretched. But neither are we ashamed of our unique cultural expression, and that’s important to say these days. Despite what the world may say, at this intersection, Jesus gets the right-of-way. He controls the traffic, and he has accepted us.
Intersectionality taps into the human longing for a better world. At church, our family tastes something of the world as it will be.
What I Want My Children to Know
That guest to our church asked a question that was on his mind. In the summer of 2020, my daughter asked the question that was on her mind. I’m glad she did. In my reading that evening, I was coming to see that intersectionality is not merely a legal tool, but an ideological weapon. And where it is wielded, it divides and destroys. I want her to understand this.
That’s why we’re talking about intersectionality now. It’s a burden of knowledge our children will need to carry for themselves. But they’re not scared about it, and I’m not sad for them. That’s because, at this intersection, Christ carries our burdens for us, and nothing is too heavy for him.