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Intersectionality in the 21st century

Thinking intersectionally can transform our understanding of the obstacles Black and Asian people face if they’re female, disabled, old, young, gay, or lesbian. But is all this talk of intersectionality really a way to avoid talking about core issues like racism? How do we address intersectionality without feeling that other issues have been diluted?

In December 2020 we organised a webinar - attended by over 200 people - in which Dr Doyin Atewologun explained what intersectionality means, how it can help us develop a more nuanced understanding of racism, and how it shines a light on gender inequality in the workplace.

What is ‘intersectionality‘?

‘Intersectionality’ is a term coined by Prof Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s. It’s used to describe how the relationship between two different aspects of our identity – for example, gender and ethnicity – are so interlocked they can contribute to a unique experience of discrimination, oppression or privilege.

Here’s an example from Prof Crenshaw herself. As a legal scholar, she examined a particular case of discrimination that affected Black women who all unsuccessfully applied to work for a particular organisation. Their case was rejected by a judge at an employment tribunal on the basis that the organisation employed both women and, separately, Black people. On this basis, the judge argued, the organisation couldn’t be sexist or racist.

Crenshaw argued that the women who were employed in the organisation were all employed in front-facing receptionist and secretarial roles. Black people were employed in the organisation, but on closer examination, all these employees were Black men working in custodian roles. There was simply no way the organisation would employ Black women, as they didn’t fit into the boxes that had been designated for ‘women’ and ‘Black people’.

This demonstrates the value of taking an intersectional lens. Thinking intersectionally can help us see more nuanced instances of discrimination, and the thinking that underpins this.

Here’s a flavour of what we discussed (including points from both panellists and participants).

Getting the term right

The meaning of ‘intersectionality’ has evolved since Crenshaw first coined the term in the 1980s. Crenshaw used it specifically to talk about the discrimination faced by Black women due to interlocking systems of oppression. So the term originally brought to light and sought to expose and examine the structural/systemic elements at play. Nowadays, it is used more generally to talk about how different aspects of our identity can combine. We need to be mindful about this as, whilst it is true that we all have a myriad of identities, the term is meant to describe the unique oppression of a combination of identities. We have observed that there is often a relief in the use of the term intersectionality, which is sometimes about the need to favour one identity over another, or to dilute the response to a more challenging aspect of identity, for example ‘race’.

The law

Research has shown that discrimination claims are more likely to succeed if they are based on one aspect of identity, rather than two (or more). This suggests legislation may not be set up to help us deal with instances of intersectional discrimination. There’s some existing research that explores this in more depth here.

Teaching intersectionality

How can we help people – especially young people – understand intersectional discrimination? How can we help people connect with this topic (particularly when the implications can be a bit depressing)? Very few of us are multiply oppressed, so conversations about how we are disadvantaged should also touch on the privileges we have. This can then lead to a conversation about how we can use these privileges to tackle discrimination others face. It’s usually an eye-opener for young people to consider the various privileges they have (having good health, for example, or speaking English as a first language).

Seeing past privilege

It’s sometimes difficult to get privileged groups to talk about intersectional issues because they see it as being about ‘other’ people. As equalities campaigners, we need to help them see they are part of the system in which inequality occurs. One way of doing this is reframing people’s perspectives. For example, if someone says ‘this isn’t relevant to my community/ organisation because there aren’t any Black women here,’ this can be reframed as the question: ‘Why aren’t Black women part of this community or organisation? What do we have the power to change that might disrupt this situation?’ The important thing is to start the conversation: some research suggests that challenging discriminatory views can help change minds, no matter how falteringly it is done. You don’t have to be an expert (although it’s useful to have a knowledge of key concepts and terms).

There are no easy answers

We need to recognise that we, as equality campaigners, haven’t really made full use of intersectionality as a lens to explore discrimination. As a result, many of us are only just beginning to form intersectional responses. Some simple first steps include:

  • injecting intersectional thinking into equality discussions, particularly if these are about specific identities. Ask yourself how things are/would be different for different people who share that identity

  • analysing data using an intersectional lens

  • having conversations about intersectionality – let’s expand our understanding of the complexity and nuance of this topic

Some works we discussed during the conversation:

  • Patricia Hill Collins (2000) Black Feminist Thought Available here

  • Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge (2016) Intersectionality

  • Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) ‘Mapping the Margins’ Available here

  • Kimberlé Crenshaw (2017) On Intersectionality: Essential Writings

  • David Gillborn (2015) ‘The Monsterisation of Race Equality: How Hate Became Honourable’ Highlights how data is manipulated to push certain narratives (such as the underperformance of White pupils compared to BME pupils). Available here

  • Ann Stoler (1995) Race and the Education of Desire Stoler shows how the stereotypes that were formed to marginalise White and Black women were developed. Available here

  • Robbie Shilliam (2017) ‘How Black deficit entered the British academy’ Discusses the experiences of Black students in British universities. Available here


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