Oct 20

Intersectionality: a smokescreen for exclusion?

Posted: 5 October 2020

In this blog, Clenton Farquarharson MBE, talks about intersectionality and what it means to him and society as a whole.

There was one evening, many years ago, that I will always remember. I was sitting with a group of people I considered friends, chatting together about how to put the world to rights. And then I said something that made one of my friends really angry. He pointed a finger at me, and shouted, “Clenton, in this struggle, you’ve got to choose. You can be disabled or black. Not both.”

I was shocked. Was I really being asked to choose? Did I have to discard one part of my life? 

Like I always do, I talked to many people trying to understand what was going on. I came to understand that this sort of binary thinking was a problem with identity politics, and that there was another way of looking at the multiple disadvantages that so many of us face. It was called intersectionality.

Road traffic and set theory

But the word “intersectionality” confused me even more. I am not an academic like Kimberle Crenshaw who invented the term…I am a Brummie lad. My friends were more like the Peaky Blinders than professors and my idea of an intersection was Birmingham’s famous Spaghetti Junction.

Enter this tangle of concrete, choose one of the routes, and you’re stuck. No going back. That sounded like choosing between black or disabled to me. More chats with more friends and I realised that intersectionality was where different characteristics could overlap and create something new. 

Apparently, it’s similar to set theory.  I have never understood maths, but the idea that different aspects of my life could come together and influence me in different ways — now that did make sense!

 Recent events

People are now talking a lot about intersectionality. Over the last couple of months, the concept has begun to take a massive amount of headspace. For me, it started with the video of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while he pleaded, “l can’t breathe“.  Then thousands of protesters around the world marched in support of Black Lives Matter, and in Britain we had to confront issues like our role in slavery, Windrush, Brexit and the different impacts of the pandemic on different sectors of our society. We are in turmoil, and it is right that we talk and think about the different ways it affects us.

But what about structural inequality?

My fear is that we will once again get confused about what intersectionality really is and will treat it as nothing more than a mix of individual, personal characteristics. This is true as far as it goes, but it hides the fact that, as individuals, we are affected by society’s structural characteristics.

I’m wildly oversimplifying here so forgive me, but in a sense intersectionality is about how various power structures - health care, social care, housing, employment, the criminal justice system, the welfare system, and government intersect with things like gender, disability, race, and religion.  People get trapped and lost...

It is not a simple Venn diagram. It is more like this a messy, complicated tangle of real lives trying to cope under a thousand different structures and influences.

Shifting responsibility?

Make no mistake: the system is not broken. It is operating exactly the way it was designed. At every single level, the system is not about providing equality, it is about ensuring certain people, certain communities, are protected while other communities are experiencing multiple disadvantages.

We have to make sure that we don’t let the system reframe intersectionality as something that only affects people at an individual level — thereby suggesting that as individuals we have to cope with our own circumstances.

We need to reframe the conversation —  join up and build bridges

Others have said it before me. If you don't have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. We need to stop the cycle of oppression.

Many of us feel overwhelmed when we consider the many forms of systemic, structural oppression that are so pervasive in British society today.

To quote Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian

“We become immobilised, uncertain about what actions we can take to interrupt the cycles of oppression and violence that intrude on our everyday lives.”

But there are things we can do. We can speak truth to power. Even if that feels like swimming uphill. And we have to look for new sources of hope, new ways of building bridges and allies. The two things are not incompatible. Bell Hooks, one of the great women who inspired Professor Crenshaw talks about this blending of love and resistance. 

“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

We must work together, as individuals, to transform four structural inequalities that exist in our society:

1. Lack of power over resources.

2. Lack of power over decision-making.

3. Lack of power over relationships.

4. Lack of power over information.

How do we start this? 

It is a tough question. But I like to think we can answer it.


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