I want to dispel misnomer of the liberation movement: what is intersectionality? I was prompted to write this when a dear friend of mine responded to the term by saying “Is that just black lesbians in wheelchairs?”. No, I sighed, it’s not.
The idea of intersectionality is that every individual represents a range of different political identities. I use ‘political identity’ to refer to characteristics about ourselves that effect not only how we see the world, but how the world see us. Typically these include; gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, disability, and class.
Some of these characteristics may be badly defined and for many people they are fluid. Gender is the classic example of personal characteristic that is an entirely social construct. We live in a cisgendered world in which we assume a binary representation of gender, and for many people this is not the case.
Similarly, sexuality is often a fluid characteristic for most people. Likes, dislikes, preferences and partners change over time. Many people do not define into the LBGT community, but may not be entirely ‘straight’ for the whole of their lives.
Again, class throws up difficulties. British society has a strange relationship to the concept of class, finding it both useful and vulgar. I’d prefer to separate the issue into economic and cultural background. I, for example, was born into a low income family in a state-owned property, but my parents and community are educated and display many middle-class behaviours while holding many working-class values.
Part of the point of intersectionality is that some identities are priviledged in our society and some are not. The individual is rarely taken into account, and a single person may find themselves liberated in some senses but oppressed in others.
Using my own example, British society – such as it is – privileges my ethnicity and nationality, but oppresses my gender and my disability.
Another reason the concept of intersectionality has become so important is to recognise how the complexity of individuals’ identities affects their experience of liberation and/or oppression.
For instance, disabled women have a different experience of sexism and ablism to disabled men; and gay people from different ethnic backgrounds will have a different experience of homophobia to their British counterparts.
Intersectionality is important in several different ways. Firstly, I believe, it is vital that individuals understand their own identities in a political sense – partly to understand themselves better and partly to appreciate the experiences of others.
Secondly, it is important to recognise this if our liberation movements are to progress in any meaningful way. The number of people whose intersectional identity allows them to be totally free of prejudice and structural disadvantages is incredibly small. Inequality affects all of us, in a myriad of ways, and liberation movements must recognise this as the foundation of their work.
Finally, intersectionality is not only about the need for liberation of certain groups, but it can also be a celebration of diversity. Intersectionality invites us to see every person as a unique combination of identities and experiences. Equally, it means that no person is special in their uniqueness. I find that liberating in itself.