The Importance of an Intersectional Approach in Social Research

Guest blog by Hanna Stephens, ROTA Volunteer

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” – Audre Lorde

In researching BAMER issues in the UK, it is important not to homogenise racial struggle and instead understand the diversity of identities that are present in different racial groups. For this, it is important that we view things from an intersectional perspective.

Intersectionality arose from black feminist scholarship, the term coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 but conceptually existing much earlier (see for example Sojourner Truth’s 1851 essay Ain’t I a Woman?). It rose as a critique of second wave feminism’s concept of “universal sisterhood” which in reality centred on white, middle-class women, failing to address issues of racism and classism. It argues that individuals can hold multiple oppressions which intersect to produce varied experiences of discrimination. Professor Crenshaw uses the metaphor of a basementfull of people to explain this:

'Imagine a basement which contains all people who are disadvantaged on the basis of race, sex, class, sexual preference, age and/or physical ability. These people are stacked—feet standing on shoulders—with those on the bottom being disadvantaged by the full array of factors, up to the very top, where the heads of those disadvantaged by a singular factor brush up against the ceiling. Their ceiling is actually the floor above which only those who are not disadvantaged in any way reside. Those above the ceiling admit from the basement only those who can say that "but for" the ceiling, they too would be in the upper room. A hatch is developed through which those placed immediately below can crawl. Yet this hatch is generally available only to those who—due to the singularity of their burden and their otherwise privileged position relative to those below—are in the position to crawl through. Those who are multiply-burdened are generally left below unless they can somehow pull themselves into the groups that are permitted to squeeze through the hatch.'

To sustainably place race on the agenda in the UK, we must look at how race intersects with other identity markers to produce the issues we hope to tackle. For example, the discrimination of black women in the workplace for looking “unprofessional” with natural hair is a result of the policing of a woman’s appearance layered with the equation of professionalism with whiteness. The disproportionately high numbers of black men stopped by the police is not simply an issue of anti-blackness but of the perception of black masculinity as dangerous. With regards to sexuality, the heteronormativity in many BAMER communities, often imposed through colonialism, causes sexual orientation to be a barrier to cultural belonging for LGBT+ ethnic minorities. In terms of BAMER wellbeing, we must be aware of how mental health and disability may compound the negative effects of racial harassment or compromise the ability to report it.

To view any of the issues above as simply issues of race would overlook the power dynamics within racial communities themselves. In seeking to overcome race issues, we should be critically aware that some voices and narratives may be louder than others. Without an intersectional perspective, this may result in certain issues within communities being left unacknowledged and overlooked.

An intersectional perspective deepens the understanding that there is diversity and nuance in the ways in which people hold power. It encourages theoretical understandings of identity that are more complex than simple oppressor/oppressed binaries. This theoretical perspective can perhaps even be applied to racial categories themselves to understand the complexity of even having categories such as black, asian and white. Even within these groups there is diversity in the ways individuals experience privilege or oppression. Issues of colourism are such that those with darker skin are seen as more dangerous or less beautiful than those with lighter skin. Further, having mixed race parentage blurs these racial categories and being white Irish or white Gypsy Traveller is a different experience to identifying as white British. Further, there are even issues of racism between differently racialised communities.

Intersectionality therefore encourages us to look more holistically at the ways in which racism operates. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have charities or organisations specifically focused on BAMER issues, as ethnic minority marginalisation undeniably exists and requires devoted attention. However, in tackling issues of integration and respect for racial and cultural diversity without assimilation, we must also consider the diversity of abilities, gender identities, sexual orientations and economic backgrounds that intertwine with the racialised experience and present further barriers to meaningful inclusion. Without this consideration we cannot properly weed out the root causes of social and racial marginality.
 

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