Six things you need to know about intersectionality

Image/@Julie_Oberin on Twitter
Image/@Julie_Oberin on Twitter

Last week (19-21 September) the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and Our Watch held ‘Prevalent and Preventable’, an international conference on violence against women. The conference provided an important opportunity for service workers, community advocates, policy makers, researchers, government, non-government and other professionals from around Australia, New Zealand, the Asia Pacific, Europe and beyond to come together to discuss ways to prevent violence against women and children.

The conference focused on four key thematic streams: preventing violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women; putting intersectionality into practice; preventing violence against women in settings with limited services and infrastructure, including rural regional and remote communities in Australia and the Pacific; and focusing on children and young people as agents of change.

As convenors of the intersectionality stream, one of our only disappointments was that we were unable to attend the other streams. But insofar as the conference explicitly aimed to ‘focus on the hard questions’, the intersectionality stream certainly delivered. We learned so much, we loved the discussion and after some rest and some reflection, we want to share six things that we took away about intersectionality over an amazing three days. (You can jump on twitter to learn more #PPVAW2016)

1. It’s about Aboriginal Sovereignty

You might be thinking “what is relationship between intersectionality and Aboriginal sovereignty?” Regardless of the ways in which we are racialised, and regardless of our own individual and family migration histories, one of the strongest messages of the conference was the need to address the fundamental fact that we are settlers on Aboriginal land. An intersectional approach must acknowledge Australia’s colonial history in order to ethically and usefully discuss other forms of discrimination in Australia. It requires us to understand Aboriginal issues as intertwined with struggles against racism, poverty, police violence, war and occupation, violence against women and environmental justice, rather than treating the concerns of Aboriginal people as one issue among many others. By doing so, we can ensure that taking an intersectional approach does not subordinate or compartmentalise the Aboriginal struggle.

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2. It’s not a new idea

The concept of intersectionality came out of a legal framework that was based on black women’s lived experiences. The term was originally developed by US feminist legal scholar Kimberley Crenshaw (1989) who was looking for a way to talk about the discrimination that women faced both for their race as well as their sex.

Today it is a whole area of research and scholarship but it is important to acknowledge that as an idea, ‘intersectionality’ only articulates what black, Indigenous and migrant women have known and have been saying for a long time: you can’t tease out identities as separate categories because everything is connected. Thinkers such as Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Irene Watson, Aileen Moreton Robinson and Audre Lorde (to name just a few) have been talking about similar concepts for a very long time.

Ultimately, understanding women’s unique experiences and recognising when those experiences are not being adequately supported, is more important than the word itself. Listening to women is key.

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3. It’s not just about identities…

Discussing identity is an important part of an intersectional approach but we also need to think about how identity relates to structures and systems. Sometimes identity is what we identify with, but it can also be about what we are identified as. For example, identifying some groups as “vulnerable” can hide the fact that they are made vulnerable. So, when we talk about immigrant and refugee health, we need to look beyond the individual to the systems and structures that these identities exist within; which means talking about immigration policy, incarceration, labour rights and access to healthcare as well as individual experiences of discrimination. It’s something we do at MCWH and it’s something we’ll keep doing.

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4. It’s going to take time and energy

A common phrase that was uttered throughout the conference was the idea that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to intersectionality. Because of this, we need to factor in the time, energy and flexibility that will be required in order to work out the best approach for each and every context. It can’t be overlayed as an afterthought, it must be there, as an approach, in the planning stages of any undertaking. Intersectional practice requires us to take the time to work out what is working and more importantly, what isn’t, and why! We need to think about who we are including as well as who we are not and why.

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5. Get ready for some hard conversations

Self-reflexivity is a big part of the work and this will involve hard conversations that will require us to look into our own privileges and biases and note how they play out in our work. To expect the work to be easy would be to misunderstand what intersectionality is. The ability to make mistakes, to learn from them and to sit with uncomfortability are all skills that we can learn as we go.


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6. Yes it’s an approach BUT…

Calling it an approach can make it sound like an option and for many people in positions of power and privilege – it is. What we really need to ask ourselves, if we are considering this work, is what is at stake if we choose not to adopt this approach in our work?