Defining Intersectionality in Practice

Using Twitter’s new 280 character limit to crowd source policy ideas and escaping group think

A while back I asked my colleagues to tell me how they would define intersectionality in their own words. I wanted to know how they would explain it without regurgitating a definition from the internet. I know that Kimberlé Crenshaw crystallized this 1989 and that black feminists in the States were on point way before then. My question was not about that. My question was about trying to get people to explain in their own words. I was really testing their understanding.

I asked around 60 of them to tell me what they thought. Around 15 responded with a definition. The audience wasn’t entirely made up of social scientists so I’m guessing a good few of the folk that didn’t respond didn’t know. I asked because people were struggling with it. People thought the language was too technical, that the concept was too complex and that they didn’t know how to engage with it.

There is a need to be more sophisticated than understanding people as women or as disabled people but we are not very good at understanding the two things at the same time. The bulk of lobbying I have experienced doesn’t help. It sleep walks us into this place. The mobilisation of civil society, politics, systems etc. tends to be around single issues. Groups come together around shared points of interest. This isn’t to say that groups looking at intersections do not exisit. They are just fewer in number. The danger is that this gives the impression of homogeneous experience or voice.

So I wanted to figure out what people were struggling with in terms of working with intersectionality. When you understand something, and that understanding dosen’t just come from a place of academic knowing but also from a place of experience it is sometimes hard to know what it is that people don’t get.

OK, so I know it is slightly more complicated than this but seriously in order to be able to find a functional and practical way of dealing with it how much more complicated can you really afford to make it…in an operational rather than an academic context at least. From a central policy and theory perspective it probably needs to be this simple. The reality of what A+B means will depend on time, space, person, etc. That’s were plain old fashioned good local analysis comes in and I’m afraid there is no short circuiting that. You just need to get to know your context.

I read through the responses that people sent back to me and they were all broadly in the same place. There were two distinct types of response though. Some people saw it as a process and some people saw it as a state of being. I wanted to take advantage of the new 280 character limit on Twitter and ask people what they thought it meant to crowd source some insight so that I could think of new ways to talk to colleagues about intersectionality.

The real insight I personally got from this exercise actually came in an unexpected form. The definitions and explanations people gave were incredibly useful. However, more compelling was how different some of them were. Without being conscious of it, when I had straw polled colleagues I was asking a bunch of people in the same organization, with similar jobs, working on similar issue. The real lesson that I relearned in this exercise was the need to ask different people, in different countries, working on different agendas from different sectors and with varied perspectives

When I think about how I am going to take all of these really interesting responses that I have gotten as part of this exercise and apply them to how I work I think of it in terms a conversation I might have.

Me: Hey, what are you doing?
Unsuspecting colleague: I’m designing a programme to promote women’s participation in local decision making processes in Somalia.
Me: Oh. That’s cool. Which women?
Unsuspecting colleague: All women. It’s inclusive!
Me: Awesome! How do you know that? Show me! What do you know about these women’s lives? Have you talked to them? Tell me the story of their diversity and how your programme works with that.

That’s about it. Read on though. I guarantee that the responses will make you think. This is a friendly reminder to broaden your circle when you critically enquire. You’ll find new ideas. You might discover you have been consulting in a goldfish bowl until now.

Ask, and the internet shall provide

Personal accounts

Comments that didn’t add much to the debate but good to know