Intersectionality 101 discussion questions

as used in event run by me & Maryam Bibi Din as part of Nottingham Women's Conference Festival Fringe, September 2013.

This was a women-only event, which ran at the Women's Centre one evening. The format was designed to work with any size group, as we had no way of predicting how many people would turn up! In the event, there were 12 of us taking part.

The programme blurb:

A discussion on the nature and meaning of intersectionality – or the idea that people experience oppressions/disadvantage in overlapping ways – from the coining of the word by women of colour in the 1960s to its revival more recently.

It was Maryam who had the idea for this workshop and booked the slot with the conference fringe organisers. Originally I was just going to go to it, and maybe help her in whatever way seemed useful... but then she invited me to co-run & contribute material.

What's on this page is just "my bit", the script for the discussion questions (drawing on my default workshop format). Part of what I wanted to accomplish with these is to help people to get a "gut feeling" for recognising the pushes & pulls of different factors in real life, rather than talking only on a theoretical level.

Before we got onto the questions, Maryam talked us through a Prezi about intersectionality, by Roshni Joshi, and we talked about definitions of some words.

Initial go-round

One way in which you're lucky. This might be easier for some of us than others, because some of us have had a lot of bad luck. But if you've had lots of bad luck, look here for something that helped you to survive your bad luck.

Examples: The luck could be simply fitting into a particular category of people who are on the lucky side of a binary in society, like being white or thin or straight. It could be an opportunity that you were able to take advantage of, like being offered a good education when you were in a good enough state to benefit from it. It could be something to do with your upbringing, like a particular person who was a role model for you when you were younger, or supported you through a difficult time.

The key thing is that it wasn't something you completely created yourself. In this particular respect, the universe gave you a break.

Into small groups

When in 3s: Weaving metaphor, and what to expect

Here we're going to talk about different aspects of life which bring with them advantages and disadvantages. Although we're considering them one by one, you'll find that they can't be entirely separated from each other. For instance, lots of situations are influenced by your financial resources.

Each one of these topics is much bigger than we can possibly do justice to in the time. To use a weaving metaphor: if our workshop topic today was, say, age, we'd weave a whole cloth of that one colour. But here we just take one thread of that colour, and the cloth we're weaving today is multi-coloured, bringing together many aspects of our lives.

Because these are quite juicy questions and we're not going to spend very long on each one, it's likely that you'll just be getting into a question when we give you another one. So don't expect to get to say everything that you might think of. We hope that you'll find other places to continue the discussion we're stirring up: could be with friends, or in online discussions, or maybe even at other events like this. And we do have a sheet for people's email addresses in case anyone wants to hear about other things that Maryam or I might be running.

How question section will work (kind of extra ground rules)

- Usual ones about confidentiality and speaking for yourself. We're going to add 3:

  1. When we're in the small groups, don't interrupt or ask questions when it's someone's turn to talk, let them follow their own train of thought.
  2. Don't try to fix where people are at.
    "We live in a "fix-it" society, where people think the way to help is to make us feel feelings other than the ones we are actually experiencing." - Ann Kaiser Stearns
    The ground rule here is listen and let people think for themselves. E.g. if someone says "I feel like I don't fit in" you don't say to them "Oh I think you do fit in" - you listen and you let them explore what that's all about.
  3. Reminder: People need not feel obliged to share any particular area.

Whenever we ask a question, we'll tell you how long you've each got to talk about it, and we'll call out "switch" when it's the next person's turn. It's up to you who goes first - whoever feels most ready to start can start. Remember when it's someone else's turn you just listen to them.

Any questions about any of the process?

We'll start with a classic feminist issue:

Caring and fertility

Some people have current roles in parenting or caring, some people don't. Some would like to, some wouldn't. Mainstream culture encourages some people to be parents, and discourages others.

Some people are carers in ways other than parenting; for instance, caring for a partner, their parents, another relative or a friend.

How do your current caring responsibilities, or not having those responibilities, affect your daily life and the other things you can do?

What have you noticed about how society treats people in your position?

Economic security

Some people have a well-paid job that's likely to continue, or someone in their family does. Some people work long hours to make ends meet (and the chances are they may not have made it to this meeting). Some people can't find paid work which matches their capacities and available time. Some people have inherited money, and needn't work if they don't want to. Some people are here as refugees and forbidden to work.

Some people have managed to build up savings or a pension, some people have scary amounts of debt. Some people have relatives in a position to help if they had a financial crisis, some people don't. Some people live with parents.

Even if you've worked very hard to get where you are, you probably had some luck which enabled that, for instance not getting too ill to work.

What good or bad luck have you had in this area, and how does your financial and work position affect the other areas of your life?

Age

What advantages or disadvantages does your age give you compared to other people older or younger than you? What have you noticed about how people of your age are treated, in mainstream culture and in other communities you're part of?

Race / ethnicity / culture / class / religion (or lack of it)

Based on your skin colour, the way you speak, your name, or the community or communities that you're part of, what judgements would an ignorant person typically make about "people like you"? Would their assumptions be true? What advantages or disadvantages would you get from their perceptions?

Sexuality and chosen family

In terms of partners for life, sex and romance, mainstream culture says the "normal" plan is one man & one woman. According to the expected "relationship elevator", they should 1. date, 2. get serious, 3. get married and 4. have kids.

Do you fit that pattern or have you deviated from it, for example in having more than one partner, or a partner of an "unexpected" gender, or no desire for sex?

What have you noticed about how society treats people in your position?

Bodies: Size, beauty, health, disability and illness

A few extra ground rules for this section.

One: don't assume that everyone can be healthy, or that health is a moral virtue.

Two: don't assume that everyone can make their bodies get fatter or thinner if they try hard enough.

Three: don't confuse being thin with being fit.

If anyone wants to find out more about health, size and metabolism, I recommend this book. {HAES}

For this bit, any beliefs you might hold about how other people could or should change their bodies or their diets or their fitness or their appearance are off topic. What we're talking about here is society's attitude to bodies.

So here are the questions:

How does society treat people with bodies like yours, and what advantages or disadvantages does that give you in daily life? For example, how often do you see people in the media as positive role models who have bodies similar to yours? Can you easily buy clothes that fit? To what degree can your body ever be perceived as fashionable, if you were trying to be fashionable?

Do other people's beliefs about your body help or hinder your ability to find jobs or partners, or to get healthcare?

Heads-up about a later question

We've got one more question before the break.

The 3rd question after the break will give some talking time for stigmatised histories. Examples could be abortion, surviving rape or abuse, migrating without papers, sex work, kink, mental illness, drug or alcohol problems, self-harm, being in prison, or having been assigned a different gender at birth to the one you live as now.

We're doing that bit in such a way that no-one will be asked directly which groups you belong in, and it'll be up to you what you feel OK to say.

This advance warning is just so you can take a little time at the break to check in with yourself about what you do or don't want to say, either in the big group or in your little groups.

But before we break, we'll have a more cheery & uplifting question to balance out the difficult stuff:

Cultural strengths

Thinking about either your home culture, or a chosen culture such as a queer community or friendship group, or simply how you experience being a woman: What strengths do you think of as belonging to that culture? especially strengths that you feel are not shared or not appreciated by mainstream culture?

10 minutes' break

(and we had cake!)

Education

In what ways was your education lucky and well-suited to you, and in what ways not? Do you have paper qualifications? Were you encouraged to think of yourself as good at thinking, whether in an intellectual way or a common-sense way?

If you're autistic, dyslexic or otherwise neuro-diverse, have you had education and support which played to your strengths?

Upbringing, history, mental health

A few lucky people were unconditionally loved as children and 100% supported to follow their own path, they've always had friends around them, and no mental illness has ever touched them. More common is to have a mix of luck and difficulties in our lives, and varying degrees of support and abuse within our friendships and close relationships.

Without sharing details that feel too personal for this group, how lucky have you been in terms of mental health and loving support, at different times in your life?

Secret histories

Some kinds of personal history are judged negatively by large parts of society, and so these become areas which people tend not to talk about. This might include abortion, surviving rape or abuse, migrating without papers, sex work, kink, mental illness, drug or alcohol problems, self-harm, being in prison, or having been assigned a different gender at birth to the one you live as now.

We're putting these all together under one heading to make a space where, if you want to, you can acknowledge having some kind of socially stigmatised history. It's also up to you how specific you want to get, or if you just want to say, "yes I have things I don't generally talk about, and here's something about how that feels or how it's affected my life".

If EITHER you don't reckon that any areas of your life are really like that, OR you do have an area like that but you don't feel like talking about it right now, you can also use this time to talk more about some other situation or group or life history - perhaps something that's come up in the discussion already.

Intersections

As you've been talking, you may have already been noticing the ways in which some of these factors intersect.

What we'd like you to do now is deliberately to go looking for at least one intersection where an oppression or a difficult aspect of your life is counteracted by a privilege or some luck.

For instance, you might experience racism in the outside world, but have a loving, supportive family of origin who help you to deal with it.

Or for instance you might have a long-term illness which limits what you can do, but a good education enabling you to play to your skills.

Or for instance you might be a single parent, but for whatever reason you're financially well-off enough that you can pay for some domestic help.

(We're not saying that everyone in the world will be able to identify clear advantages they've had, but we do think that'll be possible within this room, because if you'd never had any kind of lucky break, you wouldn't have the mobility and time to be here.)

[Note for readers: I do realise that this approach over-simplifies how intersectionality works. It's not a plus or minus thing: our whole experience of living in the world can be differently shaped by the way the factors interact. This question is just a way of beginning to scratch the surface of that, in a way I thought might prove accessible for people to sense it in operation in their own lives.]

Optional expandable/shrinkable bits depending on time

[In small groups:] Take a minute each to talk about any thoughts you're having from all of this.

Go round bigger group with opportunity to share.

[optionally give priority to subset of women, e.g. women of colour / disabled, in case don't get all the way round.]

If any spare time, another round of discussion.

Closing round

One thing that you'll still be thinking about after today.

rainbow line
rainbow line

With thanks to the people who made this path by walking, including...

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw used the word "intersectionality" in 1989 to describe the thinking being developed by Black feminists.

The Combahee River Collective was a Black Lesbian feminist group in Boston in the USA. In 1977 they published The Combahee River Collective Statement, which stated:

... we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess any one of these types of privilege have.

...

The inclusiveness of our politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the lives of women, Third World and working people. We are of course particularly committed to working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression. We might, for example, become involved in workplace organizing at a factory that employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting back on already inadequate heath care to a Third World community, or set up a rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood. Organizing around welfare and daycare concerns might also be a focus. The work to be done and the countless issues that this work represents merely reflect the pervasiveness of our oppression.

Issues and projects that collective members have actually worked on are sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape and health care. We have also done many workshops and educationals on Black feminism on college campuses, at women's conferences, and most recently for high school women.

One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to publicly address is racism in the white women's movement. As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women's movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.

Audre Lorde said in the book Sister Outsider, in 1984:

There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.

Angela Davis said in a speech in 2010:

The assumption that feminism is only about gender is the result of a yearning for simplicity that has racialised feminism as white. The kind of feminism I talk about can embrace more and more complexity.

And more people taking the conversations forward right now... @BlackGirlDanger, @Blackamazon, @brownfemipower, @Karnythia, @bellhooks, @andrea366, @tressiemcphd, @SaraNAhmed @GradientLair, @crunkfeminists @redlightvoices (author of My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit!), @MaryamBibiDin, @eldiadia, @mixosaurus, @renireni, @judeinlondon... and many of the people they follow on Twitter.

(You can still view those pages without a Twitter account, and many Twitter headers include links to web sites.)

Special thanks to @MaryamBibiDin for inviting me, and to @ZaimalA for encouragement on the day.