Elizabeth Noble on the importance of intersectionality - the overlapping of different identities, and forms of discrimination, which cannot be separated

Viewpoint: ‘An unequal society negatively affects everyone’ – why intersectionality matters


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Changing Faces’ new report, Disfigurement in the UK, describes itself as a ‘depressing story that must be told’. The statement succinctly sums up my feelings about the picture it paints – of a society in which there is a huge distance to travel before we arrive at equality of opportunity, and aspiration, for people with visible differences. In my role at Changing Faces I get to spend a considerable amount of my time with the diverse and resourceful people who access our services, so I know that life with a disfigurement for most includes far more connection, happiness and success than this report might suggest. However, as someone who cares about justice, I also believe that the barriers people face must sometimes be communicated in bold terms in order to prompt change.

So, despite its self-described ‘depressing’ tone, I find it easy to get behind the mission of Disfigurement in the UK to raise awareness and motivate institutions and individuals to act. However, I find the description of the world as ‘more equal and more fair’ than ever and the statement that disfigurement has been ‘left behind in the equality stakes’ more problematic.

The urgency with which justice for people with disfigurements must be pursued is real. But I question the characterisation of the struggle for equality as some kind of horse race, in which communities are competing against each other, and where some groups’ ‘wins’ equate to losses for others. I worry that these kind of statements over-simplify the issues. Whilst the report does acknowledge that much remains to be done to other forms of oppression, I think at times it is in danger of implying that these battles have now been won. The evidence suggests this is not the case. If we pick, fairly randomly, from a range of indicators which show how discrimination might be at play in our society today we see that:

• LGBT youth are four times more likely to kill themselves than their non-LGBT peers (The Guardian 12.05.17)

• 50% of transgender-identified people have depression and anxiety (The Guardian 12.05.17)

• Black and minority ethnic communities are over-represented at all stages of the UK criminal justice process. (The Institute of Race Relations)

• Despite the Equal Pay Act 45 years ago, women still earn less than men in Britain today (The Fawcett Society)

• Gender-based violence is the leading cause of female deaths worldwide according to the World Health Organisation, and in the UK, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner (Women’s Aid)

Whilst it’s important to acknowledge progress towards equity, it is vital not to deny the challenges which remain. If Disfigurement in the UK is in danger of contributing to complacency about the issues for BAME people, and LGBT people, women, and other communities, then it is missing a crucial point – people with disfigurements are BAME people, and LGBT people, and women, and more besides.

I worry that, at times, Changing Faces understands ‘people with disfigurements’ as a separate community from those affected by other forms of discrimination, when we know this isn’t the case. What do we imagine it means to a gay teenager with burns to read Disfigurement in the UK and be implicitly asked to pull apart and ‘rate’ the different aspects of their identity according to the difficulty and discrimination attached to them? How might a muslim woman know if it’s her hijab, or her vitiligo, that people are staring at? People’s experiences and identities can’t be neatly sorted out into ‘the disfigurement bits’ and ‘everything else’. Understanding the word ‘intersectionality’ and employing it as an underpinning concept in our work can help us to avoid pitfalls in the future.

Kimberle Crenshaw, Professor of Law at University of Los Angeles, created the term ‘intersectionality’ 30 years ago. It refers to the over-simplification of people’s lived experience in terms of identity and discrimination. Crenshaw believed that the complexity of the intersections where different identities meet (e.g being black and being a woman)can leave discrimination invisible within movements for social justice, which tend to focus simply on ‘single issues’ such as race or gender.

I feel the concept of ‘intersectionality’ has much to contribute to our work at Changing Faces. As a charity seeking to create a movement for the equality of people with disfigurements, we must not exclude those whose experiences occur at the intersections of different identities. Simplifying the questions we grapple with as if they are ‘about disfigurement’ and therefore ‘not about’ race, gender, age, sexual orientation, class etc. etc. might make our messages neat and clear for some. But for many people with disfigurements it will mean the complexity of their lives, experiences and struggles are rendered invisible.

If Disfigurement in the UK shows some signs of Changing Faces falling into the trap of ignoring intersectionality, then how do we move on to a more inclusive path? I suggest that we use the report as an opportunity to start conversations with all kinds of people with disfigurements, and with other organisations that represent the communities they come from. Let’s start running focus groups, consultation events or targeted surveys to engage people who can teach us about being LGBT with a disfigurement, BAME with a disfigurement, deaf with a disfigurement, all of the above and more. The report highlights important findings about discrimination at work, reluctance to report disfigurement hate crime, and low levels of self-esteem amongst people with disfigurements. Let’s ask questions like, ‘how might A BAME person’s experience of the police impact on their willingness to report a hate crime based on their disfigurement?’

When asked how people and organisations should respond to the challenge of intersectionality, Kimberle Crenshaw counsels that we must, ‘raise awareness (of the) ways racism, sexism and other inequalities work together to undermine us all’. This reminds me of a line from Disfigurement in the UK, ‘an unequal society negatively affects everyone’. If we are truly a movement based on this belief then we must engage with complicated, intersectional lives, and stories, and problems, so that our progress towards an equal society leaves no-one behind.

Elizabeth Noble is Head of Client Services at Changing Faces. Viewpoint represents the views of its authors only and not necessarily the policies or views of Changing Faces, its staff or trustees.

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