Opening the year with “Intersectional Conversations”

Date: Thursday 28th September 2017

Time: 13:00 – 17:00 (lunch from 12:30, wine reception from 17:00)

Location: English Lecture Theatre 2 (in the Faculty of Law building)


Time to read

3 Minutes

Imagine a car accident occurring at an intersection in the road. Now try to determine how the accident was caused. Was the accident due to the driver on the right travelling slightly above the speed limit? Was the accident caused by the person on the left who cut through the end of an amber light? What about the lorry that slammed on its brakes? Or the bike that was in the lorry’s blind spot? And so on. When looking at an accident at an intersection, which involves multiple factors and multiple actors, Kimberlé Crenshaw argued it is unhelpful (and, indeed, impossible) to seek out a single cause. Instead, she proposed that we must understand the intersecting issues of the incident. Similarly, when trying to understand an event such as discrimination, in Crenshaw’s view we must take account of multiple intersecting factors, such as an individual’s gender, race, class, and so forth, to comprehend what has happened.

Crenshaw’s metaphor can be found in her seminal article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”, which has generated discussions from the 1990s through to the present day. In this article, Crenshaw demonstrated how the experiences of Black women are often overlooked in both feminist and antiracist discourses; feminist discourse, in her view, being the voice of White women, antiracist discourse, similarly, being the voice of Black men. To illustrate the point, Crenshaw began by outlining legal cases in the US where courts failed to appreciate the unique discrimination that Black women experience on account of being both Black and women. Crenshaw showed that requiring a single reason for discrimination was as unconstructive as requiring a single explanation for a car accident at an intersection. From Crenshaw’s vivid account, intersectionality theory developed.

Intersectionality theory has become hugely significant. Typing “intersectionality” into journal search engines produces thousands of results. And the theory has been applied far beyond the experiences of race and gender, to disability, sexuality, decolonialism, class, age, religion, and more. Whether we are researchers engaging with human subjects, or teachers supporting students, intersectionality is hard to ignore.

Notably, intersectionality is not without its critics, who raise important questions. Rooted in identity politics, is intersectionality too individualistic; does it put minority groups in conflict; and does it break down common goals and ideals? Relatedly, how long is the list of identity characteristics we must include; where should lines be drawn; and what about the groups not included? Meanwhile, from a practical perspective, how can we give attention to all the unique combinations of identity traits we encounter (and should we)? What does it mean to “do” intersectionality – must we focus on harm caused by an action rather than intention? Should we prevent harmful conversations? If so, does intersectionality in practice risk restricting freedom of speech?

These questions are more than academic. In the past few weeks alone, examples of intersectional issues came to the forefront in popular discourse. From a corporation (L’Oréal) sacking an ethnic minority transgender model (Munroe Bergdorf), for her claims that all White individuals benefit from racialised structural inequalities, to the Oxford University Vice Chancellor being challenged by the Student Union for not intervening in instances of homophobia by established academics towards less powerful students. Intersectional debates are undoubtedly current.

Despite becoming something of a buzzword, the meaning of “intersectionality” can be ambiguous and misunderstood. Moreover, the practical implementation of intersectional ideas is limited and contentious. Indeed, how would we even begin to make an institution such as the University of Oxford intersectionally aware? Is this something we should even strive to do?

“Intersectional Conversations” marks the start of a journey to address these issues in The Faculty of Law. As an event co-organiser, I envision this initial workshop as a space where intersectionality theory is introduced, and where those new to intersectionality can have an opportunity to learn about the theory and how it might apply in practice. In time, I hope we will expand on these conversations and engage deeper with the ideas presented.

During this afternoon workshop, intersectionality will be considered from various theoretical perspectives, including ones which explore the experiences of race, disability, gender, sexuality, and class. Speakers will deliberate on how the theory relates to practice, and attendees will be invited to reflect on how this could translate into action. The Keynote speaker is Dr Hilary Potter, from the University of Colorado, who has been instrumental in the expansion of intersectionality in criminology. The Closing Speech will be delivered by Helen King, the Principal of St Anne’s College, who is actively engaged in diversity efforts in Oxford. For a full list of speakers and programme, see here.

We hope you will join us in these crucial conversations.

Funders: The Faculty of Law and Magdalen College

Organisers: Arushi Garg, Jonathan Herring, Roxana Willis

To listen to the recordings of this event, please see below:

Intersectional Conversations Session 1 (Opening Keynote)
Intersectional Conversations Session 1 (Panel 1)
Intersectional Conversations Session 2 (Panel 2)
Intersectional Conversations Session 2 (Closing speech)