On 28 September 2017, the Faculty of Law was delighted to host ‘Intersectional Conversations’ an event designed to spark conversation about intersectional theory from a range of perspectives, focusing particularly on gender, race, disability, sexuality, and class. The event opened with an overview from Professor Anne Davies. The keynote speaker, Dr Hillary Potter, who we were pleased to welcome from the University of Colorado, took over with an introduction of the concept of intersectionality.

An Introduction to Intersectionality by Dr Hillary Potter

Dr Potter began with an anecdotal exploration as to what constitutes one’s identity. A person can have multiple layers of their identity: their forename and surname (which have gendered and racial implications), gender, race, and class being just examples. The effects of identity need to be considered in order to understand crime, victimisation, and processes of civil and criminal legal system. Intersectionality helps us to understand the impact of these multiple identities and how they overlap.

The concept behind intersectionality was developed in the United States, underpinned by black feminist theory and critical race theory. Black feminism challenged the colourblind feminist agenda that focused on white, middle class women without addressing other identities and statuses beyond gender. It was argued for decades that black women faced discrimination by race and gender simultaneously. The term intersectionality was coined by Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw in order to give a frame to this concept. Crenshaw used the metaphor of a road intersection to show how gender and race could overlap and give rise to a unique form of discrimination.

Now, some definitions of intersectionality apply the concept to other marginalised groups. For some, this extension serves to re-marginalise women of colour and therefore is an affront to black feminism. For Dr Potter, intersectionality can and should take into account other identities in addition to gender and race. Intersectionality can thus be defined as social-power differentials based on the social ordering of social attributes that are multiple, multiplicative, and inseparable for each individual. Contrarily, sectionality refers to attempts to segment identities . However, in any work that incorporates intersectionality, the original tenets and the struggles of black women must be recognised.

Furthermore, Dr Potter was clear that characterising intersectionality as a buzzword is inadequate. We need to fully understand intersectionality lest we fail to do justice to those academics who use intersectionality to illuminate and address discrimination that otherwise would be invisible.

Panel 1: Race & Disability

Following this, a series of panellists discussed various sources of subordination and discrimination. The first panel was chaired by Professor Mary Bosworth, who emphasised that, in order to understand how these different aspects work together, they must be considered individually and intersectionally. Dr Alpa Palmer started this discussion by analysing race through an intersectional lens, with a focus on the role of intersectionality in British criminology. It was argued that within British criminology, analyses of gender have overshadowed analyses of race, making it difficult to incorporate intersectionality. The gaps in understanding might be explained by the lack of diverse scholars in the field. This is evidenced by the lack of non-white authors in criminology journals. Representation must be reflected in the academy because diversity follows diversity.

Ndjodi Ndeunyema, a DPhil candidate in Law at the University of Oxford, continued this discussion of race. It was suggested that the conversation on race need to be more than just theoretical. It has to be contextualised and put into practice. In the context of the Faculty of Law at Oxford, he revealed that over the last five years, only 2 per cent of BCL and MJur students were black. This is especially concerning given that these programmes are international in nature. Speaking anecdotally, Ndjodi then discussed the reality of imposter syndrome, whereby black students are told that they are a token admission. Moreover, tutorial environments became a site of degradation of black tutees due to failures to accord fair time to their ideas. This results in patterns of alienation and exclusion which can stifle the participation of black students. From a symbolic perspective, the wider Oxford space is also problematic, with the emphasis on the achievements of white, middle class men.

Dr Marie Tidball, concluded the panel discussion by discussing disability through an intersectional lens. The talk brought to light how women with disabilities face multiple layers of discrimination. This issue is not systematically embraced by the gender and equality agenda which has ableism at its roots. Disabled women often feel excluded from the feminist agenda due to its conception of female bodies and the oppression of them. Discussions of disability feature little in legal research compared to race and gender, which may be in part due to a medical model of disability that focuses on treatment. Tidball argued that voices of disabled people in framing their own identity have to be heard. Moreover, barriers to education and academia need to be removed, perhaps with the formation of particular scholarship programmes.

The panel concluded with a Q&A session where speakers discussed the Lammy Review and its shortcomings in terms of intersectionality. Sex education for disabled students was also discussed and noted as being one of the biggest taboos that people find difficult to talk about.

Panel 2: Gender, Sexuality and Class

Dr Tarunabh Khaitan chaired the second panel. It was opened by Nomfundo Ramalekana, DPhil candidate in Law at the University of Oxford, who immediately rejected the notion that gender is binary. Efforts to promote gender representation have focused on white, cis-gendered, middle class, heterosexual able white women. Ramalekana expressed dissatisfaction that Oxford earned a bronze level Athena SWAN, which, it was argued, privileges a specific type of woman. The enemy, Ramalekana argued, is not only the patriarchy, but also white supremacy and ableism. Until such point that we incorporate intersectionality, the bronze award should mean nothing to us. Otherwise, all we will do is form a new hierarchy of disadvantage.

Next, Mia Harris, DPhil candidate in Criminology at the University of Oxford, continued the panel discussion with a focus on sexuality. It was argued that the validity of the identities of LGBTQ persons is always questioned whereas cis-gendered persons do not have to make justifications because they are hegemonic. Harris expressed particular dissatisfaction about a speech given by the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson. In this speech, Richardson professed views against homosexuality, arguing that education is not about making people comfortable. If a member of teaching staff presents homophobic views, it is up to the student to engage with and challenge these views. Harris questioned why LGBTQ students should be responsible for this, particularly given the power imbalances. Furthermore, to suggest that homophobia is an opinion that is up for debate is deeply problematic.

We need to challenge heteronormative assumptions of gender and sexuality because we cannot see gender. Harris proposed that academics should take a stance against these assumptions by asking students what pronouns are correct for them, whilst making it clear that they do not have to reveal their gender if they do not want to. Although this may feel uncomfortable to start with, there is a need to normalise this practice. Finally, Harris emphasised that identities are transient and unstable. We need to nurture the exploration of identities and create gender inclusive spaces.

The final panellist was Dr Roxana Willis who focused on class, starting with the various approaches by which we might define class, including by occupation. However, we can see a person’s class without knowing their occupation. For this reason, Bordieu’s model of class as incorporating: fields, such as education and social spaces; capital, sources of advantage; and habitus, our ways of acting, feeling, thinking, and being. This conception aligns closely with intersectionality as characteristics such as gender and race can affect our capital and habitus.

Although it may be a positive that the Oxford works to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we need to recognise that this perpetuates an idea that people from deprived backgrounds could get here if they worked harder. Initiatives that widen access create a false sense of meritocracy as students who do come here need a certain amount of culture capital to achieve the required grades.

The panel was closed by Dr Khaitan who noted that religion had not been mentioned. Yet, religion can define a person and their experiences at an institution such as the University of Oxford. The Q&A session sparked interesting debate about the role of student societies to take into account of marginalities when planning events and the next steps that the University could take to account for intersectionality.

Closing Speech by Helen King

The event was closed by Helen King, Principal of St. Anne’s College at the University of Oxford and former police officer. Drawing parallels with justifications for policing, King argued that Oxford must use its power and privilege for good. It must consider how the wider public views Oxford and whether it has legitimacy with the public. Furthermore, Oxford must recognise that academic excellence is dependent on attracting the best talent from every background in order to bring together a range of perspectives and styles. Finally, we need to recognise that research and education continues to change. Change must be embraced in order to remain the best University in the world.

I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that the event was thoroughly thought provoking and inspiring. Without a doubt, those who attended the event will have gained a value opportunity to reflect on their own ideas and consider how they can incorporate intersectionality into their own thinking and work. Thank you to all of the speakers for their valuable contributions which together paint a broader picture of how multiple forms of marginality overlap and intersect.