A bit more nuance please
Six weeks ago I wrote a column about quality and diversity and mentioned the issue of privilege. Certain personal characteristics give us unmerited benefits or disadvantages because of the societal meanings given to those characteristics. Being white, male, educated, straight, able-bodied, and affluent is usually a combination that leads to benefits. Being a person of colour, female, less educated, gay/lesbian/trans, living with a disability or chronic disease, and/or poor is usually disadvantageous.
Scholars and activists have stressed that these dimensions are intersectional. That is: experiences of exclusion, discrimination or disadvantage in one dimension usually go hand in hand with exclusion and inequality in another dimension. It is not a coincidence that certain groups receive less education, experience more poverty and a poorer health and that within those groups women and sexual/gender minorities suffer even more complex circumstances.
The risk, however, is to turn this understanding of the intersections between these dimensions into a single structure in which you are either privileged ór disadvantaged. Gender and ethnicity are then often seen as the most important dimensions, so that white males are considered to be the most privileged. Statistically that may be true. But statistically you can also drown in water with an average depth of an inch.
To acknowledge nuances helps us to develop a more profound understanding
Intersectionality can become an ideology in which identities are fixed and in which we apply a simple scorebook and hierarchy of privilege. That ideological approach is helpful to get attention to the structural inequalities but it doesn’t help to understand the concrete experiences of real people. It overlooks the disadvantages of living with disabilities or chronic disease, poverty, and so on. And it ignores the fact that we all try to cope with this mixed bag, foregrounding those dimensions that benefit us and downplaying the aspects that work out negatively.
For me, an intersectional approach is about seeing differences and nuances. It is about understanding that we all have some privileges and some disadvantages. And even that what counts as a privilege in one context could become a disadvantage in another. This does not mean that we all get a fair share. Some of us are certainly more privileged than others. But even then not every white male is a winner in the game called life. And although being for example male brings certain benefits, it also carries certain gender-specific risks as well as expected gender roles that not every man can live up to. To acknowledge such nuances does not deny the privileges but helps us to develop a more profound understanding.
So maybe we need a bit more nuance. In the end what counts is the individual person, bringing privileges and disadvantages, encountering difficulties and hopefully finding support. Looking intersectionally helps me to see that complex story, not to reduce it to fixed categories. Maybe it doesn’t yield simple slogans, but it makes it a lot more honest.
Chief Diversity Officer and dean Faculty of Religion & Theology