Intersectionality is a term that you might have heard recently and wondered what it means and whether it has anything to do with the early years. It is, principally, a notion that looks at how identity shapes your life.
Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, age, socio-economic background and dis/ability are all commonly accepted as factors that will strongly influence your experience of everyday life. These identities, often referred to as identity markers, significantly determine the extent to which a person is advantaged or disadvantaged. Marginalised groups can have greater difficulty navigating social systems and institutions, such as schools, housing and health services.
The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. What, however, is not so well-known or understood when it comes to thinking about equality is this more complex notion of intersectionality or intersectional feminism.
Intersectionality is a concept first defined by feminist academic Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her 1989 paper about the oppression of African-American women.
It is based on the understanding that all women do not share the same level of disadvantage simply because they are women: African-American women, for instance, experience the discriminations that confront them as women, but in addition have to deal with those that come with being women of colour. Thus they are faced with two overlapping or intersecting areas of injustice and oppression.
For many women other factors such as poverty, religion or sexuality also come into play, resulting in multiple disadvantages.
Intersectionality is, then, a framework for looking at how aspects of social, economic and political systems overlap with gender to have a compounding effect. Understanding and moving forward with issues linked to intersectionality is critical if the interwoven prejudices that girls and women confront in their daily lives are to be engaged with and reduced.
As the terms used to describe ethnic identity are debatable and complicated, in this feature I will use woman/women of colour unless I am referencing someone else’s work, in which case I will use their chosen terms, for example, black and minority ethnic (BME).
An example of the injustices that can arise from intersectionality is to be seen in maternity and healthcare services. Maternity Action, the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the health and well-being of pregnant women, recently researched the experiences of maternity and healthcare in women and children from low-income, diverse ethnic backgrounds. Annah Psarros, in her paper, Mothers’ Voices (June 2018), reports alarming statistics:
- A black mother is four times more likely to die as a direct result of pregnancy or childbirth than her white counterpart.
- A baby from a BME group is more than twice as likely to be stillborn.
- Women from the gypsy and traveller community have comparatively poor maternal and child outcomes, as well as a higher rate of stillbirths.
- Women from BME backgrounds are more likely to have mental health problems, though less likely to receive appropriate treatment.
The research found that many of the women from minority groups had previously experienced prejudice and discrimination in the health service. This made them more likely to expect poor treatment, especially women who speak English as an additional language.
The report states, ‘Unfortunately, healthcare professionals’ monitoring of perinatal anxiety and depression was considered by many to be inadequate – a “tick-box exercise”. Women were also worried about the stigma and possible negative effects of being given a mental health diagnosis. This was also true of domestic violence – women felt that opening up to healthcare professionals about either of these issues could put them at risk of losing their children.’
The extent of intersectional discrimination in the health service can really be a matter of life and death.
EARLY YEARS: A CASE STUDY
Intersectionality is, thus, a useful theoretical structure for identifying the multiple layering of disadvantage. But it is also intended to be practical and can be used within the early years sector to help us become more aware of prejudice, acknowledge difference, and develop positive attitudes about diversity. As a result, practitioners can help children to become more positive about their own identity and become more confident and resilient.
One nursery where thinking about intersectionality is high on the agenda is Edgbaston Park Day Nursery in Birmingham. Manager for the last 15 years, Liz Pemberton says ‘the intersections of race, class and religion in my setting and community are things that I am acutely aware of. The demographic is primarily black and South Asian.’
The 46-place private day nursery has been owned by Mrs Pemberton’s mother since 1994. Of the children currently on roll, 31 are black African-Caribbean, two are black African, one white British, three are South Asian and one is East Asian. While race is one of the main identity makers of the children, Mrs Pemberton is acutely aware of the fact that social class, disability, family structure and religion can intersect and have a direct impact on children and their families.
For example, mothers with long-term illnesses and disabilities can have their benefits reviewed and sometimes stopped by the Department for Work and Pensions, throwing whole families into destitution. Asylum-seeking families with no recourse to public funds can be afraid to speak out about inadequate housing in case they are thrown out by unscrupulous landlords. Here we can see how discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability and race can overlap and further marginalise people already on the edge of society.
Mrs Pemberton has taken a strong lead in combating discrimination. She argues that ‘it is not good enough to dismiss the importance of intersectionality because you are a well-meaning nursery manager who says things like “We don’t see colour here! All of our children are the same to us” or “Why does it matter so much, all the children are happy and we’re not racist!”’
For her, it is vital that her whole staff team understands the theory of intersectionality. ‘We must examine how to be actively anti-discriminatory in our practice,’ she says. ‘We must work to ensure that necessary training is not just delivered within the area of intersectional theory, but is embedded within the practices of our settings.’
Two examples of how Mrs Pemberton has ensured that staff and her whole setting engage with intersectional theory are around gender. She comments that ‘a large proportion of the children do not live with their fathers and some have limited contact with them or no contact at all due to family breakdown, incarceration or because the fathers have been absent from birth’. As a result, she has taken steps to bring in male practitioners ‘from a variety of creative disciplines who come in to deliver chess workshops, or art programmes, music sessions or storytelling activities’.
There are also more girls in the nursery’s pre-school group than boys, and Mrs Pemberton has noticed the ‘staggering’ impact of social media on the girls. ‘We have had cases of black girls aged four expressing their desire to have white skin or telling other girls that their clothes don’t look nice because of their “fat bellies”.’
Mrs Pemberton argues that to help them to feel more confident as young black girls, and become more resilient, staff need to do more than ‘just being reactive in our approach through having the token black doll’. So the nursery has ‘permanent displays that showcase the beauty of braided hair with colourful beads and intricate canerowed hairstyles’. Mrs Pemberton has encouraged a member of staff who is renowned for her canerowing skills to ‘plait the children’s (boys and girls) hair at parents’ request. Effectively we have a live hairdressers’ role-play station.’
It is also important to Mrs Pemberton that her staff team is diverse. The nursery employs 11 staff in total: five are black African-Caribbean, one is black African, three South Asian and two white British. Mrs Pemberton is black African-Caribbean. She says, ‘It is important to me that I recruit from as wide a range of people as possible – this is a very conscious decision. Reflecting the people in the city and, more importantly, the Britain that we are preparing the children to grow up in is something that I believe is essential.’
This means that children ‘see themselves reflected in the practitioners’. But Mrs Pemberton believes it is important to go beyond a ‘reflection’ of diversity. ‘Children must also see collaborative partnerships among people who all look different, speak with different accents and who express their religions, gender identities and abilities. People can share commonalities as well as feel confident and unashamed to express their differences.’
She adds, ‘Exploring how multiple sources of oppression intersect must be considered carefully in the early years. Then we can try to ensure the work we do to help counter these factors can have a lasting and positive impact on children’s lives. As an early years workforce, we are guiding and preparing children to contribute to a fair, accepting and pleasant society. It is imperative that we examine Crenshaw’s theory and heighten our awareness of precisely how it can directly impact the children we work with.’
A DEVELOPING DEBATE
Intersectionality is often taken to refer to any layering of disadvantage. As a result, gender can be seen as just one of several possible factors, and not as the pivotal one. While, of course, it is not only women who face multiple layers of discrimination and oppression, Dr Eunice Lumsden, head of early years at the University of Northampton, feels it is important to remember that the origins of intersectionality lie in feminism.
She describes herself as a ‘woman of difference’ and says, ‘As a woman with a mother from Sri Lanka and a white British father, the debates around intersectionality have given me a lens for understanding some of my lived experiences that empower me as a “woman of difference”. We must be careful not to dilute the issues that stem from the lens of being a woman.’
A BIGGER PICTURE?
Engaging with intersectionality and furthering our understanding of it is critical to promoting equality in the early years. Everyone involved in education needs to re-examine any practices that separate out problems of discrimination and prejudice, seeing them as discrete challenges with discrete ‘solutions’. Approaching inequality in this way can be ineffective and, moreover, overlook additional inequalities. A setting may want, for example, to promote girls being more confident to play outdoors or in green spaces. But have they thought about whether this may exclude particular groups of girls?
Research from the Greater London Authority notes, ‘People living in the most deprived areas are less likely to live in the greenest areas, and will therefore have less opportunity to gain the health benefits of green space compared with people living in the least deprived areas.’ So, in this situation, focusing on what is seen as primarily a girl’s issue fails to recognise another key issue integral to the lives of many of those girls – that of social class and wealth.
It is important that we are open to having our attitudes challenged in an honest way, even though this may be difficult and painful. That way, we can go on to challenge multiple oppressions and take steps towards improving our practice and the lives of many young children.
- Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989, Article 8
- SWIFT (Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation) is an education centre based in Kansas. SWIFT works intensively on building schools’ capacity for equity and inclusion. It insists that, ‘We must examine, call out, and disrupt inequitable policies and actions that affect students’ and families’ access, representation and meaningful participation in quality learning opportunities, and the ability to enjoy positive educational outcomes.’ www.swiftschools.org
Summary: understanding intersectionality
- Factors such as gender, ethnicity and age significantly determine the extent to which a person is advantaged or disadvantaged.
- The concept of intersectionality was first defined in 1989 by feminist academic Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw when she explored the overlapping impact of gender and ethnicity on the lives of African-American women.
- For many women other factors such as poverty, religion or sexuality also come into play, resulting in multiple disadvantages.
- The wide-ranging injustices that can arise from intersectionality include outcomes within healthcare services. A black mother is four times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth than her white counterpart.
- Early years practitioners need to be more aware of how multiple sources of disadvantage overlap.
- They also need to acknowledge difference, develop positive attitudes about diversity and help children to become more confident, resilient and positive about their identity.
- Practitioners should consider this layering of disadvantage when considering all aspects of their practice. So, when promoting outdoor play for girls, they should consider not just gender but also the impact of families’ accommodation and income on children’s ability to play outside.