Identity – and intersectionality !

I went last night to an event on ethnicity and identity, part of the British Library’s excellent series on Myths and Realities.   It was a pleasure to see a panel consisting of three women, from  Black Britain, US Asian and Lebanese backgrounds, and to listen to them talking about the complexities of understanding identity in the varied contexts of diverse cultures.  Much food for thought, especially on the shifting categories we use to classify people from different ethnic groups – and indeed how we identify ourselves.  (As the child of two migrants, one  from Scotland and one from Austria with a Jewish background, but with an entirely English upbringing, I find the issue of identity boundaries permanently intriguing.)

Ann Phoenix,co-director of the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education, gave us a host of insights into the complexities of identity.  She dealt a lot in the notion of intersectionality, ie the  way an individual’s different characteristics such as gender, race and class interact with each other.  Ann and I gently disagreed on whether ‘interaction’ is a more or a less dynamic term than ‘intersection’ –  a matter of taste, I guess.  but intersectionality is now well established as a rather ugly term to denote this interplay (Ann, maybe we can agree on interplay ….) between a range of characteristics.  It means that we cannot ‘read off’ an identity from any single feature, and even these basic ones such as race need to be (re)interpreted in each case according to how they combine with other features.

This is all very relevant to the Paula Principle, and in one sense a direct challenge to it.  The PP focusses on gender, and why women’s competences are not fully recognised at work.  But class trumps gender;  certainlywhen we look at women’s superior educational achievement – a strong part of the PP argument –   the gaps between higher and lower social class men and higher and lower social class women are much bigger than the  gap between men and women overall.  So I’m aware that I could be criticised for ignoring these complexities (though in the book I will include some brief material on both ethnicity and class).   I think I would simply say that I’m just aiming to shed light on a single aspect, acknowledging that there are m any other angles to be tackled.  But I’m aware that this doesn’t deal with  the argument that by treating gender on its own I’m actually somehow mis-presenting it.

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