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Everyday intersectionality. Paper presented at the National Conference on Racism: Beyond Tolerance, Sydney Opera House, 12-13 March 2002, organised by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.



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"Everyday intersectionality" Commissioner Pru Goward

I would like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the Eora people, the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today.

Last year, during HREOC's consultations on race in the lead up to the World Conference on Racism one indigenous woman told us:

We just live racism every day. It's like getting up, washing your face and having a cup of tea.

With those words about the everyday nature of racism, I welcome you all to this panel on intersectionality.

It is a daunting word -- "intersectionality." Although it doesn't sound like a word anyone would use every day, it describes an everyday experience for many Australians. By intersectionality, we refer to the connection between aspects of identity, and by "intersectional discrimination", the different types of discrimination or disadvantage that compound on each other and are inseparable.

An intersectional approach asserts that speaking about race in isolation from other aspects of identity results in concrete disadvantage. One example that is all too common in my line of work is the sexualisation of women from various ethnic groups in the workplace. Sexual harassment affects particular groups of women quite differently, and in a way that is about their race as much as it is about their gender.

Intersectionality is not an arithmetic equation - you don't just add up the consequences of race, for example, and the consequences of gender. Intersectional discrimination means people are discriminated against in qualitatively different ways as a consequence of the combination of their individual characteristics.

As Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission I am particularly interested in the way that gender compounds other forms of discrimination: not only race, but age, disability, sexuality and the myriad other ways that people have found to discriminate against each other.

Many of you here today have experience of working in human rights, as well as personal stories of discrimination. We know from our experience of working in discrimination, and from the stories that make it through the institutional maze, that women from non-English speaking backgrounds experience hostile attitudes in many workplaces.

However, we also know that many incidents of intersectional disadvantage are never the subject of a complaint, and are never redressed. There are many institutional barriers to recognizing discrimination where is occurs. But also, many of us are just starting to understand that intersectional discrimination is the right place to start in

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terms of understanding the subtlety of discrimination as it occurs in practice.

For example, too often when we talk about issues of racism we are talking about men's issues. It is not done deliberately, but it has the effect of making women's issues peripheral. Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. Women make up over half of Australia's population. Without looking at how women, particularly different groups of women, experience racism, we are unable to understand or properly work to eliminating racism within our society.

This was acknowledged by Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a speech made earlier this year:

A gender analysis of racial discrimination recognizes that racial discrimination does not affect men and women equally, or in the same way. To promote and protect the rights of all persons to be free from racial discrimination, it is necessary to ensure the rights of women when they are similarly situated to men and when they are not. There are circumstances in which women suffer racial discrimination of a different kind or to a different degree than men, or in which discrimination primarily affects women.

Of course, gender is not the only characteristic that intersects with race, and we are here today to discuss a range of experiences that will make our understanding of racism more complex.

We know from our experiences of working in discrimination and human rights, that one way to combat discrimination is to "bring the outside in": to listen to people whose voices are peripheral and to find ways of including them and bringing them to the centre of discussion.

We know too that despite laws and programs to combat different types of discriminations, direct, indirect and institutional forms of discrimination persist. Formal equality as expressed in laws and policies do not deliver substantive equality in most instances. We need to ensure real equality by devising strategies and programs that take account of the differences that women and men experience and respond accordingly.

We all have a lot to learn about intersectional discrimination and how to combat it in practice. We are fortunate today to have the opportunity to learn a bit more, not only about race and gender, but about disability, age and religion and the way that these aspects of identity intersect with racism.

This is a constant challenge. Most people are aware of the need for inclusion of different perspectives in human rights work. But the tendency is still to "add on" the perspectives of others rather than making them central. We assume a white perspective when we only have a footnote about blackness. And we assume that the male perspective is the central one when we add only a final chapter about women. As long as that is the way we work, marginalized people will remain marginal.

I challenge the people here today to adopt a gender-based approach to the analysis of racism. And, of course, to do that while also taking account of the other aspects of identity that intersect to create us as complex beings.

If that sounds like juggling a few too many balls, well, no-one said that acknowledging intersectionality was easy. But it is the next step we need to make in genuinely addressing the lived experience (the every day experience) of discrimination. And luckily, we have panelists here today who can help to show us the way.

 

© Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last updated 14 March 2002. Your comments and feedback are welcome. Email us at: webfeedback@humanrights.gov.au

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