Intersectionality and the 'Tapestry of We'
An article by Harriette Morgan
What is intersectionality?
That’s not a straightforward question to answer because intersectionality is a term coined through Black feminist activism. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw first used the term, back in 1989, to describe the dual discrimination of racism and sexism faced by black women. Since then, the term has grown and shifted to include an array of ‘otherness’. It is now an institutionalised term in academia which has spread beyond those borders into the wider culture.
When people talk about intersectionality, they mention race, gender, and sexuality. Disability is not often an immediate aspect that is considered in this conversation. This has to change. Disabled people deserve to be part of this conversation. Statistically, the disabled community has the highest rate of intersectionality of any group.
To help guide people to understanding what intersectionality is, there’s an analogy around roads. The thought behind this is the ‘intersection’, where two, or more, roads meet and cross. The roads are areas of our identity, and the cars are the barriers that can negatively impact it.
Do I think this road analogy accurately portrays what intersectionality is? No, I do not.
It’s both too simple and doesn’t cover enough crossovers for intersectionality to be clearly understood. Thinking of roads, they are structured and meet each other safely and neatly. Intersectionality is not set lines, there’s no neat meeting point, no safe crossing zone.
When I think of intersectionality, I picture something more complex, tangled together, and messy. Yet, when intersectionality is viewed as a whole piece it can, and does, create something beautiful that wouldn’t exist without the uniqueness of each piece.
In saying that, the best analogy for intersectionality that I can come up with is that of a tapestry.
The reason for this is because tapestry is a technique of patterned weaving. The threads are woven back and forth, over the plain background, to colour in a section. To keep these threads holding they are pushed tightly together so there are no knots in the tapestry technique.
We are all made of individual threads that are woven together to make us who we are. Some of our threads are the same. We all have threads related to gender, sexuality, ethnicity. We can even have threads for things like hair colour, eye colour, and blood type.
The individual threads that make us up are only small little sections of who we are, our complete self is all these threads woven together. Just as a tapestry cannot be made with one thread. We need all these different elements of ourselves which are shaped by genetics and experiences to create the whole ‘Tapestry of Me’.
If we apply this analogy to the wider scope of society, the same principle applies.
Society is made up of all different types of threads such as religion, disability, culture, gender, and so many more. We could list endless types of threads for our intersectionality tapestry. Therefore, when one thread is ignored or left out of the tapestry it cannot be completed.
This is why leaving disability out of the conversation doesn’t benefit anyone. By incorporating disability into discussions, we take a step towards normalising the inclusion of disabled people into the workforce, society, and anywhere they want to be. Including disability allows the ‘Tapestry of We’ to be woven together and complete. There are no parts missing because disability has been excluded.
If we go back to the road analogy and remember that the cars represent barriers that negatively impact intersectionality. This suggests that barriers move along the intersectionality road and don’t really do much damage. They’re constantly moving and only harm the surface after long periods of time. However, in reality, we know that the discrimination barriers which are based on our race, gender, sexuality, disability are more than surface deep.
This is why I like the tapestry analogy, where discriminating barriers can be represented as knots in the thread. The knots prevent a thread from being used. The thread cannot be woven successfully into the intersectionality tapestry of our society while the knot exists.
Knots can be notoriously tricky to untangle, which makes them a perfect representation of the societal barriers that prevent the inclusion of people into society, the workforce, and more.
If we look at the ‘ableism knot’, we’re so far away from untangling it because disability is so rarely viewed as something equal to race, gender, or sexuality when we talk about inclusion or discrimination. There is still so much more work to be done against ableism to raise it to a level where it is talked about with the same gravitas as racism and sexism.
The term ‘disabled’ has negative connotations that people shy away from discussing it. However, we have some wonderful people working in this space and we have fantastic organisations doing the mahi to create accessible workplaces. These are the first, crucial, steps in normalising disability.
By joining together all the different threads of intersectionality, recognising their importance as single strands, and how they add value to the whole. Whilst also marvelling at the entire tapestry, then and only then, can we progress as a society. By ignoring or excluding essential parts of our societal tapestry, by neglecting disability from the conversation, the workplace, the world, we are incomplete. Our tapestry is missing essential threads that add vibrancy to our society, without disability our ‘Tapestry of We’ is unfinished.