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#tolerancemeans intersectionality

Updated: Apr 8

Cameron Samuel Keys, Undergraduate, University of Oxford

My grandmother left Sri Lanka in 1965 to start her life in England. 51 years later I was shocked to discover that she had voted to leave the European Union, primarily because she viewed levels of migration as too high. I was even more shocked to discover that in 2017, she, a lifelong Labour voter, voted for the Tories, because she feared a Corbyn government. It took me a long time to comprehend her decisions. Simply put, I viewed her as an immigrant and a person of colour and didn’t understand why her politics didn’t match. I tell this story to illustrate how the modern view of intersectionality places individuals in boxes built around their personal characteristics rather than considering how different parts of their identity impact their unique experience of the world. The modern view has departed significantly from the ideas set out by Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks. I will conclude that while intersectionality can improve our law by providing an alternative to ‘a single story’, this is contingent on a return to a traditional conception of the term. 

Cameron Samuel Keys, Undergraduate, University of Oxford

In her 1989 article, Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to explain why feminism was failing to address the concerns of black women. In short, the inability to consider the cumulative impacts of sex and race, which she argues are greater than the sum of their parts, meant that feminism in its current form would continue to largely address the needs of white middle-class women. hooks developed this theory, notably stating that “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else's whim or to someone else's ignorance.” This statement encapsulates what was meant by intersectionality, that every person is impacted by the nuances of their life, and a failure to understand means a failure to create impactful change. 

The modern view of intersectionality focuses far more on a person’s identity. This can be seen in the coverage of Suella Braverman’s firing as Home Secretary. In the BBC’s summary of her political career, they make consistent reference to the fact she is the daughter of migrants, contrasting this with her political stance on the level of migration to the UK. Similarly, in the 2020 US presidential campaign Joe Biden said “'If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black'. This inability to reconcile identity with politics is a failure of the modern view of intersectionality and suggests a departure from a Crenshaw/hooks view of the term. Instead of viewing groups as whole people, it appears we are viewed as simply an extension of identifiable markers: being a daughter of migrants or a person of colour. 

Fundamentally the value of intersectional thought is that it forces us to view individuals as complex, conflicted and often confusing people whose views do not necessarily line up our view of their ‘identities’. Tolerance, if nothing else, must mean tolerance of others who do not act or think or see the world in the way we expect them to. Unless the law recognises what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the ‘danger of a single story’, intersectional thought will not be able to improve our laws, instead further sowing the division and friction it aims to undo. 


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