When the word popped up, I accepted it almost without reading a thing. Because I already knew this. I knew how social policy and our economic system came together in the lives of people, economic inequality and the consequences, intersecting with race, gender, class, current political narrative, economic climate, society, institutions, and how that came down within family structures and communities, on the lives of children and the families squashed underneath it. How bureaucracy and marketisation and managerialism interacted with that. How marginalisation and violence come together with all these things in the lives of those where these things intersected with everything else. I knew how children were shaped by those things, and I knew how they came together because that is what social work is. Navigating the cracks. Wherever they may be. If you are going to navigate those cracks, you need to understand em and know how to prevent yourself making them worse and know how to cover em if possible. That means being aware of the consequences of what you do. Your place within it. How you affect it, how your actions shape it.
Your first inkling that you are going to learn about this, is from books by women like Lena Dominelli. Books with titles like anti-oppressive practice. You dismiss some of it, and while it all makes sense reading it, it’s very difficult to really grasp it or its relevance. But because everything you do is assessed against this you don’t drop it, you make it part of what you learn. In a discipline where the watchword is theory into practice, you are assessed always on whether you can see if a theory relates to practice, and again you don’t quite understand why this is what you are being taught and hammered in. You get social policy modules that teach you about the role of ideology in social policy, and the history of our welfare state and the battles that brought it, and how it has changed over time. You are taught critical race and gender studies and you hear cries of oh look PC gone mad. This alongside law, alongside practice placements. This is outside the things you thought you would be looking at.
Then you find out how it will become part of your thinking.
You go to work or placement. Placements where you are not marked on what you have done, but how well you have reflected on it in that context.
As times goes on and you run into the same walls, in the same ways, and you have not only reflected of the situation but begun to despair of it. This is the terrain you navigate. You see the same consequences come down on the lives of people brutally, repeatedly, like clockwork. You need to reject the theory that’s bullshit because it does harm and harm that has consequences. The same mundane things coming together without any chance of ever stopping for some poeple.
Once you get past that first cohort of children you work with, they seem to pass in very short generations where you get to see the same thing repeat in the same age group repeatedly. You learn it’s not an intersection, it’s a pile up.
And it’s a pile up you have to navigate so that other people can navigate themselves and so these echildren are less harmed by it while they or their parents, are blamed for it. While the press pretends it knows about child protection when someon requires your resources be scaled back, or a scalp is required. Instead of getting to debate whether an shitty system is doing this, you get to mitigate the consequences and you learn to understand the system. While you watch the news daily to see what’s coming your way and how it will be dressed up that week.
Lessons are consolidated with every wall, and every time you butt against it what you learned is reinforced and your thinking about everything is changed by your understanding of this terrain. You see the same consequences for the same kids, every one of them more unique than you’d have space to describe. You begin to learn to work with what is there and not what you would like to be there. You learn to accept the unpalatable and know that a dilemma really is being on the horns of two equally unwelcome alternatives, knowing you cannot do the best, only the least worst and sometimes you know you are doing the worst thing and you just don’t have a choice.
You’ll only get the tools pretending to be what you need, if you understand how to ask those whose responsibility is to the politicians who require this. You have to learn to understand the limits of your responsibility within that system and when not to take responsibility for someone else and how to make sure they have to take responsibility. You learn to reflect on the system you are in so you can check it’s not doing too much damage to you.
The intersection of gender, race, inequality, the system, we understand it quite well. We plan our public services and political priorities around it, and our political system requires it and is willing to fight for it in the dirtiest ways.
When austerity came, those lessons consolidated for all of us. Whether we called it intersectionality or not.
With some social work jobs there comes a point, where you realise that there is nothing you could possibly do to mitigate the consequences of this system, with some kids, like the over 11’s who aren’t in care you are only mopping up the consequences of departmental and political failure so they don’t bleed through to the newspapers too visibly. You are trying to work with kids who are trying to get through adolescence. That there is nothing you could do to offset the harm that was being done to them, only watch them navigate behaviour agreements telling them it is their fault.
When I heard people discussing intersectionality, I thought they were discussing that. And they were. When something is right, it’s right and it clicks. My friend Carol suggested I was ignoring the work of black feminists(time to own up apart from women I know, am largely not interesting in any feminists right now- but I probably was). It occurred to me that women like Lena Dominelli would be very influenced by black feminists and it was possible intersectionality was something that only really needed to bleed through into our Westminster bubble. That it may have bled through in the part of the system invisible to it a long time ago, because that is where those things intersect.
And I thought that was an interesting thought.
The facile left wing, white, labour movement peddled nonsense which exists to prevent this discussion entering our political sphere, is what hides intersectionality from the political debate that requires that oppression. If we are talking about special interest group against special interest group competing for the attention of a left, there is no opportunity to discuss what that facile lefty nonsense is masking. That is how the wheel is kept turning and how austerity is delivered.