Sunday, 14 December 2014

Intersectionality - and a bear called Paddington

I'm lucky enough to get involved in many of @teachnorthern's fantastic projects (she couldn't bear my nagging otherwise) -  and the latest one 'TeachDifferent: Identity' looks set to be a cracker.  The project aims to explore concepts of intersectionality and diversity; moving educators away from 'tick-box' approaches to equality to considered examinations of society's, and our own limiting assumptions. Identities will be explored through coaching, community philosophy and dialogic approaches.  It will celebrate our multi-layed, glorious complexity as human beings and also encourage us to consider and challenge how identity is used to oppress.  It's a brave and exciting project that will, I think, strike at the heart of our values and beliefs as educators.

The term 'intersectionality' was first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in a seminal article* which examines how patterns of oppression are bound together.  For example, women can face discrimination on grounds not only of their gender but also their race, class, ethnicity, ability.  Society (and law) like to categorise us into one protected characteristic or another, but rarely examines the complex space between them - where people might have many identities, and can be treated (or oppressed) differently according to the way that they intersect.

Intersectionality can't really be considered without thinking about privilege also.  As a white woman, fortunate to have lived a life full of means and opportunities, I want to recognise this and explore it more for myself.  I am gradually becoming aware of the unconscious ways in which my identity privileges me every second of every single day. (Peggy McIntosh writes powerfully about this, here). Writing this blog is, in itself, of course, an act of privilege. This thought has stopped me pressing the Publish button more than once, but I don't want my ego to stop me exploring ideas and talking about them.

Kay SidebottomTypically, I want to do EVERYTHING at once, so found myself this weekend researching identity politics in the middle of taking the kids to see Paddington at the cinema.  In my usual, non-academic way, I started to think about the small bear from Darkest Peru in terms of his own issues with connecting and managing the intersections of his identity.  

So this is what I thought about.

Paddington is a bear, of course - but he isn't just a bear.  In fact, this aspect of his identity is generally accepted without question; he appears out of the blue at a London railway station and is mostly ignored.  In the film he gets lost and Mrs Brown reports him to the police as a missing person.  'Around 3 foot 6 - blue duffle coat and a red hat - oh and he's also a bear,' she describes. 'That's not much to go on,' the police officer replies.

Paddington is also an immigrant, an exile, an outsider.  These are the issues that he most commonly explores; the facets of his identity that he most struggles with. He undertakes a quest to become 'English', whilst holding tight to the memories he holds in his red suitcase, and writing to his beloved Aunt Lucy at her Home for Retired Bears.  He struggles to adjust to life in a cold and damp London; he suffers oppression at the hands of the meddling neighbour, Mr Curry.  He is a child, although his age is never made clear.

What I love most about the book is that Paddington is different, but his most obvious difference (he's a BEAR!) is irrelevant to the story. (Children get this and completely accept it, because they haven't yet learnt that that 'different' doesn't mean good).   Paddington's 'bear' status isn't all he's about - he isn't asked to represent all bears or to speak on every bear's behalf.  The story is more interested in exploring the relationship between his identities as an exile, a child, an adopted person.  It does not attempt to over-simplify, but recognise the complexity within.

Life isn't like Paddington, of course. At the end of the film, he writes a letter to his Aunt in which he states: 'In London nobody's alike, which means everyone fits in.' We dream of a world like this, where differences are a cause of celebration, or accepted without question.  This blog also over-simplifies complex, political concepts, but I know that #TDIdentities will allow to us open up important and meaningful discussions - and give teachers the confidence to do the same in their classrooms.

*Crenshaw, K.W. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 140:139-167

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful stuff on so many levels. I'm so excited to be involved in this project, not least because immigrant identity as part of intersectionality is something I feel by proxy immensely. Such an important project to be involved with at a time when many seem to be turning their backs on difference and marching with flags towards uniformity. In an election year this will be so important, our way of standing up and celebrating diverse and complex identities beyond the 9 protected by law characteristics. So proud to be involved.