Everything you always wanted to know about intersectionality - but were afraid to ask

Paul Deemer

For Equality, Diversity and Human Rights week 2017 Paul Deemer, head of diversity and inclusion at NHS Employers gives his take on intersectionality. 

In the Woody Allen film from 1972 Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask, taken from the David Reuben book of the same name, there is an exploration of sex through seven unconnected but essentially linked stories. Intersectionality is essentially the same thing, but using personal characteristics and social identities as the common, binding links. Intersectionality explores the commonalities that bind our differences. It could almost be described as the glue of socialisation, the unseen and unwritten rules that unite us.

But that’s just my definition … The problem with intersectionality is that everyone will have a different view and experience of it, and different ways of dealing with it.

For me, it is about seeing the whole person. Not dissimilar really to unconscious bias. But, for me, a lot deeper and way more complicated. It presents more challenges because it asks you to not only identify the particular things that you see in a specific individual; not only to ask you to then challenge your perception of those things that you see; but to also then ask you to think about how each of those things are related to each other and to work out the causal factors.

So, if you see a young black woman in a wheelchair working in a food bank, what are your thought processes? What is foremost in your mind at that first point of contact? Is it the food bank, the wheelchair, the ethnicity or the age? Or has your mind transcended all of that, and are you more interested in what motivates someone to work in a food bank?

If you are thinking about the motivational question, then you are beginning to embrace intersectionality which will want you to look beyond the visible characteristics and explore the social factors behind the individual. What is their social class? What was their education like? Have they always worked as a food bank assistant?

And why is this important you ask? Good question! I think (and remember this is only my take on intersectionality) that it’s important because this is the only way that you can ever really understand individuals; how you can ever really understand what drives and motivates them to do the things that they do; and what their values and beliefs are. We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves, and we don’t wear our values and beliefs on our sleeves either. They are very precious to us, and we will only reveal them when we feel ready, and when we feel safe.

And why is this important to the NHS? Good question (again)! It’s important, I think, because we need the NHS to be reflective of the communities that we serve, and that means not just in terms of physical / visible differences, but also in terms of diverse thinking. We want people working for the NHS who see the world in colour, whether that be the rainbow flag, the pink pound or black and minority ethnic communities etc, and embrace and project that colour onto our patients and clients. We want people who think and see the world multi dimensionally. 

Because, at the end of the day, if you don’t know me completely, you will never know me completely.

That’s why it’s important. 

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