Intersectionality as a Practice: an Interview with Emilia Roig

Emilia Roig, founder of the Center for Intersectional Justice, discusses with poco. lit. what it means to do intersectionality work in Europe and particularly in Germany.

What is intersectionality? Could you give the definition of intersectionality that the Center for Intersectional Justice (CIJ) works with?

Our working definition of intersectionality is very simple. We say that intersectionality is about fighting discrimination within discrimination, protecting minorities within minorities and tackling inequalities within inequalities. What this really means is that we are looking at inequalities within categories that are usually seen as monolithic and homogeneous. For example, we look at inequalities between women, we look at inequalities within the group of migrants, within the group of People of Color, within the group of people with disabilities, within the LGBTQI community. We look at patterns of discrimination within those categories. That means we have a multi-dimensional perspective towards social inequalities and discrimination.

What does CIJ do?

CIJ is an advocacy organization that aims to reclaim the concept of intersectionality and to refill it with its political meaning. That is something that I find important because intersectionality has been used a great deal in institutions that replicate the status quo – or at least ensure that it remains as it is. This erases the subversive nature of intersectionality, and of race in a European context. CIJ aims to infuse that political meaning of intersectionality in such institutions.

Our work is organized around three pillars: advocacy, research and trainings. We work at various levels and with various sectors. We also speak in established, high-level institutions like the European Commission or the European Parliament.

Intersectionality, similar to the term diversity, is sometimes criticized for having become too fashionable and therefore devoid of meaning. What would you tell critics about why it is a useful concept to think with? How can intersectionality be applied?

There are academic critics who say intersectionality is very useful, and who try to find out what else it can do. Then, there are critics from the mainstream who say that intersectionality is divisive or that it is not applicable in real life; that it is reinforcing identity politics. This is true to some extent: it is reinforcing identity politics, but I don’t see identity politics as a bad thing in the first place. It is an important stage in the dismantlement of systems of oppression. At some point, we hope to not need identity politics anymore – that we will indeed transcend identity. The problem is that many of these mainstream critics haven’t wrapped their heads around intersectionality. They criticize it from a place of unexamined assumptions about and projections of what it actually is.

Intersectionality can be used in many different ways, which is where its strength and power lie. It is a policy tool, it is a legal analysis tool, a sociological perspective. It is an empowerment device; it is so many things at the same time. It can also be used at different levels, for law and policy-making. It can be used in communities; it can be used for social movements, coalitions, solidarity and also at the individual level to better understand one’s position – and for empowerment purposes. Contrary to what some people say about intersectionality being a nice idea in theory but not working in practice, intersectionality is a practice.

Does the definition of intersectionality change with context? Why is it particularly valuable to think about intersectionality and apply it in the German context? Are the challenges you face in your work different in Germany to elsewhere?

Yes, definitely. Let’s speak about Germany. Because race is unspeakable in German (‘Rasse’), I tend to say the word ‘Race’ instead. It stumbles against less resistance than I thought, because every time I say it, I’m also explaining why it’s important and why it needs to be said, and why it’s important to continue to think in racial terms in German. As long as there will be racism, we will need to talk about race. There is an illusion of living in a post-racial era in Germany, which makes it very difficult to speak about social inequalities from a racial angle, although we continue to use proxies such as ethnicity, religion, culture and migration. These proxies are heavily racialized in the German context, and generally in Europe. But it creates divisions within racial minorities, giving the illusion that every group is affected by very different dynamics when in fact it’s the same: it’s still white supremacy. And so I would say that intersectionality here in Germany has been mobilized without race, and that’s highly problematic, because race is central to the emergence of intersectionality. Without race there would be no intersectionality; race is its raison d’être.

To follow up on this: do you find that in your experience of using specific terminology there have been changes, perhaps specifically in Germany? We noticed that there have been so many more books, also in German, published by Black German activists, a lot of them women.

Yes, definitely, change is happening, so that’s the good news. I tend to see the resistance – AFD, Trump and all the conservative right-wing voices and movements – as a hiccup in history. They see what’s happening and think: this cannot be, we need to do everything in our power to avoid this change. But change is taking place. So it’s no more than an expression of the change that is taking place. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so scared. There would be nothing to resist.

In Germany, it’s happening too. It’s almost heart-warming (but that would be too generous a word) to see that even established white people are thirsty for, are ready for that change. For instance, I’ve been asked to be in the German Nonfiction Book Prize jury this year. I’m the only Person of Colour, of course, but I’m there. And they wanted me to be there. I didn’t apply. They contacted me. So change is happening. Another example is that I was also in the selection committee of the EU funding programmes for diversity.

Even if it can sometimes come from a place of tokenism: knowing too well that an all-white jury is no longer credible in 2020. Maybe that’s the reason they invite me, but I won’t let myself be used as a token. I have things to say and interests to represent. I make sure that questions of oppression, racism, power, and privilege are a part of the selection process.

What would you have ordinary people do to participate in the work you do, if you would have them contribute? What is your position on the role of the structurally privileged in contributing to this work?

Providing a space and a platform to speak about the work of CIJ is tremendously helpful. Also, people who recommend us, who talk about us, who follow us on social media, who engage with us – that is helpful. Generally, I think that’s the most help that we’ve received so far: people being behind us, carrying us to more places, and making sure that we get access.

Emilia Roig is the director and founder of the Centre for Intersectional Justice. She holds a PhD in political science, and two Masters degrees: one in public policy and an MBA in international law. Prior to founding CIJ, Roig worked extensively on human rights issues, mostly in international institutions in the so-called development industry, for the UN and GIZ in Cambodia and East Africa.