What Politicians Can Learn from the "Intersectionality Awareness Week" Debacle

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What Politicians Can Learn from the “Intersectionality Awareness Week” Debacle

City Council could do far more to improve the lives of marginalized citizens who are impacted daily by racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.

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Photo by Paul Flynn via Torontoist’s Flickr Pool.

Politicians have one overarching responsibility: addressing the concerns of their constituents. Constituents who don’t feel properly represented are entitled to hold their elected officials to account—and call for them to do better.

The day before Canada Day, City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) announced she would be presenting a motion for the creation of “Intersectionality Awareness Week” in the City of Toronto. She stated the motion would be a “first step to help City Council and City staff better understand the experiences that shape the lives of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized individuals in Toronto.” However, before the motion could be presented to City Council for a vote, it was met with immediate criticism from some Black academics, community workers, and activists.

The motion’s detractors issued an open letter that outlined why Intersectionality Awareness Week was unnecessary and listed various actions Toronto City Council should instead undertake to show their investment in and willingness to improve the lives of Black and marginalized people in the city.

Their concerns were heard.

Councillor Wong-Tam withdrew the motion last Wednesday. Notwithstanding the error in judgment—this likely damaged some of Wong-Tam’s credibility—politicians at all levels of governments should take heed.

For far too long, politicians have continuously disregarded and ignored the particular experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized groups. As a result, adequate political representation and the willingness to address constituents’ concerns are often reserved for people with the most power. Our political systems are intertwined with the legacies of Canada’s enslavement and colonization of Black and Indigenous peoples; disenfranchisement of women, First Nations, Inuit, Asian Canadians, and people with mental illnesses; and the silencing of marginalized voices.

As people firmly entrenched in the political apparatus, politicians can, inadvertently or purposely, perpetuate the problems inherent within it. For this reason, efforts to address systemic oppression and discrimination must be done by centering the thoughts, experiences, and expertise of the people politicians intend to serve.

In retrospect, the debacle that took place over Intersectionality Awareness Week could have been avoided. With proper community consultations, the councillor would have heard their concerns prior to the announcement of the motion and could have avoided offending the very people she was hoping to engage with. Because intersectionality—a term that’s evolved into a way of understanding how multiple forms of discrimination based on class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability identities impact the lives of marginalized people—originates from Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, Black academics should have been consulted in the creation of the motion.

This motion is also indicative of an emerging trend within Canada: the use of social justice buzzwords without subsequent action. Terms like “reconciliation,” and most recently “intersectionality” and “intersectional feminist,” are being exploited by politicians, policy-makers, and some activists to shield themselves from the responsibility of taking concrete action.

In March, NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton also came under fire for the alleged appropriation of Beyoncé lyrics and the use of intersectionality. As of late, she’s veered away from referring to herself as an “intersectional feminist,” likely amidst criticisms that the term is too academic and even toothless.

For politicians and policy-makers, the use of the term intersectionality is not solely meant to display an understanding of the experiences of people who live at these intersections or be used as a title, but rather a way of doing—doing what’s necessary to create policies that reflect and address the livelihoods of all marginalized people.

Like intersectionality, Indigenous writer Naomi Sayers agrees that the term “reconciliation” bears some similarities because people use these buzzwords to dismiss critiques of their initiatives. She highlights a responsibility that must come with using these terms and states, “Everyone engaging in reconciliation must take responsibility for their actions.”

Although proposing Intersectionality Awareness Week was good in spirit, it appeared to be too heavily focused on symbolism rather than concrete action, which—as Sayers points out—is the essential responsibility that comes with using such terms.

Policies that promote awareness of various forms of oppression and discrimination are important, but they shouldn’t be the priority. Instead of an Intersectionality Awareness Week, marginalized residents need policies that use an intersectional framework to ensure they aren’t facing unintended barriers. The interim Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism contains specific recommendations for addressing barriers facing Black LGBT youth. This is an excellent example of intersectionality working in policy development.

The signatories of the open letter offered a list of priority issues they hoped Toronto City Council would address. Although policies may not be introduced for the purpose of targeting specific communities, their uneven implementation—or lack thereof—has led to consequential discrimination. Issues such as carding and the School Resource Officer program disproportionately impact people of colour in low income communities, and Black people with mental illnesses are more adversely affected by police shootings.

By using an intersectional framework to develop these policies, politicians would clearly be able to foresee these unequal outcomes. One way to do this—with programs such as Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program—is for politicians to consider how stereotypes about Blackness, Black women, and Black people with mental illnesses affect the ways these people access services.

Because an intersectional framework is often lacking from the policy development process, the public—particularly Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized people—should be skeptical of diversity and equity initiatives, and all politicians should be prepared to be confronted on the substance of such initiatives.

Implementing policies that increase diversity is important, especially as politicians and policy-makers work to govern and create a better, more cohesive society. But these initiatives need to be demonstrated with actions rather than words. Taking the time to learn what needs to be done is a good first step. However, creating better, more robust policies, and demonstrating leadership that engages with all communities within a politician’s constituency, is what’s actually required.

Politicians at all levels of government should take note.


 

Brittany Andrew-Amofah is a public affairs commentator and advocate for diverse representation in our political system. Brittany’s work focuses on bridging the world of politics, policy, and social justice with a specific emphasis on race, gender, and class. She is currently completing her master’s in political management at Carleton University and working in the field of social policy.

Angela Wright is a writer and public affairs professional. She formerly worked as a political staffer in the House of Commons. Her work has appeared in publications in Canada, U.S., and Australia. She holds a master’s in the history of race and slavery from the University of Iowa.

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