Intersectional research “Germany still has a lot to learn”

Intersectionality comprises various forms of discrimination faced by a single person.
Intersectionality comprises various forms of discrimination faced by a single person. | Photo (detail): © laufer_Fotolia

Only few people are acquainted with the term “intersectionality”, but the phenomenon it describes is likely to be familiar to many: the discrimination against a person for various reasons. In an interview, the political scientist Emilia Roig explains the mechanisms of intersectionality and the sensitivity of the subject.

Mrs Roig, your research is specialized on intersectionality. This phenomenon comprises various forms of discrimination faced by a single person. Could you give some current examples?

A prominent example in the German context is the situation of many women. They are exposed to discrimination because of several factors: their sex, their language, their skin colour, their ethnicity, their backgrounds and their immigration status. The women affected by this often find it difficult to enter the labour market – even though equality of opportunity in this respect is clearly anchored in German law. Discrimination against women is reflected in the statistical composition of the labour market: they are hardly represented in coveted positions, but are rather mainly to be found in low-paying sectors.

Resistance is growing

Numerous studies indicate that “people of colour” (POC), the Anglo-American term for people whom the majority society looks upon as non-white, particularly those who come from non-academic households, still have a difficult time availing themselves of educational opportunities. Where do you see the reasons for this continuing discrepancy?

It’s largely due to institutional and structural factors, such as the institutional discrimination promoted by the educational system. In many German cities, for example, it’s normal that children with different backgrounds go to different schools. This is related to the fact that the school is usually as close to their place of residence as possible, but it’s also true that there are hardly any concepts for ensuring a greater mixing. Social inequalities are often reproduced across generations. Significantly fewer persons in Germany who belong to the group described as “people of colour” screw up the courage to go to a university than would a white German, and if they make it to a university, they often have a more difficult time than their fellow students: their parents are seldom academics and they therefore frequently have less money to spend. There is now more and more resistance to this social imbalance, also from the privileged sections of society.

Although there are now scientific publications on intersectionality in German, we have the impression that the proportion of professors of colour is still very low. Why is that?

Many people in Germany still believe that no structural privileges or discrimination are associated with skin-colour. There’s no need, they say, for more professors of colour; it suffices that the issue is discussed – those are the arguments. Moreover, they say, science is anyway committed to neutrality. Sometimes it’s even argued that white scientists are better suited to teaching and research in these areas because they’re more objective. Many scientists of colour are marginalized in the scientific community when they talk openly about racism and position themselves accordingly. I do think there’s a trend to change, but as long as the structural privileges of the white majority aren’t acknowledged, no positive development will be able to assert itself.

Kenya is a leading example

For your studies and work, you’ve visited many countries. Where is intersectionality most taken into consideration?

It was in Kenya, in 2007, that I first saw a concrete intersectional approach in political work. It concerned the issues of disabilities and gender. A Non-Governmental Organization that represented the interests of people with disabilities pointed out to an organization promoting women’s rights that the category “woman” isn’t inclusive enough. It then proposed specific ways in which the interests of women with disabilities could be included in the mainstream of women’s rights discourse. In Europe, intersectionality is understood as “multiple discrimination”, which doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the intersectional process.

Emilia Roig took her PhD at the Centre Marc Bloch (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) with a dissertation on “The development of the private care sector and intersectional gender equality: comparing France and Germany“ and has given seminars on intersectionality and post-colonial theory. In 2012 she was a Visiting Scholar at the Columbia University, New York City.