Intersectionality: Big Word, Important Concept

January 16, 2024

Author: Django Perks

I had never heard the word intersectionality before until I started working for Teach the Teacher. As a concept, intersectionality looks at how different aspects of our personal identities (and the discriminations that may come with these identities) combine to affect the way we experience the world (and the way we may experience climate change). We talk about intersectionality with students in our Teach the Teacher workshop and although it can be quite a tricky concept - trust me, I know - I think it’s possibly one of the most important parts of our workshop for students to understand.

So, what is intersectionality? Let’s talk about it.

Intersectionality is a term that was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw and is used to describe “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, interlocks and intersects”. It’s the way in which different parts of our identity (for example, being disabled or being queer) cross over with each other, with their effects being felt as a combined force. 

We live in a divided society where people are discriminated against for aspects of their identity which they have no control over. And discrimination doesn't work individually - the discrimination you face for different parts of your identity work together to make your unique world experience. Every person experiences these discriminations differently. This is an extremely important thought we need to bear in mind when we cope with the effects of climate change and adapt to them.

So how could our personal identities impact how we’re affected by climate change? Let me give you an example. 

Take a person who is working class and physically disabled. Being working class, this person may struggle with the costs associated with climate change and adapting to its effects (e.g. storm-proofing their house) and they’ll need additional support. Being physically disabled, this person may be overlooked in the creation of disaster risk reduction plans, and therefore may be at greater risk from natural disasters caused by climate change (e.g. if they’re not able to reach a safe shelter quick enough after a warning signal). In this example, being working class and being disabled impact the way this person might experience climate change, putting them more at risk.

As of the 2021 Census, there were 59.6 million people living in England and Wales. 17.8% of these people identify as having a disability expected to last longer than 12 months (ONS). 18.3% of the population of England and Wales identify as not being of a White ethnic background (gov.uk). Both of these groups of people (people with disabilities and people of colour) being minority groups in the UK are more likely to be overlooked when it comes to creating and implementing climate change prevention strategies. 

Within the climate education movement, there’s a general consensus that it’s not only climate education that needs to be integrated into the curriculum. Young people need to learn about the real issues that affect society. They need to learn Black History, they need to learn LGBT+ History, amongst other important subjects. Intersectionality is a concept that ties all of this up into a plea for equitable and fair climate action. We cannot have true climate justice without thinking about those that are not fully represented in society.

It’s exactly like knowing that every action we take has a consequence. Every action that our predecessors have taken has led to that which is climate change and the destruction to our environment. Every action some people in our society take is making us move closer and closer to 1.5 degrees every single day. We cannot think about solving these problems until we recognise those that are treated as a minority. We cannot see true climate justice without thinking about the term intersectionality. And that’s why, as much as it’s a big word, it’s a very important concept that, when doing your Teach the Teacher session, I implore you to think about and encourage your teachers or students to consider properly.