“Where does difference start to matter as difference?”. Moving intersectionality beyond feminist studies at Uppsala symposium

What: Seminar Intersectionality: Experiences of Inclusion and Exclusion

Where: Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University

When: 12 February 2018

Who: 50 academics and practitioners from 10 countries in Europe and North America

Our symposium was a remarkable event – not only because it explored this trendy and still rapidly expanding feminist school, but also thanks to the variety of disciplines that were brought together under this label.


Beyond feminist studies

Indeed we were a bit provocative in stretching the notion beyond feminist studies per se, with Stefania Milan (University of Amsterdam) taking it into Science and Technology Studies, Nico Carpentier (Uppsala University) into politics of participation, and Arne Hintz (University of Cardiff) positioning himself in Critical Data Studies.

Whereas Stefania Milan focused on the intersection of gender and data activism, Arne Hintz discussed the ‘objectivity paradox’ of data when the supposedly objective ‘evidence’ is in fact merely reproducing the existing social stigmatisations. One of the most striking examples was the so-called criminal risk assessment in the US, where an algorithm expected to predict whether arrested individuals might be future criminals showed not only bad judgment but also a clear bias against people of colour and poor citizens (see picture on the left), with the assessment process failing to take into account structural problems faced by poorer and discriminated communities. “Resistance to datafication” was Arne Hintz’s straightforward reply to visibly agitated audience members.

Nico Carpentier‘s keynote was probably most radical in terms of revisiting intersectionality. Deploying the vocabulary of discourse theory, one of his major talking points was the intersection of participatory and non-participatory subject positions, where the participatory ones relate to roles that define and enable participatory processes (citizen, ordinary person, leader, expert, owner, etc.) and the non-participatory positions signify the more traditional axes of differentiation such as gender and race. Intersectionality could then relate to what he calls ‘identity politics of participation’, analysing, on one level, the intersection of participatory subject positions, and, on another level, their intersection with gender, ethnic, and other identities.


Valences of power

The discussion around the notion of empowerment proved most engaging. Where to locate empowerment? Nico Carpentier’s proposal was twofold: it is located both in the process and the outcome. Empowerment, he pointed out, is embedded in participatory process – through equalisation of participants’ power positions – which, if successful, enables to translate the process into empowerment as an outcome.

Yasmin Jiwani (Concordia University) defined empowerment as an “assertion of identity in the face of exclusion”. “Where does difference start to matter as difference?”, she asked in her signature interrogative manner. If empowerment is but another floating signifier, how do we protect its emancipatory meaning – resisting, for instance, its trendy narrow reading in terms of consumerism? And this, Yasmin Jiwani went on, is where genealogy is so important: by showing the origins of these key democratic concepts, the emancipatory narrative can be reinforced. Nico Carpentier followed up: the same refers to participation; meaning-making around all of these notions are a matter of ongoing social struggles.

Yasmin Jiwani’s own keynote focused power and bodies, revolving around ‘valences of power’ across three intersected axes: visibility – invisibility – surveillance (who or what is rendered visible?), worthiness – unworthiness – normalisation (who or what is considered worthy?), and desired – undesired (who or what is considered desired/desirable?). These ‘valences of power’, she pointed out, underpin socio-historical and political contexts that position different bodies in particular ways, privileging some and making others invisible, unworthy, and undesirable. Her example analysed the representation of Muslim bodies as evil, wild, illegal, etc., drawing on classical Orientalist narratives.


Meet the Immigrant Lads and Chicks

Among other noteworthy presentations, including my dear colleagues Siddharth Chadha and Blerjana Bino, was that of Irene Molina (Uppsala University) who explored ‘racialisation’ of Swedish suburbs – the term she prefers to the more mainstreamised ‘ethnic segregation’ – an interesting case in itself, given that Swedish suburbs are among the most ethnically segregated the western world.

Irene Molina presented the genealogy of the discourse on segregation, supported by what she calls ‘urban ideologies’ of racism and capitalism. Whereas in the period of the 1960-80’s the inhabitants of ‘bad suburbs’ were commonly perceived as victims, she said, the decades of the 80’s and 90’s saw an increased ghettoisation, with the rise of the ‘Immigrant Lads’ and ‘Immigrant Chicks’ (invandrarkillar/invandrartjejer) by the 2000’s, as well as their Patriarchal Fathers and Passive Mothers.

Throughout the 2000’s, two parallel trends were developing: on the one hand, the suburbs were increasingly exotised and (ethnically) romanticised (I understand this in line with Kymlicka’s ‘celebration of multiculturalism’ – glorification of difference, often it terms of plain consumerism, with no deeper reflection on subjectifications). On the other hand, they were increasingly portrayed as a threat (criminality, no-go areas, the expanding Islam, and so on).

The last, most recent period Irene Molina outlined, saw the idea of outsiderness (utanförskap) gaining ground, with signifiers such as terrorism, fear, and violence stabilising in the discourse on the suburbs. Yet, a more relevant question might be ‘whose violence?’ – given media’s focus on immigrant violence, while an excessive use of police force in suburban areas remains largely ignored and essentially normalised.


Towards radical democracy

Apart from taking part in organising of the symposium, I got a chance to contribute more meaningfully. My presentation attempted to bridge intersectionality with radical democratic theory. I illustrated this with the set of progressive struggles that the Swedish political party Feminist Initiative (FI) attempted to construct in their political project during the previous parliamentary election campaign. The causes of feminists, anti-racists, sexual minorities and people with disabilities were discursively articulated under the umbrella term ‘feminist politics’ that FI communicated in their campaign. This brought their project closer to Laclau and Mouffe’s normative ideal of radical democracy – where a chain of equivalence between a set of progressive struggles would be established, leading to a proliferation of voices, identities, and political spaces.

My talk was based on my article with Jakob Svensson (Malmö University) titled ‘(re)Articulating feminism: A discourse-theoretical analysis of Sweden’s Feminist Initiative election campaign’, so be sure to check it out.

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