Imagining Freedom

Activism, Intersectionality and Ethics


Intersectionality has become a contentious topic in recent years, despite the fact that the concept has been discussed for over three decades (Yuval-Davis, 2006).[1] At the core of these debates are struggles over the right to define the experience of oppression and, often implicitly, how they impact on work to alter existing social relations. I am not referring here to the frequent representation of intersectionality as being limited to overlapping, or increasingly specific (in an additive mode), identities. Instead I refer to a concept of intersectionality which developed directly as a response to the failures in identity politics to deal with issues of difference and the barriers this creates to the building of active solidarities within activist circles. It is fair to say that intersectionality, despite a long history, is currently in methodological infancy in terms of empirical research (McCall 2005) and still matter of ontological debate (Yuval-Davis 2006); in terms of the praxis I experience as an activist (as well as being involved in academic work), intersectionality is a key concern. [2]

This intersectionality posits that power structures, and the oppressions and exclusions they create, are mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing – they produce and reproduce each other through a complex set of inter-relations. If we take, as an example, the historical slave trade, it could not have existed without the interwoven, mutually supporting systems of capitalism, racism, imperialism, patriarchy and state control (and this list is not exhaustive). Additionally, there is no way to disentwine these mutually constitutive strands. Patricia Hill Collins (2000) discusses intersectional oppression as being caused by a matrix of domination in which intersecting systems of oppression are specifically organised through interrelated domains of structural (organising), disciplinary (managing), hegemonic (legitimising) and interpersonal power relations.[3]

To understand this conception of intersectionality, we must first begin by understanding that systems of oppression are not hierarchically structured (with a primary oppression and other secondary oppressions). For example, being a disabled working-class woman is not just one mode of being working-class or female; instead there is a complex and entwined system of material and symbolic inequalities and factors which specifically constitute this position. If we reduce these complexities to the idea of a singular primary oppression, then we are, as Yuval-Davis puts it, “render[ing] invisible experiences of the more marginal members of that specific social category and construct[ing] an homogenized ‘right way’ to be its member” (2006, p.195), reverting to and directly drawing upon existing forms of oppressive structuring.

Angela Davis, speaking at Birkbeck’s Annual Law Lecture 25th October 2013, drew on Orlando Patterson’s work to note that “the very concept of freedom which is held so dear throughout the West, which has inspired so many world historical revolutions; that very concept of freedom had first to be imagined by slaves” (emphasis mine).[4] Davis reminds us that it is oppressed peoples who can truly imagine what freedom would mean, what it would actually look like to not be oppressed. These visions of freedom are rooted in the experiences and understandings of what it means to be oppressed, rather than projected assumptions of the meaning of that oppression. So these dreams of freedom derive from lived realities of oppression and also from the ability to see both the conditions of oppression and the conditions of power from a specific Other-insider position, created because oppressed communities and individuals live within the structures, hegemonies and inter-personal relationships created by the powerful (as well as structures and relationships of resistance) and thus can develop a multiple-focal vision of oppression (as Gilroy 1993 argues).[5] Compared to this, the envisioning of freedom from the position of a privileged ally is necessarily unaware of some aspects of oppression and necessarily partial, because the powerful do not have access to the same perspectives and experiences of oppression.

Clearly, there is complexity here; intersectionality reminds us that in interwoven systems of oppression, it is possible (indeed probable) that we will simultaneously be located in relations of both oppression and privilege – in other words, we will be both oppressed, privileged and sometimes oppressive to others. So white, working class gay men benefit from racial privilege whilst also experiencing heteronormative, homophobic and class-based oppressions, and they may express (as examples) sexist, racist or transphobic viewpoints or commit transphobic (or other) violences. So whilst the exemplar men here may experience interlinking oppressions as a working class, gay man, he still has access to (and in this example wields) power within the systems of patriarchy, white supremacy and cis-sexism.

But intersectionality is not just concerned with the interpersonal power relations nor with the ways in which an individual may deploy structural or hegemonic aspects of power. Another concern is how positions are constituted as variably and complexly powerful or powerless and how this affects any consequent imagining of freedom. What is clear from this example is that the imaging of freedom by one group (or indeed one intersectional position, if we take our example of white, gay working class men) does not automatically create a vision of freedom applicable to other groups (female, transgendered or Black people or intersectional combinations thereof). Oppressions are not identical in nature, circumstance or effects.

Intersectionality asks us to take seriously this issue of dreams of freedom, but as explored above, this is not a simple task. But as Audre Lorde (2007) argues, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences […] Difference should act like polarities through which our creativity can spark like a dialectic”.[6] Other groups trying to re-imagine freedom for any particular oppressed group of which they are not part will inevitably re-mould struggles, experiences and solutions in their own image, or rather in the image of the oppressions or privileges they do experience. It is only through working with intersectionality, discussing our alternate dreams of freedom, that we can build a solidarity which does not demand that one group waits longer for their freedom to be realised while other groups achieve their goals.  That is, intersectionality demands not that one group waits its turn (whether on the basis that we cannot achieve all goals at once, that ending one oppression might end another or that one group is mistaken about the root causes of their oppression) but that intersectional activism builds different ways of envisaging the dreams of freedom.

This, then, offers a driving imperative of why we have think beyond representing the struggles of others and focus on creating platforms for the struggles of Others to represent themselves in dialogic and potentially dialectic processes. The importance of dialogism is in seeking to hear the dreams of others and not necessarily trying to assimilate them, but rather ensuring that each position can retain its salience and its specificity. This relates closely to Patricia Hill Collins’ (2000) calls to enshrine alternative epistemologies in our challenges to the status quo, and that such epistemologies build on lived experience and dialogic rather than adversarial positions. Hill Collins also reminds us, however, that alternative epistemologies also require personal accountability, in that the knower must acknowledge their social embeddedness and that this influences the account they can give of the world, rejecting positivistic claims of value-neutral, objective knowledge as being a smoke-screen behind which knowledge producers can seek to avoid ethical and moral accountability.

This point, that we must be accountable, in the real world, for our position and our actions, is key to operationalising this notion of intersectionality.  As Fred Hampton argued:

I don’t care how much theory you got, if it don’t have any practice applied to it, then that theory happens to be irrelevant. Right? Any theory you get, practice it. And when you practice it you make some mistakes. When you make a mistake, you correct that theory, and then it will be corrected theory that will be able to be applied and used in any situation. That’s what we’ve got to be able to do.[7]

This has been my experience of how intersectionality has been operationalised in activist circles – contrary to the presentation of intersectionality by some commentators, discussions rarely rely on assertion of multiple (additive) barriers but rather through dialogic and accountable acts which help develop modes of action.  This is not to claim that people don’t make mistakes, nor that those mistakes don’t cause interpersonal and organisational pain, but that there is (and must be) space for that to be experienced, used as a way of developing intersectional activism.  Making mistakes, learning to recognise those mistakes and addressing them, are key parts of ensuring intersectionality is truly embedded in activist struggles.

If we take Patterson’s argument seriously, then what intersectional activism asks is that we find new ways to develop, share and allow the development and enacting of dreams of freedom. Methodologically, to date, studies of intersectionality have related more to debates about its theoretical operationalising than its actual enactment in activism and social change. This is partly explainable by the attempts by academics to co-opt and decontextualise the phrase away from the realm in which its use presents acute challenges and the most opportunities to advance social change. What I would argue we need, then, is for activists to re-engage with the discussion of intersectionality on their own terms and in terms of practice-related-writing to discuss its actual use in activist settings, rather than being stifled by external demands for epistemological debates, or by theorising in a way which is detached from praxis. There is not space here to begin this task, but I would hope that other activists might take up this challenge to contribute to discussions of intersectionality based on actual campaigns for social change.

Louise Livesey is co-ordinator of Women’s Studies and tutor of Sociology at Ruskin College in Oxford.



[1] Yuval-Davis, N (2006), ‘Intersectionality and Feminist Politics’, in European Journal of Women’s Studies V13(3): 193–209
[2] McCall, L (2005), ‘The Complexity of Intersectionality’, in Signs V30:3, p.1771–800
[3] Collins, P. H. (2000), Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, NY: Routledge
[4] Davis, A (2013), Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Closures and Continuities, Birkbeck Annual Law Lecture 25th October 2013, available as podcast at
[5] Gilroy, P (1993), The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London: Verso
[6] Lorde, A (2007), ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, in Sister Outsider: essays and speeches, Berkley: The Crossing Press
[7] Hampton, F (1969), Power Anywhere Where There’s People, speech delivered at Olivet Church, available at

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