Portrait: The pioneer of intersectional analysis

2016-10-25 13:35

Diana Mulinari is a pioneer when it comes to intersectionality. She and her colleagues Irene Molina and Paulina de los Reyes are known for having introduced the concept in Sweden with their anthology Maktens (o)lika förklädnader. This was in 2002 and Sweden was not yet ready to open its eyes to the intersection between racism, class and gender that the researchers pointed to in the book.

Diana Mulinari has a PhD in sociology and works as a professor of gender studies at Lund University. And intersectionality remains important to her. Not just as a tool useful in academia, but also as a tool that is crucial in order to understand what goes on in the world beyond single-dimensional explanations pre-occupied with notions of power and gender alone.

‘Mostly men try to get to Europe and end up drowning in the Mediterranean due to Sweden’s and the EU’s refugee policy. The flight is partly caused by the military interventions that are legitimising the global colonial expansion. If we want to understand and change this tragedy, we need a new way of thinking that does not over-focus on power and gender. What we need is intersectional analysis.’

Introduced intersectionality in Sweden

But Diana Mulinari, Irene Molina and Paulina de los Reyes’ introduction of the intersectionality concept was not exactly smooth. Instead they met strong resistance, expressed in an unwillingness to acknowledge the interaction between racism, the patriarchy and capitalism. Diana Mulinari believes the denial may have an explanation.

‘The denial was also a strategy to avoid recognition of forms of nationalism that aimed to make Sweden’s own racial formation invisible. To not acknowledge the Swedish colonialism, racial biology, antisemitism and racism against the Roma.’

In my first university course in gender studies in the early 2000s, we read Maktens (o)lika förklädnader: Kön, klass & etnicitet i det postkoloniala Sverige. This is the book that introduced the concept of intersectionality in Sweden. However, postcolonial theory was rather absent overall. Something Diana Mulinari says has changed for the better since then.

‘A radical and very positive change has occurred in the field. Not least the dialogue between queer and postcolonial researchers is very promising.’

But intersectionality discussions are also characterised by frequent misunderstandings, she says. The misunderstandings can be avoided if people together, in dialogue with each other, apply intersectionality in the struggle for a better world. To her, it is simply a matter of willingness. At present, however, she can see reluctance from both liberals and parts of the left wing.

An intersectional analysis shows that the claimed universalism of the human condition is European, male coded and heteronormative.

‘The resistance is illustrated for example in the debate on identity politics. The liberals are questioning the right of the social movements to identify and name specific types of oppression. An intersectional analysis shows that the claimed universalism of the human condition is European, male coded and heteronormative. Which questions the universalism upon which they have based their entire understanding of the world.’

She finds it more difficult to understand the leftist group that keeps criticising intersectionality and identity politics.

‘That particular part of the left perceives identity politics as a rejection of and disidentification with what they believe to be the true class struggle. Yet racism is the means by which many people experience class, and transgender persons are not only being threatened every day but are also excluded from the right to work. This is why identity politics based on an intersectional understanding of social relations is necessary. It names the specific forms of pain that various groups experience. Coalitions are not possible without identity politics. Without identity politics, class merely becomes a place where white male heteronormative petty bourgeoisie romanticise the time in history when there was a true working class: without women, without gay people and without people of colour.’

Useful for social movements

However, in her world, intersectionality is by no means reserved for the academic sphere. On the contrary, it is applied materially also outside an academic world. As in the work of local government officials and in broad social movements.

‘Refugees Welcome, one of the most beautiful social movements of our time, goes back to an intersectional analysis.’

Today racialisation is a concept that is used in both academia and elsewhere in society. There are many interpretations of the concept. According to Diana Mulinari, racialisation is a process that creates different categories of people based on constructs of race and nation. To her, it is important to emphasise the role of the state, and what she refers to as its biopolitical agenda in its creation.

‘I prefer to use the term racialisation as a verb instead of a noun. Racialisation as a process interacts with various forms of racism in order to position people. Islamophobia does not arise based on colour of skin alone, but also through the understanding of Europe as white and Christian.’

Class is important to Diana Mulinari but does not suffice without an understanding of the forms of exploitation and oppression that originate from colonialism and the patriarchy. In the current discourse on oppression, some people talk about privileges and about acknowledging one’s privileges. I ask whether it would be better to utilise one’s privileges to accomplish good things.

‘Without a doubt. The best example is Paulina de los Reyes, who will travel with Ship to Gaza in solidarity with people who every day are subjected to an unfair blockade. Or the thousands of activists who are trying to protect refugees from racist migration policy.’

Before we end, I ask what to do when you are fatigued and just cannot keep it up anymore. What do you do to be able to keep pushing forward in a world that constantly demands sharp analyses of class, sexism and racism.

‘I go home, have a Coke, eat candy, sleep and watch TV. I know others will carry the load in the meantime. That others will be able to dream when I’m not.’

Author Sara Abdollahi, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Lund University
Diana Mulinari chooses:
Three authors I like: Ta-Nehisi Coats, Johannes Anyuru, Jeanette Winterson Three theorists who inspire me: Gloria Anzaldua, Arturo Escobar, Frantz Fanon Three artists I listen to when I need to get fired up: Nina Simone, Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez I overuse: Sorry! One word I wish could apply to the world: Hope
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