»Using theories to change our world«

For many, intersectionality is only a theoretical concept - Emilia Roig's aim is to change that. With the Center for Intersectional Justice, CIJ for short, she wants to change the way discrimination is understood and tackled in European societies. Emilia Roig is one of the three new Ashoka Fellows in Germany.
Emilia Roig

Ashoka: In 2017 you founded the Center for Intersectional Justice, or short CIJ. Help us understand: What is intersectionality?

 

Emilia Roig: Intersectionality is a theoretical term that describes the overlapping and interlocking of different forms of oppression. This means that discrimination and social inequality do not occur on one axis only - gender, skin colour, religion and so on do not stand alone. Intersectionality is about fighting discrimination within discrimination, making inequalities within inequalities visible and strengthening minorities within minorities and making them visible as well. It is more than just a theory, it is a movement, a political project.

 

It still sounds very theoretical. Do you have a practical example?

 

Take the feminist movement. It is primarily a movement that represents the voices, needs and interests of the so-called majority woman, the woman who has the political, cultural and economic power in this country. In other words: the white, heterosexual, middle-class woman. From the perspective of intersectionality, the aim is to make other women visible within the category of women. That they can be heard and represent the feminist movement in the same way. If a white heterosexual middle class woman stands for feminism, the same should apply to a black trans woman in a wheelchair.  

 

How did you come to found the organisation?

 

Before I founded CIJ, I worked for the GIZ in Cambodia for a year and a half. I was with Amnesty International in Germany and for the UN in Tanzania. Everywhere I was frustrated because I didn't see how changes could be driven forward and how colonial patterns could be broken. I am not saying it is impossible, but I did not see my role there. Afterwards I did my doctorate. That time was very important for me because it was the time when I woke up politically. I discovered theories such as intersectionality and postcolonial theory, which I had hardly any idea of until then. But I also realised that these theories were far removed from society and politics. That's when the idea of founding CIJ came to me: To use the theories because they are helpful and subversive to change our world. And to exchange ideas with political actors, so that problems are not just presented in a simplified way and solutions become more holistic and thus more effective.

 

What exactly does your work look like?

 

The CIJ is based on three pillars. Advocacy, research and education. In the field of advocacy we try to influence political discourse and political decisions - not only in Germany, but also on a European level. We talk to decision makers and change the discourse through lectures, panel discussions and publications. In the area of research we conduct studies on behalf of partner organisations. In the area of continuing education we offer workshops for private, public and civil society institutions. The aim is to promote structures free of oppression and discrimination through inclusion, diversity and equality.

 

The German Ashoka team has done such a workshop with you. I found the question interesting, when was the last time each of us was discriminating. When was it you?

 

That happens all the time, although I don't mean to be, of course. Recently, at an event, I said: 'Are we blind or why can't we see that?' Then someone approached me and said that it was disabling. At first I was ashamed, but then I realised: yes, that's absolutely true. Since then I have been more attentive to language. We have internalised so many things so easily and use terms without thinking about them. I also have to constantly counteract the racism, sexism and homophobia that I have internalised.

 

One concept that is currently the subject of much debate in this country is race. Should it be deleted from the Basic Law, as some people have called for?

 

I am clearly against deleting race from the Basic Law. Because race in German is, understandably, a very uncomfortable term because it is occupied. We associate race with the Third Reich and the genocide. The term race should be deleted because it belongs to the past. But I am convinced that if you delete race, you will also eliminate today's racism. First and foremost, we should deal with the unease that such a term causes.

 

One of the things that makes me uncomfortable is that children are always very direct when they meet others. Big bellies are commented on, as is a wheelchair. How can – or rather should – parents behave when it comes to intersectionality?

 

Our first reaction would be to say: No, no, you don't say something like that. We tend to deny the difference or simply not to address it. But we should not ignore difference, we should focus on the hierarchy. That thick is less good than thin, white better than black, handicapped less good than not handicapped. If my son says in the underground: 'Look, that man there is fat', then I reply: 'Yes, he is fat. I try to help him to see the differences, but not to judge them. In order for children to appreciate differences, they have to experience that everyone is different. Intersectionality is just that: seeing and appreciating differences, and breaking down hierarchies.

 

You grew up in France – a country with many colonies, banlieues on the city limits, conflicts, disputes, ... In the meantime you live in Germany – a country with a Nazi past that for decades ignored the fact that it is a country of immigration. How do you perceive both countries in terms of intersectionality?

 

In that respect, they hardly differ at all. Both countries have a problem with racism. Germans find it very difficult to talk about racism because of the Nazi past, because today's society wants to distance itself from it. France's motto is Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – in other words, freedom, equality, fraternity. We do not want to recognise differences. In France, the colonial past and present cannot be denied. The country's violent history is, in my opinion, not being sufficiently dealt with. Martinique, for example, where part of my family comes from, is still a colony. And there is still systemic oppression on the island, which is directly linked to slavery.

 

When you look back to the beginnings of the CIJ – what has been the greatest success so far?

 

I wanted intersectionality to be used in a subversive and transformative way. And I think that we have come a long way in achieving that. We have found a way to take everyone along and still remain radical. Yes, radicals are also negative in our society, but we need this deep and determined approach, because being radical means nothing more than 'grasping things at the roots', as the American civil rights activist Angela Davis once said.