Photo take in Hoedspruit, South Africa. Aerial shot of people in a trailer being hauled by a tractor.

Social Justice and Intersectionality

by Caroline Wanjiku and Katja Holtz

Insofar as United Nations Observances serve as springboards for awareness-raising actions, we would like to take this World Social Justice Day (20 February) to explore ways of reframing social justice in the migration space.

Working with Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality, we consider a holistic kind of justice. Examining the questions: how does one remain conscious of difference, of the need for specific kinds of justice, without privileging any one group? Further, how might one acknowledge difference without reifying said differences?

Intersectionality and holistic justice

Intersectionality is among the most pressing and difficult issues in the pursuit of social justice today. Coined by Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality describes how various protected characteristics (age, race, gender, religion, disability, etc) interact and “intersect” with each other. In practice, intersectionality means that misogyny is not experienced equally by Black women, white women, trans women, poor women, disabled women or indeed by men or gender non-conforming folks of any creed.

For justice, this means that the liberation of one group must be understood as the liberation of all groups. Justice for migrants must also mean justice for host communities. Not only because a flourishing host community benefits migrants directly but also because these categories are constantly shifting. Migrants are not just defined by their migrant status, they are also parents, children, business owners, who may be homeless or live in deprived neighbourhoods. As such, they may share more protected characteristics with hosts. By privileging their ‘migrancy’, we displace what they have in common with host communities, and reinforce the us/them binary that sometimes leads to hostility and xenophobia. In fact, in some contexts, justice for migrants might mean making their ‘migrancy’ invisible.

Yet policy frameworks and bureaucratic practices have historically been designed around identifying, and providing for, populations of concern. Indeed, until recently, the majority of those displaced found themselves in camps, built specifically to address their needs. With more and more migrants and refugees moving to cities in search of protection and economic opportunity, they live alongside hosts who share similar aspirations and challenges. 

In this context, focusing entirely on one group of protected individuals may be easier than the alternative, but it creates the conditions for social unrest. For instance, where both host and displaced populations are equally deprived, privileging migrancy over other shared identities undermines migrants’ protection by creating divisions and competition between communities. By not addressing intersectionality, social justice advocates can inadvertently create conditions for othering that have dire consequences for displaced populations. Social justice silos create perverse incentives to compete, disaggregate, separate. In the process, we lose focus on the intrinsically holistic nature of social justice.

Intersectional justice 

In a world where the majority of migrants live in the cities of the Global South, research has found that often the best way to protect migrant populations is to address host population’s concerns too. By prioritising initiatives designed to elevate vulnerable populations regardless of protected status—refugee and/or urban poor—organisations come closer to realising justice than when they single out groups for attention.

Bearing intersectionality in mind, we might be forced to innovate, to reprioritise and reframe our approaches. Our research has revealed a number of key conclusions about the best way to achieve intersectional justice like we’ve described, where it is most needed. For instance, rather than relying on refugee protections, which are often weakly enforced on the ground, thinking creatively and strategically for back routes to those same protections. Targeting initiatives that refugees and hosts have in common is often a much more reliable way of assuring the rights of refugees, without drawing attention to, or alienating them for their status.

Similarly, prioritising host-migrant solidarity elevates community building between ostensibly diverse groups based on their shared characteristics. Whether it’s a love of music or a shared religion, or the need for a safe neighbourhood, good schools or clean water, there is much that brings host-migrant individuals together. The evidence suggests, solutions that centre around these relationships are more likely to be self-sustaining. Perhaps because they draw on bonds of shared aspirations, needs and joy. 

Keeping in mind the way that experiences overlap and intersect across vulnerable groups allows us to act with empathy and compassion, elevating society as a whole in our pursuit of justice.