Boxed

Perhaps one of the strongest themes to emerge from this collaboration is our individual and collective resistance to the social and political categories that ‘box us in’, that serve constantly to remind us of our place, how we should – and shouldn’t – behave and be.

As women.

As mothers.

As migrants.

As people from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

As people from different professional backgrounds.

At seemingly every turn we are required to comply with the expectations of others. These different identities interact and intersect with one another in complex ways. What does it mean to be a Black woman? A white woman? A teenage mum? A female artist? A female professor? What expectations are placed upon us? Which of these do we take on and allow to shape who we are? Which do we push against and resist?

For the refugees and migrants with whom we both work, the expectations and assumptions of others – lawyers and judges, policy makers and politicians – about what it means to be a ‘refugee’ or a ‘migrant’ have real and often serious consequences. Fitting a box, a category, can mean the difference between being allowed to stay or being forced to leave. Between being with your family or separated from them indefinitely. Between having rights and opportunities or being made destitute or detained. Between being alive or dead. Like all categories the legal and policy categories that shape the lives of those who move are deeply contested, reflecting who asks the questions, whose story is heard, who has a voice. And what colour or nationality we are. Whilst some people are able to move with relative ease, waved through immigration controls without questions or visas, the experiences of others are very different. From Windrush to the Mediterranean ‘migration crisis’ the ability to move is deeply racialised.

Categories are, of course, important as a means of organising the social world in which we live. As such we will never be able to get rid of them. The problem is not categories per se but rather the fact that not all categories are equally recognised or valued. The differential value assigned by society to different categories is rooted in power and deep seated inequalities. Categories are not natural, neutral or simply descriptive. They are highly value-laden and they have consequences, particularly for those for whom these categories determine access to social/legal protection and rights

For us too, categories have consequences.

They open up some opportunities whilst closing down others, sometimes simultaneously. The privileges of being white intersect with poverty and patriarchy in ways which limit the opportunities of women everywhere. For Black women the inequalities of being female intersect with race and poverty in even more complex ways. It’s perhaps not surprising that the idea of intersectionality, coined and elaborated by the brilliant Kimberley Crenshaw, has been ever present in our discussions.

The pieces that have stemmed from these discussions reflect these intersections. From the layering of our identities in Making me and Blackness to the ways in which people try to label us from a very early age shaping the people we become in Shoes to the resistance and refusal to submit to other people’s expectations of us or apologise for the people we are or want to be in No apologies and Break every chain. There’s inevitably a strong cross over with the pieces of work that have emerged in relation to the theme of Resilience but that’s exactly the problem of categories and trying to box things in…

Wordsmith: Heaven Crawley

Photographer: Heaven Crawley

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