Identity, intersectionality and isolation

Kitchen table blues

she retires to her kitchen

for the comfort and the warmth

it is her den, her study and her workplace

she reads, she listens to music and she cooks the family meals

but

there are also ghosts in this kitchen

spirits who visit and sleep between the pages of her books on her desk:

there is Madame Bovary who lingers when she cuts the onions

and permeates her kitchen with the cloying odour –

the inevitability of domesticity

the stinging tears that longs for escape

from provincial life,

the ever encroaching bourgeois-dom.

there is Anna Karenina who infuses the air of romance

and whips up dreams of the realms of passion

as airy as any pavlova,

she has no panache for this just desert,

not the spirit to macerate the forbidden fruit.

there is Sylvia Plath who stirs the creative juices

and stews the existentialist doubts

the restless search –

her genius for self annihilation

a feast yet to be served in her kitchen.

Audre Lorde

I was first told about Audre Lorde by a Malaysian theology student writing a thesis on forging an Asian perspective on local Christianity in the 1990’s. He told me about her paper ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’. Of course his context was post colonialism and western Christianity.

This was before the internet was available to me – I didn’t see the original paper, I didn’t know the paper was actually about feminism: feminist discussion of the personal and the political.

At that time, I was learning to balance my different identities: mother, expat wife, foreigner, Chinese, Malaysian British – and disabled, a wheelchair user in a city full of cobbles.

I didnt know anybody else who shared those identities. I mixed a lot with expat wives struggling in a French city trying with the language, the system and the culture. But nobody else among my circle of friends was disabled.

With hindsight I can undertand why I was struggling and how it put a strain on my relationships – in particular with my ex husband. I was struggling with my political understanding of disability and realising that I had been in denial about it and my new feminism. And these new understandings was because the internet had started a new source of information for me. I had  started a MA on English Literature with Open University while I was in Strasbourg. My dissertation was on Mary Hays who was hugely influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings . Both Mary Hays and Wollstonecraft were advocates of women’s rights in the eigtheenth century. These new exploration and study threw up many personal questions and in effect, made me feel very isolated because I did not have any one to identify with and certainly no role models.

Anyway those years gave me the insight of how it feels to be in a strange country where you do not have a good grasp of the language and they look down on you especially when you have a brown skin. And having a disability did not help the whole process of claiming a self identity away from a spouse who thinks your problems and mental health issues are all in your head and if you pull yourself together – it will be much better for the family.

Let me illustrate with an example. I was signing a sale contract for a flat we bought as a couple, the notaire said right in front of me to the vendor and my white husband (who has a plum job and semi diplomatic status) – that they would want to protect the value of the building and not have the building invaded by odours of foreign cooking. I could not believe my ears not that my husband did not object to what he was saying but complicitly nodding his head. It was as though I wasn’ t there – even when it clearly said on the deed that at least half the property was in my name. I did not raise it afterwards with my husband when we got home I had put it down to the racist attitudes in Alsace – at the time, I just did not question that more insidious type of racism closer home.

This type of experience helps me to understand some of the feelings of immigrant women, women who experience domestic violence (it does not have to be physical violence), and those with mental health issues. Its not one thing at a time – it can be and have a cumulative effect. You experience prejudice and discrimination from all directions even from places you do not expect.  People, and yes women too, of priviledge do not understand. I have had it said to me that we are discriminated against because of disability but surely we do not need to provide for the gender difference? Really?

This is where I learnt about intersectionality before I even know the word. Disability and a ethnicity cuts through all class systems: the discrimination persists – it doesn’t matter how many qualitications I have or even what my financial status is. They see a disabled woman of colour and they make their judgement on that.

some reading for consideration

Pay Gaps Across Equality areas (pdf)
Why are vulnerable women still being jailed? (Guardian)

The involuntary sterilisation of children with disabilities should be challenged
1 in 2 and 77.7p – gender, disability, violence and pay gaps (blog)
Disabled Women and Domestic Violence: Responding to the Experiences of Survivors (book)
As a black feminist, I see how the wider movement fails women like my mother (Guardian)

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4 Responses

  1. Maria says:

    Wow. Thank you for writing this Elle.

  2. Gaya says:

    Wow Eleanor, I did not even know you had a blog! Thank you so much for sharing. As a result of being as personal as it is, many people can relate to these intersectional discriminations and the psychological violence. You can never tell which identity is going to be used against you…it is tiring to always be on the guard. But when the person whom you love and trust literally stabs right through your heart, it is absolutely awful and perplexing. I hope many people read your story – You have been through adversities and came out of it as a disability rights advocate and your voice has the immense ability to empower many others who may have similar experiences or struggling with discrimination. Continue writing….much love.xx

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