Diverse voices: Stephanie Matthews on intersectionality

There's more to people than meets the eye and we're all a product of several facets.

The industry now needs to turn fine words about diversity into action that creates change. Campaign asked a broad range of adlanders at different career stages to share their personal stories and plot ways forward from their experiences

Where are you from?

The innocent question, with the loaded answer. The simple answer would be Watford but it can also be interpreted as: "You’re not white, so where do you actually come from?" 

Without context, it’s often a loaded question because I’m too dark to be white yet too light to be black or Asian. I look mixed-race, because I am. It’s also a question my white colleagues rarely feel uncomfortable answering because, for them, more often than not it’s usually a simple answer. 

If I’m feeling facetious, I’ll usually respond with: "I’m from Watford at the end of the Metropolitan Line." If I can see they have a positive intent, I’ll give them the information they asked for. I was born in Watford, my mum is Indo-Guyanese, of Indian descent, yet raised in British Guyana at the northern tip of South America. So technically from the West Indies. My mum came to the UK in her twenties, where she met my dad, a white, Essex geezer, at nursing college. I’ve lived in Hackney, via six years in Melbourne, for the past 13 years. So here is the full answer: Indian, Caribbean, Guyanese, English, British. But that doesn’t define me. Why? Because I’m from Watford. 

However, heritage to me is a complex beast. Being "other" has meant having to blend in to fit into the prevailing white culture. I remember being younger and calling myself "peach-coloured" because using the term "brown" had negative connotations. I was called a Paki by a kid on the same street as me and was totally confused as I had nothing to do with Pakistan. The colour of my skin wasn’t something we spoke about positively in my family. My mum was on an assimilation mission. We, as in myself, my brother and my mum, had to fit in so we wouldn’t stand out. My mum wanted me to have access to as "normal" an upbringing as possible. 

This mindset naturally sat with me as I entered work because we’re all a product of our learned behaviours. I would often give a smile to the other brown faces around me – back then, I noticed they were mainly found in the service areas such as the post room, the snack trolley, the canteen or security, which further compounded my feelings of imposter syndrome for getting myself into the advertising research team. 

Times have changed since then – we even have a mixed-race Duchess. Finally, I can proudly say I have different ethnic influences that define me, and not be embarrassed. I’m not alone, either. According to the 2011 census, 2.3% of the population (England and Wales) identify as mixed race, and this has almost doubled since 2001 when mixed-race categories were introduced, suggesting you’re going to see more people of mixed ethnic backgrounds and heritage in every part of society.

But no-one is defined solely by race because of intersectionality. This is a theory I came across only recently, and if you don’t know it, read the dictionary definition on intersectionality first: "The interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage." 

The word was coined by the US legal scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberley Crenshaw in 1989 but I first heard about it when Sereena Abbassi, worldwide head of culture and inclusion at M&C Saatchi, spoke about it on a panel at a Bloom event – The Myth of the Difficult Woman, in 2018. Then, the incredible Lady Phyll, co-founder of Black Pride, also spoke about it at the 2019 BloomFest conference last October. 

In layman’s terms, intersectionality means there’s more to people than meets the eye, and that shapes their experiences and how they engage with the world. 

My multi-ethnic background alone means you can’t put people in a box based on just race. And intersectionality suggests that we’re a product of several facets. For me, personally, I’ve got lots of boxes to tick because I’m a woman, I’m brown, I’m gay and I come from a working-class background. They all influence the Stephanie Matthews you see here today. 

Why am I telling you my story? It’s to make two clear points, inequalities exist and there are multiple consequences from this that have an impact on all aspects of life. 

So we have to embrace this. Awareness is the first step. Those from multicultural backgrounds have had different lived experiences, and if you want to better understand different perspectives, check out the Privilege Walk video. It’s a conversation starter we use at Creative Equals in our Action on Bias workshops. I’d never seen it before I started working there but it blew my mind – plus there are even several biases going on within it (do you notice the coach is biased?). 

With this in mind, and knowing that only 1% of women from multicultural backgrounds are in a leadership role across the advertising sector, according to Creative Equals research, it’s time to take action. Check your biases. Put the effort in to create more representative workforces. Upskill your teams to deal with those that are different from them. It will make them deeper and richer, more impactful and insightful, producing better-quality work and driving more profitable returns. 

Stephanie Matthews is partnerships director at Creative Equals and 2019 president of Bloom UK

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