Intersectional me

Terri Li discusses her inspirational story of identity and acceptance as part of 'Untold Pride' 2021. Terri shares the discrimination and obstacles she faced and overcame on the path to embracing all facets of her unique, intersectional identity and encourages people in a similar position to seek community and support.

A woman with brown hair in a ponytail and light brown skin sits in a boardroom among other people. She smiles and is gesturing outwards, clearly speaking to the room.

The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality, a term coined by American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw, as “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 fabric of our identity is constructed by where we sit within each of those groups, and the harsh reality of the world is that for some people their intersectional identity places them at an increased disadvantage. 

Growing up

I am a 27-year old bi-racial woman, who also identifies as pansexual.

I grew up in working class Bradford with my mum’s white British side of the family. My father was a first-generation Ghanaian immigrant in Great Britain. This places me within the 1.2% of the population of Great Britain that identify as mixed race.

The estate I grew up on, and the children I went to school with, were predominantly white. My brother, sister and I were, at one point, the only Black children in the area.

This wasn’t without challenge for us, and as children we struggled to understand why we didn’t fit in with our peers.

It became apparent as we grew up that we would always be “the Black kids” on the street that people didn’t rush to make friends with.

Discrimination based on our race was given to us as a birth right, sometimes even from our own family, and we had to accept from a very young age that nothing we could do would ever place us at the same level of acceptance as our white peers.

As we headed into our teenage years, our community became more diverse and we were able to connect with people that “looked like us” more easily.

Having spent our entire existence trying to fit in with the people around us, and more often than not still feeling ostracized, we thought we had found our home as we made more diverse friends.

We quickly realised that, again, we wouldn’t fit in here either. We were met with comments such as “you’re a coconut” and “well, you’re not really black are you”, instantly placing us again as outsiders by the people we had desperately sought to engage with.

To the world at large, we were Black. We experienced discrimination in the same way as our Black peers yet, to our Black friends and family, we were never quite Black enough; quite literally placing us in the grey area of race identity.

Naturally, this provided the unique challenge of not quite knowing where we 'belonged', and I did everything I could to fit in with those around me. 

Burning the curls from my hair, refusing to engage in my African culture, spending all of my spare time in ballet school with my white friends to prove I could do it too.

I’m ashamed now to admit that I made a conscious effort to conceal a huge part of my identity.

Knowing that every day was an act of concealment of my true self undoubtedly took a toll on my mental health and I was diagnosed with depression aged 14, which is not uncommon for mixed race children, who are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues than their single race counterparts. 

Embracing Blackness and queerness

Around this time, as most teenagers do, I was becoming more familiar with my sexuality and I quickly realised I wasn’t quite meeting the linear in that area of my life either.

I was very aware that there was simply too much work to be done to fit in already, so I supressed my sexuality for as long as I could.

I didn’t have the energy to understand and work to accept that part of myself and had fears that the communities I was finally starting to feel accepted in would reject me.  

I had heard and seen many people around me make the tough choice of choosing their Blackness or their queerness, and I had seen very few examples of people embracing both. 

I knew I wanted to work in the legal industry, but I had fears that there wasn’t space for someone like me in this setting and was constantly searching for someone who looked like me for mentorship without success. 

Walking into the chapter of adulthood presented me with an opportunity to make a decision about where I would go next, who I would be, and, like many, I had grown tired of hiding parts of who I truly was. 

Learning how to love my bi-racial self was a cathartic moment for me and I finally felt as if I didn’t have to sacrifice one part of my identity to be proud of the other. It was this self-realisation that gave me the space to explore my sexuality. 

I am proud to say that this summer I celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary with my wife on Pride weekend, and that both sides of my family support my marriage.

I am very fortunate that coming out didn’t further ostracise me and in fact the confidence living my authentic life gave me, allowed me to develop my relationship with myself and others.

It's true that I was the first bi-racial family member and the first openly queer family member, but it's also true that I was the first family member to graduate university twice and work in the legal industry, which was once a thought that was unachievable.

My intersectional identity felt limiting for many years, but as I grow and learn I embrace all parts of myself and feel proud that these are the things that make me unique. They taught me resilience, perseverance and ultimately confidence.

I hope that to the young bi-racial queer people of the country, I can one day show them that they are accepted for all parts of their identity and that there is space for them in all settings. 

Hope for the future

I hope that our next generation of lawyers know that there may not always be one person who shares your intersectional identity and lives with all parts of themselves proudly.

There are many resources available to those who are seeking to understand elements of their identity more in depth.

Having ventured on my own journey of self-acceptance and understanding, my advice to others would be to look for safe spaces in network groups within your firms and the Law Society. 

The Law Society network groups publish many useful blogs within their respective sectors that are incredibly informative.

You can also check in on their podcasts and events both in person and online. It also helps to try and identify people who role-model the behaviours you seek to embody, rather than to seek out a singular role model who matches your intersectional identity.

The truth is, there won’t always be one person that ticks all of the boxes and is the 'perfect match' and that is the beauty of our unique and intersectional selves. 

To learn more about the Law Society’s diversity and inclusion work and network groups, follow the topic via their website.  

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