Intersectionality

Jane Coaston wrote at Vox.com on May 28, 2019:

“There may not be a word in American conservatism more hated right now than “intersectionality.” On the right, intersectionality is seen as “the new caste system” placing nonwhite, non-heterosexual people on top.

To many conservatives, intersectionality means “because you’re a minority, you get special standards, special treatment in the eyes of some.” It “promotes solipsism at the personal level and division at the social level.” It represents a form of feminism that “puts a label on you. It tells you how oppressed you are. It tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.” Intersectionality is thus “really dangerous” or a “conspiracy theory of victimization.”

This is a highly unusual level of disdain for a word that until several years ago was a legal term in relative obscurity outside academic circles. It was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap. “Intersectionality” has, in a sense, gone viral over the past half-decade, resulting in a backlash from the right.

In my conversations with right-wing critics of intersectionality, I’ve found that what upsets them isn’t the theory itself. Indeed, they largely agree that it accurately describes the way people from different backgrounds encounter the world. The lived experiences — and experiences of discrimination — of a black woman will be different from those of a white woman, or a black man, for example. They object to its implications, uses, and, most importantly, its consequences, what some conservatives view as the upending of racial and cultural hierarchies to create a new one.

But Crenshaw isn’t seeking to build a racial hierarchy with black women at the top. Through her work, she’s attempting to demolish racial hierarchies altogether…

Before the arguments raised by the originators of critical race theory, there wasn’t much criticism describing the way structures of law and society could be intrinsically racist, rather than simply distorted by racism while otherwise untainted with its stain. So there weren’t many tools for understanding how race worked in those institutions. 

That brings us to the concept of intersectionality, which emerged from the ideas debated in critical race theory. Crenshaw first publicly laid out her theory of intersectionality in 1989, when she published a paper in the University of Chicago Legal Forum titled “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” You can read that paper here.

…In a 2018 clip for Prager University, an online platform for conservative educational videos, pundit Ben Shapiro described intersectionality as “a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depends on how many victim groups you belong to. At the bottom of the totem pole is the person everybody loves to hate: the straight white male.” At the end of the video, Shapiro concludes, “But what do I know? I’m just a straight white male.”

In an interview, Shapiro gave me a definition of intersectionality that seemed far afield from Crenshaw’s understanding of her own theory. “I would define intersectionality as, at least the way that I’ve seen it manifest on college campuses, and in a lot of the political left, as a hierarchy of victimhood in which people are considered members of a victim class by virtue of membership in a particular group, and at the intersection of various groups lies the ascent on the hierarchy.”

And in that new “hierarchy of victimhood,” Shapiro told me, white men would be at the bottom. “In other words, if you are a woman, then you are more victimized than a man, and if you are black, then you’re more victimized than if you were white. If you’re a black woman, you are more victimized than if you are a black man.”

I had sent Shapiro Crenshaw’s 1989 paper prior to our conversation. The paper, Shapiro said, “seems relatively unobjectionable.” He just didn’t think it was particularly relevant. “I first started hearing about this theory in the context of a lot of the discussions on campus, the ‘check your privilege’ discussions. That was the first place that I came across it, and that’s honestly the place that most people first came across it in the public eye.”

…Indeed, intersectionality is intended to ask a lot of individuals and movements alike, requiring that efforts to address one form of oppression take others into account. Efforts to fight racism would require examining other forms of prejudice (like anti-Semitism, for example); efforts to eliminate gender disparities would require examining how women of color experience gender bias differently from white women (and how nonwhite men do too, compared to white men).

This raises big, difficult questions, ones that many people (even those who purport to abide by “intersectionalist” values) are unprepared, or unwilling, to answer. Once we acknowledge the role of race and racism, what do we do about it? And who should be responsible for addressing racism, anyway?

Intersectionality operates as both the observance and analysis of power imbalances, and the tool by which those power imbalances could be eliminated altogether. And the observance of power imbalances, as is so frequently true, is far less controversial than the tool that could eliminate them.”

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