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What They Talk About When They Talk About Intersectionality

A recent panel event featuring the founding mother of ‘intersectionality’ highlighted the promise and peril of our intersectional moment

Cathy Young
January 30, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Is intersectionality the political ideology of our time, a mere buzzword, or a religion? Is it “an attempt to dispense, once and for all, with the cishet able-bodied white male?”Does it represent “everything that is wrong with today’s world,” or is it “the only thing that will save us”? These were the questions posed at the start of last Thursday’s Columbia Law School event titled “Mythbusting Intersectionality” by organizer Kevin Minofu, a postgraduate scholar at Columbia’s African American Policy Forum. Minofu promised that the panel, which included intersectionality’s founding mother, Columbia/UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, would “cut through the noise,” and analyze what intersectionality is and isn’t.

It was an evening with many informative moments and engaging speakers. But two important things were missing:any debate or engagement with critics of intersectional theory, and any substantive exploration of how that theory operates in the real world. The fact is that important events and institutions—from the Women’s March and the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings to the academy—are increasingly shaped and influenced by ideas associated with intersectionality, and while some of those ideas are sound, its track record is decidedly mixed.

Whatever else it is, intersectionality is certainly a hot topic, as attested by the massive turnout: The 180-seat lecture hall had people standing in the back and there were more in an overflow room where the event was livestreamed. The audience was mostly college-age and female-dominated; but there were also quite a few older people from off-campus. These days, intersectionality—a theoretical framework that focuses on “intersections” between different oppressions and identities—is not just the stuff of academic debates. It’s discussed in the mainstream media and invoked by public officials. Progressive politicians claim to champion it—Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat and presidential candidate, recently raised eyebrows with a tweet proclaiming that the future is “intersectional” as well as “female.” Activist movements live by it, and sometimes apparently die by it (see the recent troubles of the Women’s March). Not all the publicity has been positive. Many critics regard intersectionality as deeply divisive and toxic, or even as a breeding ground for anti-Semitism–an issue that also came up at the Columbia event.

“You’re almost talking about intersectionality on trial,” moderator Daniel HoSang, associate professor in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration program at Yale, remarked at one point to another panelist, University of California-Santa Barbara feminist studies professor Barbara Tomlinson. Intersectionality has been blamed, HoSang noted archly, for everything from “ruining the minds of impressionable college students” to “undermining the hopes and soul of progressive politics.” Crenshaw, the original intersectional feminist, spoke of her bemusement at coming across a YouTube video which claimed that intersectionality was all about making straight white men the new pariahs and telling them to “just go somewhere and sit down and shut up.”

Crenshaw’s 1989 law review essay on “the intersection of race and sex” examined how both law and political advocacy can fail “multiply-burdened” individuals such as black women by failing to take into account their different identities. (In one case she discussed, black female plaintiffs could find no redress against their former employer because there was no evidence of discrimination against either white women or black men and thus no finding of either race or sex discrimination.) This is entirely reasonable, and the main thrust of the “mythbusting” event was that intersectionality at its core is still exactly that: an analytic framework for understanding the complex and multidimensional dynamics of power, oppression and identity.

The lawyer on the panel, civil rights attorney Ezra Young, argued that in his own practice, intersectionality was simply a tool to explain why standard discrimination law may not work for plaintiffs who are different from the “prototypical” victim—for instance, for a sex discrimination victim who is a black transgender woman. Crenshaw gave another insightful example, pointing out that most discussions of police violence leave out sexual assault (which usually happens to women) while most discussions of sexual violence leave out sexual abuse by police.

And yet, intersectionality is clearly much more than that. The speakers acknowledged that the theory has journeyed quite far from its roots in legal thought and in black feminism, turning into a far broader prescription for political activism and solidarity among a wide range of disadvantaged groups. In many ways, as HoSang put it, “it’s a stranger to the place where it started.” They also acknowledged that intersectionality can, in fact, become a buzzword or a cachet of “wokeness” and that many progressives who bandy it about don’t really understand it.

That brings us to the elephant in the room: How does it all play out in practice? Could the “myths” be fairly close to the reality? Crenshaw may think it’s hilarious that some people interpret intersectionality as a message to white men to “sit down and shut up”; but not long ago, a sitting U.S. senator, Marie Hirono (D-Hawaii), had a rather similar message, telling men to “just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change” during the Kavanaugh hearings.

Fellow panelist Hannah Giorgis, a culture writer for The Atlantic, may think it’s a “fundamental misreading” of intersectionality to think that it excludes or even vilifies straight white men and other people who don’t suffer from multiple oppressions; but there are plenty of real-life instances in which people deemed “privileged” for their group affiliation are required to act with ceremonial deference or express public contrition in progressive spaces. It may be a total misconception (according to Young) that intersectionality’s purpose is to identify the winners of “the world’s worst contest,” aka the most oppressed; but in actual intersectional activism, moral authority does seem to depend on who is seen as occupying the most downtrodden position. Witness, for instance, suggestions that Jews should mute their objections to anti-Semitism coming from prominent African-American figures because the Jewish community in America is privileged compared to blacks.

The tense relationship between intersectionality and Jews was the main focus of panelist and Lilith magazine digital editor Sarah Seltzer, whose comments on the subject were a striking example of reality avoidance. Seltzer asserted that the numerous articles published in the last year or so about intersectionality’s Jewish problem were partly “provocations that started on the right,” though some people later joined in in good faith. (The collage of headlines projected overhead to make her point included an article in The Forward by Batya Ungar-Sargon, who is anything but right wing, and Benjamin Gladstone’s Tablet essay arguing that intersectionality should include Jews—one can only hope that these writers at least got the good-faith presumption.) Seltzer mentioned “disagreements” surrounding the Women’s March and talked about the challenges of coalition-building. But anyone listening who didn’t know what these “disagreements” were about—serious allegations of anti-Semitism against several Women’s March leaders as well as the organization’s extensive links to the virulently anti-Semitic and homophobic Nation of Islam and its leader, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan—would have remained entirely in the dark.

Seltzer acknowledged that trying to fit American Jews into the intersectional framework was complicated, given that they “benefit from white privilege” but may also face violent bigotry; but, she added breezily, “that doesn’t mean that [they] can’t fit in at all.” (How reassuring.) She also sarcastically remarked that many of the people “trashing intersectionality” were in fact doing intersectional work by asking, for instance, how their Jewish identity interacts with their feminism or progressivism. The “gotcha” moment wasn’t really a gotcha, though, since quite a few or those critics have explicitly said that they agree with intersectional analysis as such and simply want it to include Jews.

This was fairly typical of how the “mythbusters” treated criticism of intersectionality, choosing to caricature it rather than engage with its substance. In fact, the only critic mentioned by name was right-leaning New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan, while skepticism and pushback from within liberal and progressive ranks (from authors like Phoebe Maltz Bovy, for example) were ignored. The caricature—exemplified by the “myths and facts” pop quiz put up on the overhead projector at the start of the panel, in which the “myths” were represented by such obviously tongue-in-cheek statements as “intersectionality is a tool for bullying straight white men”—left out quite a few things. In reality, for example, most people who have written critically about intersectionality are well aware of its dictionary definition; often, they also agree that intersectional theory in its original sense can be valuable. Their issue is mainly with the zealotry, “oppression Olympics” and identity-based bickering that, all too often, go under the “intersectionality” label in practice.

The panelists themselves occasionally dropped hints at intersectionality’s darker illiberal side. At one point, for instance, Tomlinson issued the stern but cryptic warning that white academic feminists writing critically about the work of mostly black intersectional feminists need to be extra careful, since simply “following the normal habits of scholarly writing” could lead scholars to lapse into “false intersectionality” and unwittingly work “in support of subordination.” The suggestion, it seemed, was: Better watch your step, one slip and you’re a handmaiden of the white patriarchy. Later on, replying to a question about intersectionality and young adult literature, Seltzer matter of factly noted that some young adult novels had been “recalled from shelves” due to “serious blunders” in their approach to intersectional issues. It was also revealing that, when a black woman in the audience during the brief question and answer period said she was troubled by intersectional theory’s omission of economic stratification, the only answer was a glib remark from Seltzer praising Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her ability to tackle economic inequality while being “fluent” in intersectional language.

We are in a moment when intersectionality as an idea has intersected with real institutional power and establishment politics. But will it lead us to a more humane society and better politics, or bolster dueling backlashes against liberalism—identity politics from the left and nativism from the right? On this point, the Columbia panel failed to confront the hard questions. For starters, a real conversation on intersectionality should include not only its defenders but its critics. The stakes are too high to avoid debate.


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Cathy Young is a contributor to Reason magazine and an associate editor for Arc Digital. Born in the Soviet Union, she immigrated to the United States in 1980 and is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.