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Our Discussions of Intersectionality Are Going Nowhere. Here’s Why.

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Although intersectionality did not emerge as a reaction to Donald Trump—Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw debuted the concept 30 years ago—it’s safe to say it has entered the mainstream in the last few years. But with this new attention comes new inattention—as critics grapple with the concept, some of them inevitably characterize it in ways that are completely alien to its original design.

Crenshaw’s insight was that you can’t look at injustice along a single dimension. Injustice, to put it one way, is not monolithic. It is differentially experienced. How so? A black woman experiences racism differently than a black man, such as when the mistreatment she suffers blends both racism and sexism, and she experiences sexism differently than a white woman, such as when the sexism she faces has a racial component the white woman does not have to endure.

Most people I talk to don’t have a problem with this rather anodyne insight. It seems perfectly sensible that the identity layers giving rise to who we are would each have their share of social vulnerabilities, some more than others.

But here is where things get a bit strange. Not content with confining intersectionality to the above characterization, critics stretch its meaning so that it now includes some highly questionable conclusions.

I’ve seen it defined, for example, as the view that there are entire topics, perhaps entire subject matters, that only black people can talk about. But this criticism relies on projecting a scary version of this thesis in place of the rather sensible one that intersectionality requires. The scary version is: here are all these discussions, all these topics, all these conversations, all these insights…that only black people can have. The sensible version is: if you accept the empirically unremarkable fact that a black person’s set of experiences will, because of a variety of social dynamics, be interestingly different from a white person’s experience set, then it follows that black people will have a perspective built out of experiences a white person will not have had, and vice versa.

Is it technically true that a white person won’t be able to talk about what it’s like to grow up black and poor (even if they’ll be able to talk about what it’s like to grow up poor)? Yes, but, why is this controversial? When we move away from the scary version of this claim, we’re left with a version of it that is manifestly reasonable.

Or how about the claim that the more oppressed identities a person can stack up, the higher their moral worth? Again, there’s a version of this claim that goes well beyond anything championed by the major insight of intersectionality, and there’s the innocuous version. An example of the extreme version comes to us by way of a teaching assistant who tweeted about giving black female students priority in class discussion over white male students. Intersectionality obviously doesn’t require this. So, what’s the sensible version, then? The idea that, if we accept that certain members of society are likelier to be disadvantaged, or whose identities are correlated with fewer social advantages, then we should be sensitive to these realities and take special care to undo some of these disadvantages.

Which of the two versions of this claim do you think gets amplified? The one that can be leveraged into a, “See, this is what they all think!” narrative.

This is “nutpicking,” Kevin Drum’s term describing the practice of curating fringe representations of a particular view and intentionally promoting them as mainstream. As this site’s editor put it:

We fail to accurately represent the world when we reify insignificant instances of misbehavior into widespread societal patterns signaling the annihilation of values and principles and identities we hold dear. We need to studiously guard against taking statistically infrequent instances of bad behavior and constructing macronarratives about how This Is How The West Dies. We need to make sure that whatever we’re suggesting is a problem is actually a problem and not simply a bunch of occurrences fully expected and unremarkable given the size of the population and other innocuous factors.

When I reflect on the many statements and actions that get labeled “intersectional,” it strikes me that they either have nothing to do with intersectionality or they’re simply misapplications of the idea. We’re painted a picture of intersectionality as a seriously ugly thing, but what characterizations like this ultimately reveal is the extent to which many of us are just talking about very different things. That’s the most reasonable conclusion I can draw from the experience of being informed of intersectionality’s monstrous nature, being assured it’s there, relentlessly harming and ruining society, and, yet, when I look for this terribly destructive idea inside the concept of intersectionality, I can’t seem to find it.

When I talk about intersectionality, I’m referring to the idea that social oppressions—defined as prolonged unjust treatment—intersect and affect people in qualitatively different ways. A black man’s experience of racism in football (or in the other football) will be different than a black gay man’s experience, which will blend in homophobia as well. What this means is programs aimed at racism on the one hand, or homophobia on the other, may see people falling through the cracks, often unintentionally. Their attempts to rectify an injustice cannot, often by design, include particular cases in which other vulnerable identities are also in play.

Critics characterize intersectionality as the privileging of some identities over others. So, being black, or Hispanic, or LGBTQ, or Muslim is supposed to confer a special social status, and associated privileges, over people who are white, conservative, and Christian. And the more of the special identities you can plausibly claim for yourself, the greater the social distance you can put between you and others who belong to the dominant classes. That’s what intersectionality is said, by its critics, to be really about.

But this is a distortion. I don’t say that because people who behave in ways that reflect the above can’t be found. They can. But why are they allowed to speak for us all? Why do they get to exemplify intersectionality? When a black professor claims to have felt joy at seeing a homeless white man, that’s disgusting, and intersectionality does not entail taking such a stance. Intersectionality doesn’t involve exulting in white shaming; it refines our conception of injustice so that we come to have a more accurate view of the differential way it can manifest itself in people’s lives. It makes the rather sensible point that marginalization is not all of a piece, and solutions will need to be tailored to the specific ways in which this phenomenon affects people in society.

Intersectionality is just a term we use to refer to social phenomena that have been happening for a long time. Women had hoped Reconstruction would usher in their right to vote, but it didn’t, and it’s worth noting that the vision of Seneca Falls (1848) did not materialize in the post-Civil War era. They would have to wait until 1920 for that. But it’s also worth noting that Seneca Falls did not have black women in view. So we have three identities—black men, black women, white women—whose social positions were underprivileged (to say the least) and our attempts to remedy these problems were ill-equipped to do so for those living out these identities in layered, overlapping ways.

The vast majority of social justice-minded people I know would think it’s plainly wrong to laugh at a homeless person because they’re white. But we find one person who did so I guess The Intersectionality Movement as a whole applauds this behavior. Come on.

My view is that people who self-identify with a term, and conceive of their activism or beliefs using a particular label, should be granted the opportunity to define what that term or label means. Obviously, if their usage is idiosyncratic, we need to look instead at what beliefs or actions the term is being used to sanction in society. But I suspect many anti-social-justice people likewise get upset when someone who, say, is a stalwart defender of free speech but is also avowedly white supremacist has his words, beliefs, and actions held up as What It Means To Defend Free Speech. Those who are free speech crusaders without the morally despicable white supremacism will feel greatly harmed when the very worst actors are used to depict the pro free speech camp. Here’s the thing: this sort of thing is also deeply annoying to every sensible social justice activist who has no interest in trashing a white homeless person, yet finds his or her intersectionality reduced to “eliminate the whites!

On the other hand, my attempt here isn’t simply to say: none of you understand us! This isn’t a simple case of intersectionality’s critics egregiously misrepresenting everything while intersectional approaches to activism always produce the best attitudes and behaviors. Saying something like this doesn’t get us anywhere either.

In a sense, this issue is an indictment of our inability to trust those on the other side to be reasonable actors. I can tell you to talk to those you strongly disagree with and see what they really believe, but that gets us nowhere if we’re thinking those reasonable people are the exceptions in their ideological camps.

Intersectionality, both in its original design and in the intellectually responsible way many use it to frame their understanding of the world today, is not the destructive force it is often depicted to be. There are bad actors out there, that is true. But letting them define what intersectionality, or social justice more broadly, gets to be is certainly an effective weapon in the culture wars; it’s also a way to ensure none of us will ever get anywhere in our discussions.

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