Identity Politics: Intersectionality

Here, a brief post concerning a TED talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality.

I just delivered a paper at a conference here in Boston that took up all of the time I wasn’t devoting to my family or to my schooling, so I’ve been negligent with getting parts three & four of the “Impact vs. Intent” series out. In the meanwhile, something about intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a strange word. I see it on people’s Facebook profiles: their political affiliation? “Intersectional feminist”. It seems that this word “intersectional” was invented by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

The people I know who try to explain this phrase to me suggest things that seem ludicrous, so I had avoided looking into Crenshaw and intersectionalism because of my experience with these people, not one of whom, in my experience, has ever read a serious book on ethics. When reading Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff’s fantastic The Coddling of the American Mind, however, they said some good things about Crenshaw and her work:

In the decades after [a 1965 article by Marcuse], a variety of theories and approaches flourished on campus in humanities and social science departments that offered ways of analyzing society through the lens of power relationships among groups. [Haidt gives examples.] One such theory deserves special mention, because its ideas and terminology are widely found in the discourse of today’s campus activists. The approach known as intersectionality was advanced by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA (and now at Columbia, where she directs the Center on Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies). In a 1989 essay, Crenshaw noted that a black woman’s experience in America is not captured by the summation of the black experience and the female experience. She made her point vividly by analyzing a legal case in which black women were victims of discrimination at General Motors even when the company could show that it hired plenty of black people (in factory jobs dominated by men) and plenty of women (in clerical jobs dominated by white people). So even though GM was found not to have discriminated against black people or women, it ended up hiring hardly any black women. Crenshaw’s important [68] insight was that you can’t just look at a few big “main effects” of discrimination: you have to look at interactions, or “intersections”. More generally, as explained in a recent book by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge:

Intersectionality as an analytic tool examines how power relations are intertwined and mutually constructing. Race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, ethnicity, nation, religion, and age are categories of analysis, terms that [refer to] important social divisions. But they are also categories that gain meaning from power relations of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and class exploitation. [Collins & Bilge, 7]

Intersectionality is a theory based on several insights that we believe are valid and useful: power matters, members of groups sometimes act cruelly or unjustly to preserve their power, and people who are members of multiple identity groups can face various forms of disadvantage in ways that are often invisible to others. The point of using the terminology of “intersectionalism,” as Crenshaw said in her 2016 TED Talk, is that “where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem, and when you can’t see a problem, you pretty much can’t solve it.” [Haidt & Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, 67-68]

Now, Haidt & Lukianoff were concerned about the popular interpretations of Crenshaw’s intersectionalism on campus, which “teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression as ubiquitous in social interactions”, and this “turn[s] tribalism way up.” [Haidt & Lukianoff, 68] They also think that intersectionalism “can be taught skillfully, as Crenshaw does in her TED Talk. It can be used to promote compassion and reveal injustices not previously seen. Yet somehow, many college students today seem to be adopting a different version of intersectional thinking and are embracing the Untruth of Us Versus Them.” (This “Untruth of Us Versus Them” is one of what Haidt & Lukianoff call “the three great untruths“, and Haidt covers it for a few minutes in several of his YouTube videos.) [Haidt & Lukianoff, 71]

So I thought: why not give Crenshaw a go? Here is her TED Talk:

I don’t usually embed video, but there was one problem that she treated well: invisibility. Invisibility seemed the key word for me; the key problem is the invisibility of people whose suffering we have no good labels for, and this happens when they overlap two categories.

Krenshaw has authored a book on intersectionality here; as it’s not out yet, I cannot read it. She does have a short (less than two minute) video on intersectionality here:

She suggests that intersectionality can help us to understand how disadvantages can “compound themselves” to make things more difficult for people who are not the target of certain forms of directed social affection and action — the social movements and legislation that aim to combat racism or sexism, for example, may not “see” the particular issues faced by black women, for example. The people in this category become invisible with regard to the particular issues they face. She does not offer this label for the sake of fueling the culture of victimhood, but for creating equal opportunity: she wants educators and administrators to think about the way that the sufferings and difficulties of some people may be invisible under the terms of consideration and care we are used to bringing to bear on social issues.

I am willfully rephrasing some of her language, because, on the whole, it seems to aim at very good things for which it has some infelicitous language. “Frames”, for example, is a term she uses in the TED talk, and I’m not sure it deals well with the kind of legislative simplicity and over-simplifications that create the employment problems with which she opens the TED talk.

I have seen teachers (and students who are teaching) attempt to explain intersectionality in a classroom, only to end up creating empty Venn diagrams for students to fill out regarding the parts of their identity — which is usually assumed to begin with their race, sexuality, gender, and wealth or privilege (&c., &c.). This kind of activity can sometimes have its benefits for a soul here or there, but it must be stressed that this kind of cartoonish, divvying-up, itemized self-exploration-running-the-risk-of-becoming-self-absorption runs rather counter to the whole point of Crenshaw’s language, which is about overlapping categories —legal categories, and presumably cultural ones, as well— of disenfranchisement, rendering one invisible — which is not about self-exploration, but about naming the demons. Sadly, for most people, understanding will only come to the degree that one shares similar wounds, so the Venn diagram version of intersectionality only assimilates a foreign and invisible experience to the familiar terms of social media drop-down boxes. It gives no insights into something new, and does not develop the kind of sensitivity that intersectionality seems to assume that one brings into a situation; it only reinforces what is familiar, and equips future educators and activists with a social-media-identity comic template that merely apes actual understanding — and apes badly. Cartoonish templates can never simulate the real understanding that comes from a wound, and wounds cannot be taught.

I recommend you watch the TED talk. We should care for people, and if you find something in there that helps aid your intelligent love, it will be worth the 18 minutes it took you to watch.

Just don’t put “intersectional” down as your political stance on your Facebook page.

13 thoughts on “Identity Politics: Intersectionality

    • We have categories in our heads that are inevitable; we navigate the world with and through them. Sadly, the singular forms of suffering that are out there often lack categories, or else the categories we attempt to put them in will not accommodate them. I’m not sure that it comes down to layers of discrimination; we all make decisions and are forced, thus, to make discriminations of all sorts (I like this person and not that person, will marry so-and-so and not marry indiscriminately, &c.). All forms of togetherness require us to cultivate habits that can be more or less inclusive, but the more inclusive we are, the less intimate; all organic life-communities (like the family) necessarily seek more intimacy than the most inclusive habits would allow. In a pluralist society we are always rubbing up against alien life-communities, and alien discriminations, or else familiar ones that are incompatible with inclusive aims and ritual habits. We are in thr middle of a very novel pluralist social experiment that requires us to be aware of what we are doing, but we are usually not. Modernity is hard work, and the left and right seem primed for over-easy solutions to tough problems, over-easy solutions that will solve nothing.


      • Unfortunately many who have never experienced discrimination or bigotry often pretend it doesn’t exist or actually believe it doesn’t. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know you have one. Did you ever find out if our family tres are connected? We had a conversation about that a while back on your, “About” heading on your blog.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, to all of these points about bigotry.

          –and no! I dropped the ball, and became engrossed in other projects. I meant to pay someone to do some digging. Thank you for reminding me! My salary bumps up in September, and I’ll get on that then. You can hold me to it! :-)

          Liked by 1 person

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