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Intersectionality—A Review

“Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences.”

· 10 min read
Intersectionality—A Review

A review of Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge. Flatiron Books (April 2016) 260 pages.

With Intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge have provided a handy explanation of the theory’s foundational concepts. In accessible language they sketch the history of intersectional thought, provide helpful definitions of its concepts, explain the main debates within intersectionality to outsiders, and competently elucidate the topics with which intersectional theorists are preoccupied. So, as primer on a currently fashionable branch of academic theory, Intersectionality is quite useful.

But if their book is pedagogically valuable, it is substantively objectionable. Perhaps the most striking aspect of intersectional theory is the extent to which it has become a totalizing ideology. Many commentators—critics and sympathizers alike—have often failed to appreciate this. Intersectionality is not just a branch of feminism, a means by which to advance women’s interests, or an analysis of matters of social concern. It is an all-encompassing philosophy that advances a unique politics, metaphysics, aesthetics, and epistemology, as well as its own (rather bizarre) interpretation of history. It is effectively a secular religion.1

The entirety of intersectional theory as explained by Collins and Bilge cannot be easily summarized, even in a long review. But some of its main tenets can be explored and, I hope, refuted. While intersectionality is philosophically incoherent, sociologically mistaken, historically illiterate, and (as I have argued elsewhere) politically dangerous, it nonetheless makes what appear to be strong arguments and offers a superficially plausible analysis of existing social problems. It therefore deserves a fair representation as much as a careful rebuttal.

Intersectionality as Critical Inquiry and Critical Praxis

Collins and Bilge begin with the following working definition: “Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences.” The authors, however, are concerned with just one manifestation of human complexity. They care not for the sort of complexity that is the subject of literature—war, family, and other imponderables of the human condition. They are interested only in the complexity of social inequality, because “people’s lives and the organizations of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other.”2 To understand the human social experience, they argue, it is necessary to understand the multiple ways by which people are oppressed and discriminated against.3 (And as examples of oppressed groups, Collins and Bilge provide the following list: “homeless/landless people, women, poor people, black people, sexual minorities, indigenous people, undocumented immigrants, disabled people, and the young.”) 4

Intersectionality, then, is a theoretical and practical response to oppression. It functions both as a form of critical inquiry—that is, as a way to understand how oppression operates—and as a form of critical praxis—that is, as a way to challenge and eventually overturn the status quo.5 The word ‘critical’ is central to these intersectional definitions, as Collins and Bilge do not employ the term under its ordinary definition. “As used in this book,” they write, “the term ‘critical’ means criticizing, rejecting and/or trying to fix the social problems that emerge in situations of social injustice.”

Intersectional theorists are also critical of what they perceive to be the underlying assumptions of social existence. In their view, the status quo is unjust and overwhelmingly oppressive, so it would be wrong to take its suppositions for granted. Intersectionality therefore critiques all ideas, statements, actions, structures, and institutions that reproduce our society’s unequal and repressive systems of domination. Here we find intersectionality’s most obvious debt to Marx, whose project was, in part, an attempt to discredit and overturn the underlying assumptions of the classical economists; for Marx, any analysis of capitalism that did not challenge or undermine it only served to further bourgeois interests. Later Marxist theorists developed the critiques of ‘ideology,’ defined by Terry Eagleton and other Marxist thinkers as the set of ideas that help legitimate and thus perpetuate the domination of the ruling class.6

In Intersectionality, the authors provide their own critique of ideology (in the Marxist sense)—specifically of racist, sexist, and classist ideology. Of course, any such critique necessarily raises the fundamental question of epistemology: What can we know, and how can we come to know it?

Intersectionality and Epistemology

Collins and Bilge do not spend much time on intersectional epistemology, so we are left to infer what they believe from passages scattered throughout their book. It isn’t that they find epistemology unimportant; they just presuppose a certain set of beliefs about it, probably in the interest of brevity. Nonetheless, the question of how intersectional theorists understand the acquisition of knowledge and the pursuit of truth explains much of what they assert elsewhere, so teasing out the authors’ epistemology is an important task. Much of it can be accomplished by a close reading of the third chapter, in which Collins and Bilge examine the history of intersectional theory itself.

“The histories that most people learn in school,” they write, “typically agree upon points of origin, key figures who played important roles, and noteworthy events that fostered some important outcome. Students take exams that test them on the so-called facts and write term papers on their meaning.”7 (Notice the appearance of that sinister phrase “so-called facts.”) They continue: “These authoritative versions of history may be widely accepted, yet these straight-line renditions of history typically include some groups at the expense of others and emphasize certain experiences over others.” Collins and Bilge note that, for most of American history, the “narratives” of “propertied white men” were privileged at the expense of everybody else’s.

Much of what follows in this chapter is uninteresting: A series of quotes from intersectional scholars calling out other intersectional scholars for failing to include this-or-that marginalized group of people in their “discourses.” More important to bear in mind is that, for Collins and Bilge, “All discourses come from a particular standpoint.” In their formulation, the words or thoughts of particular individuals are simply products of their group-identity’s narrative, whether it be their gender, race, sexual orientation, et cetera.

Here one might raise all the usual philosophical objections to relativism. If all knowledge is just the subjective product of an author’s race/class/gender, then why should we listen to any one person over another? Wouldn’t the narrative of a white male be just as useful—or just as useless—as that of a black female? How does one square intersectional relativism with intersectionality’s absolutist rhetoric of social justice? Why is social justice preferable to social injustice? And, if there is no capital-T Truth, independent of personal identity and ‘lived experience,’ then upon what basis does intersectionality purport to offer an accurate analysis of the world?

Intersectionality and Popper’s Paradox
At the height of the Cold War, Western Marxists foresaw that the opportunity for an armed socialist revolution was bleak.

As best as I can discern, Collins and Bilge would reply that the dominant ‘narratives’ in our society are those of straight, white, wealthy, able-bodied, cis-gendered men, and that social equality can only be achieved by democratizing our sources of knowledge production. “[The discourses] of black women are often obscured,” they explain, so it is incumbent upon activists to emphasize them. For Collins and Bilge, feminist standpoint epistemology is a precondition for social justice. Implicit in their politics, therefore, is a rejection of the objective truth that the Enlightenment philosophers endeavored to uncover and describe—a truth, in other words, which is attainable through reason and intelligible to everyone.

Intersectionality and Politics

Departing from more abstract philosophical insights, the authors arrive at intersectionality’s political project: Radical egalitarianism. Throughout their book, Collins and Bilge aver that intersectionality is designed to abolish all systems of oppression, which must be accomplished by a thoroughgoing equalization of society. Their goal is to attain equality of social, political, and economic outcomes for every marginalized group.

Such a project, they explain, is incompatible with ‘neoliberalism,’ given the inequality of outcomes that capitalism necessarily produces. For Collins and Bilge, neoliberalism is a veritably wretched system. They fault it for enabling a long list of crimes, from facilitating sexual violence against female garment workers in the Third World, 8 to the “coercive turn” that many “democratic states have taken” that has increasingly led them to “use force to compel their citizens to obey.”9 Neoliberal politics must be overthrown; to replace it, the authors advocate a form of “participatory democracy,” which is never clearly defined, but which we might reasonably infer means redistributionist economic policies combined with anti-racism and anti-sexism. They do not bother to acknowledge, still less to respond to, the most common argument marshaled in defense of capitalism—namely, that free markets have nearly succeeded in eradicating extreme poverty worldwide.

In fact, Collins and Bilge spill very little ink responding to critics of intersectional politics generally. This was probably a wise decision, because when they do make the effort it is embarrassing to behold. For instance, during a discussion of the socialist critics of intersectionality—many of whom argue that intersectionality is an intellectual toy for privileged professors and a distraction from the urgency of class struggle—Collins and Bilge scornfully note that such qualms are disproportionately voiced by “white feminists.” They go on to write that, “…the resistance, even downright hostility, which some white feminists express toward intersectionality in the name of populism or socialism indicates a tricky interaction wherein racism masquerades as class politics.”10 Passages like this one should dispel the notion that intersectionality is compatible with a healthy, open discourse in our universities.11 It isn’t only campus activists who deride critics of intersectionality—including leftist critics—as bigots and racists. Even the intellectual titans of the movement surrender to such tactics.

In Intersectionality, then, one encounters everything that conservatives, centrists, moderate progressives, and classical liberals find most objectionable about the radical identitarian Left: Vehement opposition to capitalism, a rejection of objective truth, a dogmatic commitment to the politics of identity, the replacement of religion with an all-embracing political theory, a subtle (and at times not so subtle) hatred of groups perceived to be dominant, an inability to disagree with others in good faith, and a willingness to dismiss opponents as racists and sexists.

Out of Intersectionality

If intersectional theory is unable to provide a plausible interpretation of the world, it does at least offer a point of departure for further discussion. An intersectional analysis could, for instance, lead us to ask why it is that one finds similar demographic trends across many Western societies, where the very poor are often black or brown, the very rich are often white, and the rulers are usually male.

However, raising important and interesting questions is not the same as offering convincing answers. Intersectional theory ultimately fails to provide a compelling account of all the causes of human inequality, whether among individuals or between groups. It assumes a unidirectional exercise of oppression wherein inequality is created capriciously from above and imposed cruelly on those below. Such a framework falls apart when we analyze the groups that shatter this analytical lens: Young women are outpacing young men in educational achievement;12 Asian-Americans are out-earning white Americans; black immigrants are out-earning native whites in the United States;13 and so forth.

Despite Collins and Bilge’s claim to be identifying the complexity of human social relations, intersectionality views inequality in simple-minded terms, invariably attributing all inequality to a conspiracy of systemic oppression. Nowhere in Intersectionality’s 200-plus pages is any mention made of the internal causes of inequality. Cultural differences among races and nations are elided; so too are differences in interests and desires between men and women.

If intersectionality is to be replaced, its critics must offer a more compelling theory of inequality. Fortunately, such a theory is readily available: It is expressed in the empirically based work of scholars like Christina Hoff Sommers, Glenn Loury, Steven Pinker, and others who understand the multi-causal nuances of inequality, far better than intersectional theorists.

It is clear that the intersectional dismissal of internal explanations for inequality comes from a stubborn insistence on the ‘Blank Slate’ theory of human nature.14 To intersectional theorists, it is axiomatic that in the absence of discrimination all groups would attain perfectly equal outcomes—a belief for which evidence is never provided, and which was long ago shredded by the research of economist Thomas Sowell.15 The fact is that groups won’t ever be the same in the absence of discrimination because they remain different in innumerable other ways.

More fundamentally, the thought of Collins and Bilge rests on a utopian desire to abolish all inequalities that leaves no room for the pursuit of a better world or positive-sum reform. These are endeavors in which we must all be involved, as co-operative agents with a broadly shared understanding of what constitutes human well-being. Instead, intersectional theorists strive to create a perfect world on the basis of a jaundiced zero-sum view of human relations—a project that all people acquainted with the relevant evidence should reject.

References and Notes:

1 This observation is not lost on all critics. See: John McWhorter “Anti-racism, Our Flawed New Religion.”
2 Intersectionality p. 2
3 Ibid. p. 3
4 Ibid. p. 160-1
5 Ibid. p. 32-3
6 For more on the Marxist critique of ideology, see Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism and Roger Scruton’s essay “Clown Prince of the Revolution.”
7 Intersectionality p. 63
8 Ibid. p. 145
9 Ibid. p. 138
10 Ibid. p. 112
11 Conor Friedersdorf, Ian Storey, and Chris Martin have made arguments to this effect. I responded in a previous Quillette piece, “The Illiberal Logic of Intersectionality.”
12 See: “Young women are getting richer, as young men get poorer
13 See Coleman Hughes’ “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap
14 You can see the Blank Slate theory stated rather plainly in Intersectionality p. 177. Of course, the definitive rebuttal to Blank Slatism appears in Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
15 See especially: Wealth, Poverty, and Politics by Thomas Sowell

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