Having gestated in academia, Intersectionality has escaped into the broader world. It’s a foundational doctrine of third-wave feminism. It’s long had its own study group—the section on race, gender, and class—within the American Sociological Association, with an intellectual heritage in works by Patricia Hill Collins and Evelyn Nakano Glenn that preceded Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 coinage of the i-word. Intersectionality has garnered increasing attention in the past few years, but its big coming out party occurred in December of last year when Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY) tweeted that “our future is … intersectional.”
Our future is:
Powered by our belief in one another.
And we’re just getting started.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) December 5, 2018
So it was timely that Anne Sisson Runyan published a primer in the November-December 2018 issue of Academe entitled “What Is Intersectionality and Why Is It Important?” Runyan does a good enough job of defining Intersectionality, but I honestly wish it were a little less important: as it’s typically practiced, Intersectionality is an intellectual straitjacket and an albatross for activism.
Intersectionality has its roots in both scholarly and activist worlds. By the 1980s, some activists had come to believe that feminism was too oriented to the concerns of white middle-class women. On the academic side was an increasingly nuanced understanding that social class confounded almost any empirical observation about race. By this time scholars were also thinking about the feminization of poverty (represented, in the developed world, by the proliferation of mother-headed families).
As told by Anne Runyan, Crenshaw’s neologism emerged from her study of the unique threat that United States immigration law posed to immigrant women married to American men. Continued residence in the United States required these women to stay married and living together, even when threatened by domestic violence. Put another way, the intersection of two identities (immigration status and sex) creates a unique risk for some women. This is a noteworthy observation, but it’s not immediately apparent why it calls for a new word. Would Crenshaw’s observation be less convincing without the pseudo-theoretical overlay? I suspect not.
Intersectionality implies that differences exist when in fact they may not. Runyan devotes some time to developing the idea that men and women of color experience different kinds of racism. “Gender,” she writes, “is always ‘raced’ [sic] and race is always gendered.” Yet a cursory inspection of American history reveals countless cases where this was not the case. Suppression of African American voters under Jim Crow was not gendered in any meaningful capacity. To focus on gender here is to lose sight of the appalling injustice.
Perhaps it makes more sense to treat Intersectionality as a hypothesis rather than an epistemology: it may or may not hold true for any particular set of conditions. Under this understanding, Intersectionality better describes the plight of immigrant women married to abusive American men than for the injustice of blacks being denied the franchise in Jim Crow America. The facts of the case, empirically investigated by social scientists, can reveal whether an instance of injustice is indeed intersectional.
Some scholars have shown support for Intersectionality using quantitative data. Sociologist Landon Schnabel examined how gender differences in income vary by religiosity, and found evidence of Intersectionality: high-earning men are more religious than low-earning men, but low-earning women are more religious than their high-earning counterparts. Another empirical inquiry comes from Chicanx and Latinx studies scholar Alejandro Covarrubias. Among Latinx, social class, gender, and citizenship status all have distinct effects on educational attainment. One could also imagine rigorous testing of narrow Intersectionality-inspired hypotheses using qualitative data, perhaps via analytic induction.
Despite its demonstrated utility for testing the precepts of Intersectionality, quantitative research fails to pass muster with many intersectional scholars. Some view quantitative methods as ideologically incompatible with intersectional research: statistics are “positivist” or “patriarchal.” It’s evidence for this contention that two different Intersectionality manifestos speak of quantitative research methods as the “master’s tools.”
But does research like Schnabel’s and Covarrubias’s truly represent a test of intersectionality Is Intersectionality really just concerned with how bivariate relationships are contingent on an additional factor or two, or is it a larger project? In other words, who all is invited to the intersectionality party? Runyan isn’t particularly clear on this point, with maddeningly variable lists of categories:
- “racism, sexism, and classism”
- “race, gender, class, and national origin”
- “not only on race, normative gender, class, and nation but also on sexuality, nonnormative gender, physical (dis)ability, religion, and age”
- “racism, classism, neocolonialism, xenophobic nationalism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, ageism, Islamophobia, and ecological destruction”
- “race, national origin, sex, or sexuality”
- “women, racial minorities, sexual and gender minorities, foreign nationals, the disabled, and so on”
- “race, class, citizenship status, and sexuality”
- “gender and other social categories”
As a social scientist I’m naturally resistant to analytic constructs with amorphous definitions. There are also practical problems with an approach that mandates balkanization, or what sociologist Andrew Abbott once flippantly derided as the “lets-make-it-all-contingent-so-we-can’t-interpret-anything-at-all” approach to data analysis. National quantitative data offer an effective means of producing population estimates, but just plain lack the sample sizes to study wealthy white lesbian immigrants—or just about any social group circumscribed by the myriad tenants of Intersectionality. Qualitative data analysis offers an excellent way of studying such a population, but under Runyan’s expansive definition fails as a test of Intersectionality: how would we know if wealthy white lesbian immigrants differ substantively from wealthy white lesbian natives, wealthy white male homosexual immigrants, and so on? Exploring all the categories mooted by Runyan would surely exhaust any ethnographer. Ultimately scholars must rely on Intersectionality by fiat, not scientific inquiry.
But scientific inquiry isn’t necessarily what Runyan has in mind. The sub-title of her article references the “fight for social justice,” not academic research. Most of the time, Intersectionality is just code for a set of beliefs: suspicions of quantitative scholarship (“the master’s tools”), an inchoate criticism of capitalism (derided as “neoliberalism”), a fairly radical view of subjectivity, and a cosmology of race that’s more Coates and less McWhorter.
That having been said, Intersectionality may undermine any activism that truly embraces it, because it highlights division rather than unity of purpose. In January of 2017 millions of people participated in the Women’s March, united in support of women’s right and opposition to President-elect Trump. The vast majority had little awareness of the titular national organization and newly valuable media property. In due time its leadership became riven by anti-Semitism and racial identity politics. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait chronicled a similar fate for a closed Facebook group called Binders Full of Women Writers, which degenerated into scurrilous accusations based on race and social class. Of course these divisions may well have developed in a world without intersectionality, but why make them doctrine? Perhaps this has been on President Obama’s mind in his frequent denunciations of identity politics, most recently in a speech in South Africa to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. “I detest racialism,” Obama quoted the great man as saying, “whether it comes from a black man or a white man.” In a moment of unwitting self-parody, activist Tamela Gordon recently rejected intersectional feminism for being too white.
The second half of the twentieth century produced emancipation movements that attained stunning gains for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and gays and lesbians. These movements succeeded because they weren’t intersectional. None, of course, was fully successful, and each produced its discontents; perhaps the most well-known example is the sexism in the leadership of the Civil Rights Moment. This was regrettable, of course, but hardly impugns the broader enterprise. Conversely, opposition to the Vietnam War cost MLK supporters, as did the Poor People’s Campaign in the last year of his life (It’s besides the point that both strike me as laudable endeavors.)
The lesson to draw is that cohesion matters for social movements, and intersectionality threatens that cohesion by highlighting what’s different about all of us rather than what we all have in common. If the future is truly intersectional and female, does that mean Senator Gillibrand is going to get re-elected without the benefit of male votes? Intersectionality may hold a little more promise for scholarly research, but not without sharply limiting its scope. Somehow I sense this is what Kimberlé Crenshaw had in mind all along.
Nicholas H. Wolfinger is Professor of Family and Consumer Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah. He is currently working on a book about the changing economics of single motherhood. Follow him on Twitter at @NickWolfinger
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.