Activism, Education, Privilege, Recommended

Reflections on Intersectionality

Inspired by the fallout from a recent Twitter thread posted by Sarah Haider, I’d like to offer some passing thoughts on intersectionality. Originally conceived by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way of highlighting bias against black women that did not fit neatly into the category of either racism or sexism, intersectionality has since expanded to include oppression based on class, LGBTQ, disability status, and so forth. The basic idea is that when two or more dimensions of oppression coincide in the same person (say, a black woman), she not only faces “double-discrimination” (racism and sexism), but she may also face a third kind of discrimination which is not reducible to the other two. Put simply, oppression is more than the sum of its parts.

Crenshaw’s original intent was narrow. She did not mean for intersectionality to become an all-encompassing thought system with its own epistemology, politics, aesthetics, and more. Indeed she has distanced herself from some of intersectionality’s modern purveyors, criticizing those who see it as a “grand theory of everything.” Nevertheless, that is exactly what it has become. The main problem with intersectionality is that it’s an armchair philosophy. Its purveyors do not look at the social world, gather evidence about it, and formulate theories based on what they see. Instead, they pontificate about the world from a distance.

As a result, intersectionality does not describe the real world very well. It’s not clear, for example, that black women are worse off than black men. Yes, black women are far more likely to suffer domestic violence and rape (two issues that Crenshaw highlighted in her original 1989 paper). But black men are far more likely to suffer incarceration, murder, and suicide. Moreover, black women have closed the social mobility gap with white women, while black men still lag far behind their white counterparts. Going further back in history, it was overwhelmingly black men, rather than women, who were lynched by white mobs in the Jim Crow era.

My point is not that black men are worse off than black women; my point is that the question is hard to answer. Different forms of suffering cannot easily be quantified and compared. Rather than attempt what would be a difficult but interesting comparison, intersectionalists simply assert a priori that black men only suffer from one kind of oppression whereas black women suffer from three. This oversimplified, algebraic approach to prejudice ignores most of what happens in the real world.

Intersectionality also presupposes that people of color have unified interests, because they are all similarly oppressed by “white supremacy.” Since Hispanics, blacks, and Asians all suffer from white supremacy, the thinking goes, they’re united in opposition to the interests of whites. But consider immigration—anti-immigration measures have been popular among blacks and whites, but not among Hispanics. As the political scientist Eric Kaufmann observes in his book Whiteshift, in 1986 two-thirds of blacks in California voted “yes” on Proposition 63, which made English the official language of the state. Less than a decade later, a majority of both blacks and whites voted to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants under Proposition 187. In short, contrary to what intersectionality predicts, blacks have tended to align more with whites than with Hispanics on one of the most important political issues of our time.

Or consider affirmative action, which benefits blacks and Hispanics but disadvantages whites and Asians. Because Asians are included in the umbrella term “people of color,” intersectionality indicates that their interests ought to be aligned with blacks and Hispanics. But reality is more complicated, as evidenced by the affirmative action lawsuit filed against Harvard by a group of Asian students (with support from conservative whites).

As Haider argued in her thread, intersectionality’s intellectual flaws translate into moral shortcomings. Importantly, it is blind to forms of harm that occur within identity groups. For a black woman facing discrimination from a white man, intersectionality is great. But a gay woman sexually assaulted by another gay woman, or a black boy teased by another black boy for “acting white,” or a Muslim girl whose mother has forced her to wear the hijab will find that intersectionality has no space for their experiences. It certainly does not recognize instances in which the arrow of harm runs in the “wrong” direction—a black man committing an anti-Semitic hate crime, for instance. The more popular intersectionality becomes, the less we should expect to hear these sorts of issues discussed in public.

Perhaps the most pernicious consequence of intersectionality, however, is its effect on the culture of elite college campuses. Some claims about “campuses-gone-crazy” are surely overblown. For instance, judging from my experience at Columbia, nobody believes there are 63 genders, and hardly anyone loves Soviet-style communism. (That said, the few communists on campus tend to despise intersectionality with an unusual passion.) But one thing is certainly not exaggerated: intersectionality dominates the day-to-day culture. It operates as a master formula by which social status is doled out. Being black and queer is better than just being black or queer, being Muslim and gender non-binary is better than being either one on its own, and so forth. By “better,” I mean that people are more excited to meet you, you’re spoken of more highly behind your back, and your friends enjoy an elevated social status for being associated with you.

In this way, intersectionality creates a perverse social incentive structure. If you’re cis, straight, and white, you start at the bottom of the social hierarchy—especially if you’re a man, but also if you’re a woman. For such students, there is a strong incentive to create an identity that will help them attain a modicum of status. Some do this by becoming gender non-binary; others do it by experimenting with their sexuality under the catch-all label “queer.” In part, this is healthy college-aged exploration—finding oneself, as it were. But much of it amounts to needless confusion and pain imposed on hapless young people by the bizarre tenets of a new faith.

Nevertheless, intersectionality is preferable to what exists in much of the world. For example, in parts of the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, rural America, and many other places, gay people face immense amounts of pressure to pretend that they’re straight. That’s a much larger problem, comparatively speaking, than what’s happening on elite campuses. At the same time, elite campus culture is overcorrecting for more traditional forms of identity-based oppression by giving cis-straight-white students—or at least those among them who are embedded in the intersectionalist subculture—a choice between being honest with themselves and being held in high esteem by their peers. Ultimately, we should want to create a culture that does not provide strong incentives for people to be anything other than who and what they are.

I don’t know what proportion of students at elite schools are part of the intersectional subculture. But it is common enough that I never go more than a few days without encountering it. As a crude point of comparison, I’m more likely to meet a committed intersectionalist on any given day at Columbia than I am to meet a committed vegetarian, and much more likely than I am to meet a committed Christian.

It is this last observation that leads me to believe that Kimberlé Crenshaw’s impact as an intellectual is vastly understated. She may not have intended to, but she created an ideology that birthed a large and influential American subculture. Several intellectuals can boast of having had an impact on the culture of intellectual-types—the kind of people who voluntarily read long essays in Quillette or the Atlantic. But very few intellectuals—not Ta-Nehisi Coates nor Jordan Peterson nor Peter Thiel—can claim to have created a unique subculture that has engulfed substantial numbers of “normal” people.

 

Coleman Hughes is a Quillette columnist and an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Spectator, City Journal, and the Heterodox Academy blog. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman

Featured Image of Kimberlé Crenshaw courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Flickr)

Comments

  1. Identity politics is inherently divisive. Extremely divisive.

    Left-wing politics attempts to exploit identity politics, but it has a problem with the fact that identity politics sets its many constituencies against each other. “Intersectionality” has become a prominent recent effort at uniting these constituencies against their common enemy: The Right.

    The “problem” that the Left faces is mutual exclusivity. The interests of specific left-wing people often conflict. “Intersectionality’s” entire definition is that it is the assertion that different left-wing people should set aside their personal interests and unite against the Right.

    This is doomed to fail, with the Twitter thread featured in the article being a common example of that failure. The Left is intensely jealous, being built on relative rather than absolute measures of prosperity, and the left-wing language used to promote intersectionality soft-pedals the fact that it means that some Leftists’ interests will be sacrificed for the benefit of others. Leftists who attempt to practice “intersectionality” quickly notice that some of them are getting the short end of the stick relative to people in other identity groups.

    They are never happy about that.

    Identity politics is evil. Full stop. “Intersectionality” is not a solution to its inherent malignancy.

  2. Thanks to Coleman Hugues for this balanced, limpid analysis. It’s truly useful, and that’s the kind of thing I’ll mention to students in some of my courses.

  3. Is intesectionality really that different from identity politics as a whole? It’s all left wing guff, in which people are judged not on their character but on their characteristics.

  4. The problem with intersectionality is that it is a straightforward combination of racism and sexism. It ‘works’ to a limited extent in areas where its core sexist and racist assumptions are broadly accurate and fails completely when they are not.
    In Britain the lowest achieving group educationally is poor white boys - what is the policy response? To direct more resources at girls! The reality may be different in different countries ut in Britain the most significant disadvantage anyone can have is by a long wat being poor and the most significant discrimination faced by any group is being male which will see you receive inferior health care, fewer educational opportunities and if you should ever get into trouble less assistance and far longer prison sentences. Intersectionalities rigid racist and sexist assumptions simply makes things worse.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Hughes, for another interesting article.

    It is indeed astounding that one’s social status at Columbia is now associated to one’s victimhood –– I wonder where such an incentive towards masochism is going to lead these young people.

    Whatever happened to people’s status being linked to their accomplishments, their knowledge, and their beliefs?

  6. Great job Coleman. I think you’ve perfectly captured the philosophical flaws with the theory.

    In terms of the practical issues though, I think you’ve missed the most important problem: The problem is when intersectionality combines with collectivism.

    The concept of intersectionality might be ok if it was just used on a purely individual basis, where the individual in question has actually experienced a specific kind of marginalization (for which there is clear publicly verifiable evidence). But that’s not what’s happening. It’s being used to suggest that ALL black women have this particular status, simply for being black women. It doesn’t matter what’s happened to them as individuals. If Obama’s daughters go to college, they’ll be inducted into this just as much as someone who comes from a poor neighborhood in Detroit. Their goal is not to describe reality accurately. Their goal is get as many followers as possible.

  7. Good essay, but I’m going to nitpick. Hughes states: "For example, in parts of the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, rural America, and many other places, gay people face immense amounts of pressure to pretend that they’re straight. "

    “Rural America” is hardly on par with parts of the Middle East or Africa in its treatment of gays. I’m pretty sure Hughes just tossed that out because of a perception that “rural America” is filled with idiot bigoted rednecks. I wish people would be careful with casual assumptions. I taught in a rural part of America and the students there were like students anywhere, albeit poorer. I mean, I’d be willing to accede to the assumption that gay people there face “immense amounts of pressure to be straight” if there were studies, although again hardly on par with, say, parts of the Middle East. But if I had to guess (it’s just a guess), I’d say inner cities with high African American populations have more gay people pretending to be straight than rural white America. (Which also runs against the intersectionality religion.)

  8. Another insightful article by Coleman Hughes!

    This is particularly apt:

    intersectionality’s intellectual flaws translate into moral shortcomings. Importantly, it is blind to forms of harm that occur within identity groups. (…) It certainly does not recognize instances in which the arrow of harm runs in the “wrong” direction

    How true. A core characteristic of intersectionality is the refusal to recognize human beings as individuals. Everybody’s value is just assessed by the intersection of their group memberships. Who cares whether somebody has a good character, has personally experienced much suffering or has made great efforts to make the world a better place? Or the exact opposite? All this is overlaid by the character of the groups to which the individual belongs. And the assignment to these collectives is usually based on unchangeable biological properties. Moreover, these groups are always defined as inherently good or evil. Among other unpleasant things, the consequences include reverse sexism, racism and all other kinds of hate mongering directed against these groups considered inferior. Haven’t we been through this before?

  9. …she not only faces “double-discrimination” (racism and sexism), but she may also face a third kind of discrimination which is not reducible to the other two.

    I see. So it’s like Double Secret Oppression.

  10. Agreed- though at least Ben Shapiro had the good graces to apologise for losing his cool. Maybe he assumed he was up against another Piers Morgan :slight_smile:

    The guy is a human wrecking ball, when it comes to debate. If only more journalists exercised similar levels of objectivity and principled opposition, in relation to their world views. We might actually stand a chance of healing the political polarisation that is tearing most Western countries apart, with more responsible journalism…

  11. “Whatever happened to people’s status being linked to their accomplishments, their knowledge, and their beliefs?”

    To the extent the person whose (who’s?) status is in question is white, and especially if said person is white heterosexual male who was also born with male sex organs, any accomplishments are purely due to privilege and white patriarchy, and therefore should be completely discounted and ignored. Such a person has no actual knowledge other than whiteness, and their beliefs are all based on racism.

    To the extent the person whose (who’s?) status is in question is not white, then yes those factors still matter as long as said accomplishments, knowledge and beliefs aren’t susceptible to reflecting whiteness.

    How’d I do?

  12. Yes. You can be homosexual and accepted by family and friends, and now even lauded in some circles, while another may be bullied, harassed or even even physically attacked.

    What of a soft white male whose father demands he play football, or play sports using opposite handed-ness, or the child who can’t have friends because they are forced to study, etc.?

    Intersectionality fails because it assumes a class is homogenous, the very definition of racism/sexism/etc-ism. Abuse and harm are the concerns, not some state of labels.

  13. The author leaves out an important result of the a priori cultural value placed on being non-white, non-straight, non-“cis,” and non-male. It’s not just that young people will start to wonder if they are, or if they should pose as, trans or non-binary or pansexual or whatever. There’s a big danger that people who don’t tick the trendy boxes will start to counter-claim inherent value in their identity — above all in being white. Maligned groups tend to develop a sense of “pride” in their maligned identity. Thus do the intersectionalists engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy and serve to expand the ranks of white nationalism they claim to see everywhere. Let’s hope this doesn’t go too far.

  14. In the United States all citizens should find a simple reason to find commonality in that we are united by a system of government that was founded on a pressuposition that all men are created equal. It is very important to understand that we didn’t get it right from the starting block, and that it has taken a long time to overcome inequality with regard to race and gender in particular. In the case of racial equality, it took a bloody civil war and over a hundred years in our courts to bring us to the place where racism has been eliminated; outside of personal feelings and acts of racial animosity.

    This notion of intersectionality has done nothing but given rise to the weaponization of otherwise united countrymen into warring factions, who are consumed with extracting “justice” at the expense of what should be unity and solidarity as Americans.

    It’s okay to identify with like minded folks, but not okay to remain in a constant posture of conflict to elevate one’s sense of victimhood over what should be unity despite being unique and different; or in other words an individual united by a common identity as American.

  15. I recently asked a colleague what she’s teaching in a Lit-Crit course, the student population of which is mainly Chinese. “Intersectionality,” she proudly replied. To her mind, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” teaches students “why we need feminism,” (though Chopin claimed not to be a feminist.” Clearly this lens is forced on the story, to an alarming degree. It sounds like the students are being obligated to force rather than tease it. In the story, a woman with “a weak heart” is gently told her husband might have died in a railroad accident. At first she’s upset, but slowly comes to not just accept the idea of life without him, but embrace her freedom. He then shows up and she dies of a heart attack.

    How does this show why we need feminism? It seems she’s teaching students that marriage is a trap for women. Invert the sex of the protagonist and surely the response would be the same! Especially in this day and age when a feminist wife is so hell bent on beating the “toxic masculinity” out of her husband!

    Other discussions with her and other like-minded teachers is that Intersectionality IS critical thinking. I wound up responding that the lens is a theory— not a fact — and that as far as I’m concerned students should be informed to play with it but not see it as gospel.

    What saddens me is that literature is no longer being examined as testimony to the human condition— while Chopin was white — her protagonist a white woman — surely her experience could be seen as fairly universal.

    But the tenets of Intersectionality decree that there is no universal experience of being human. Literature is being slaughtered by this. My colleague also said she teaches “identity” in particular, what it means to be an immigrant. American fiction is saturated by this topic, to its detriment. Shallow writing about being “other” and offended by being asked “Where are you from?”

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