As an analytic framework for identifying the effects of systemic sin, intersection theory may be of some use to Christians. But when it is used to justify the creation of ever more narrow and increasingly divisive identity groups, it becomes another secular worldview that Christians must reject. While characteristics such as race and gender are not erased when a person becomes a member of God’s kingdom, our identity as Christians is rebuilt around Jesus.
In a provocative new essay for New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan asks, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”
It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained—and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue—and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.
Although the concept has been around for almost three decades, many Christians have never heard of intersectionality or are unaware of the way it has morphed into a competing worldview. Here are a few things you should know.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality (also known as intersection theory or, in a more narrow usage, intersectional feminism) is the concept that subjectivity (i.e., that which influences, informs, and biases people’s judgments about truth or reality) is formed by mutually interlocking and reinforcing categories of race, gender, class, health, and sexuality.*
Historically, intersection theory has primarily focused on the intersection of race and gender and been used as a framework to show how “systems of oppression” (such as patriarchy and racism) do not affect individuals independently but tend to “intersect” in ways that affect some individuals more than others.
Consider, for example, the experiences of a black man, a white woman, and a black woman. The black man may be oppressed by racism because he is black, but he enjoys the privileges of being male. The white woman may be oppressed by patriarchy because she is a woman, but she enjoys the privileges of being white. In contrast, the black woman exists at the “intersection” of racism and patriarchy, so she is likely to suffer from discrimination and oppression to a greater degree than both the black man and also the white woman. The effect for the black woman is oppression that is greater than the sum of its constituent parts (i.e., racism and sexism).
Intersectionality has been called “the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with other fields, has made so far.”
Where did the term originate?
The term intersectionality was coined by critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” which was published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989.
Crenshaw highlighted how certain aspects of one’s identity (specifically race and gender) intersect to make individuals invisible as subjects within the law. Because anti-racism laws were designed for black men and anti-sexism laws were designed for white women, she notes, black women are treated unfairly by laws that appear to protect them. As Crenshaw says, “antidiscrimination doctrine essentially erases Black women’s distinct experiences and, as a result, deems their discrimination complaints groundless.”
What are the positives aspects of intersection theory?
For Christians, one of the most valuable contributions of intersection theory is that it can help us recognize that various types of structural sin in our world (such as structural racism) can intersect in ways that produce a “multiplier effect,” which can sometimes cause greater harm to individuals caught within such intersections. This concept can help us to acknowledge and address the cultural complexity that arises from living in a sinful world. This insight should encourage us to develop a greater understanding and empathy for our neighbors who are caught up in “intersecting” sin structures.
Using this lens can also help us when we read and study the Bible, reminding us that many biblical characters suffered multiple forms of oppression that compounded their misery in unique ways (e.g., Ruth and Naomi, who were both female and poor).
What are the negative aspects of intersection theory?
The problem with intersectionality arises when it ceases to be an insight and becomes an ideology. As with many useful concepts, intersectionality can be used to promote the flourishing of the human community or can be used to create new forms of systematic sin. And over the past decade, the concept has frequently, as Sullivan noted, been used as a tool for building division not only between the “oppressors” (i.e., white males) and the oppressed (i.e., almost everyone else), but separation between groups deemed to be victims.