Intersectionality makes deterministic assumptions about human identity that run counter to almost all of Western philosophy—not to mention to the commonsense self-understanding most of us possess. Intersectional theorists begin their work on the basis of a debatable (though never debated) set of characteristics that supposedly constitute personal identity: race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and sometimes others (weight, attractiveness, age). Women are collectively, and as individuals, oppressed. So are gays, lesbians, Hispanics, blacks, the disabled, the aged, the very young, the obese, the transgender—and the list goes on, becoming more complex with the addition and subtraction of multiple traits.
I recently attended an academic conference at the University of Notre Dame called “Intersectional Inquiries and Collaborative Action: Gender and Race.” It felt like a return to my undergraduate years in the early 1990s. I saw women with shaved heads wearing ethnic print scarves, Birkenstocks, and baggy black clothes. Many of the participants smelled of curry and incense. I attended the conference because I was researching the concept of “intersectionality” as part of a year-long fellowship to study academic diversity. A year ago, I knew almost nothing about the diversity movement in academia. Now I’ve learned that it is only the tip of a very large iceberg, and that this movement is more extensive, and more radical, than the anodyne term “diversity” would lead one to believe.
Intersectionality is a wholly academic invention that plays a large role in this movement. Indeed, it stands in the vanguard of the progressive academy, allied with critical race studies, queer studies, women’s studies, and ethnic studies. Intersectional scholars proudly proclaim their goal: to smash the neoliberal, corporate, heteropatriarchal academy and then to reinvent it in a way that rejects traditional notions about what universities are meant to do. These scholars also want to redefine the family and to abolish the “binary” of man and woman.
Although the term has been around for almost thirty years, most people—even academics—don’t really know what intersectionality means. It originated in a 1989 article about antidiscrimination law, in which black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw made a case for treating race and gender not as separate legal categories but as a new, combined category. In other words, while a woman might claim discrimination on the basis of sex, and a black man might claim it on the basis of race, neither sex nor race alone could capture the discrimination endured by a black woman.
Crenshaw explains the idea by taking up the legal case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1977). In that case, five black women sued General Motors for discrimination. GM had not hired black women prior to 1964, and had dismissed all but one of its black female employees hired after 1970 on the basis of seniority. The plaintiffs claimed that the harm they suffered could not be addressed by suing as women only, because GM could point out that it had indeed hired women (white women) prior to 1964 and had retained those that were hired after 1970.
Nor were they willing to sue on the basis of race alone. The discrimination they suffered was not merely racial, they argued, but a result of their combined racial and gender identity. The district court dismissed this claim, observing that the prospect of “the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.” Crenshaw rejected that reasoning, pointing out that these women were clearly suffering from compound discrimination for their identity. Neither black men nor white women found themselves in quite the same situation.
Thus the metaphor of “intersectionality” was born. Black women found themselves at the intersection of two different kinds of prejudice—about race and gender—and could not receive remedy by addressing one or the other alone. Writers since Crenshaw have expanded the term to cover studies that integrate the disadvantages caused by sexual orientation, class, age, body size, gender identification, ability, and more. Personal identity results from the combination of these many aspects of identity, they say, and each one signifies a measure of either oppression or privilege. As a whole, these traits determine an individual’s position in the “matrix of domination.”
Yet intersectionality deals not only, or even primarily, with individuals. Individuality is secondary to group identity. For just as prejudice and oppression define our dominant institutions and social structures, intersectionalists assert, we are formed by the social structures and groups to which we belong. Blacks, women, and others have the distinct disadvantage of being part of nondominant social structures, no matter what other characteristics they possess (wealth, tenure, prestige). They are the inevitable targets of prejudice, discrimination, fear, and hatred. The only solution to this society-wide problem is coalition-building and political action on a large scale. In other words, we need a revolution.
Patricia Hill Collins is distinguished university professor in sociology at the University of Maryland. She has had a long and productive career as a black feminist academic. Her work is cited widely by scholars in gender studies, queer studies, Africana studies, rhetoric, communications, and sociology.
Collins was the keynote speaker at the Notre Dame conference I attended. Though I disagreed with almost all of the substance of her talk, she drew the audience in, made us feel like we were her friends and allies, and effectively recruited us to her cause. She used humor and storytelling to describe her life as a black female academic in an age when she had very few peers who looked like her. (She’s currently sixty-nine years old.)
As she spoke, I began to feel that I was not at an academic lecture at all, but at an Evangelical church with a charismatic pastor. She even looked the part, wearing all black with a vibrant green scarf that hung around her shoulders like a cleric’s stole. Some of her statements brought approving murmurs from the audience—“Umm hmm.” At times people broke out in spontaneous applause or acclamation, as if we were at a revival.
Soon the church-like atmosphere evolved into a political rally. Collins told us that the academy is filled with “timid people” who are afraid to challenge the status quo. She also asserted that authentic intellectual engagement requires political activism. Why should we “take up the words” if we “lose the critical edge” and the ability to put ideas into practice? “Now is not the time,” Collins asserted, for “business as usual!” The election of Donald Trump has heightened the need for intersectionality, as a way of protesting the egregious racism, sexism, and homophobia that his administration embodies. She exhorted us to be oppositional. Revolution cannot take place unless we overthrow the existing power structures, and intersectionality requires that all oppressed groups work together. Citing black feminist heroes such as Angela Davis, she charged the audience to form nonhierarchical networks of flexible solidarity, coalitions of conscience, made up of people who would devote themselves to upending the status quo. Everyone loved it. Nobody seemed to notice (or mind) that this was precisely the same language that radicals of all stripes have employed for at least the past fifty years.