‘Intersectionality,” once an obscure academic theory, is now the subject of widespread media coverage, homage in pop culture, and even accolades in the tweets of fourth-rate presidential candidates. Merriam-Webster added the word to its official dictionary in 2017, and the concept’s underlying assumptions have become the basis for much of our contemporary identitypolitik. Its sheer cultural influence is reason enough to take it seriously, so let’s do so.
The theory was first introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and critical race theorist at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School. Crenshaw attempted to demonstrate how different aspects of one’s identity — race, gender, etc — intersect to affect one’s experience in our society. The theory posits that one’s place and experience in the social hierarchy can be understood through the intersection of their various identifying characteristics — a black woman will have a different experience from a white woman, who will have a different experience from a white man, etc.
Do group identities dictate, to some extent, one’s experience in contemporary American culture? Undeniably. But intersectionality goes a step further, positing that this results from any number of nefarious power structures and systems of oppression — the patriarchy, institutional racism, and so on — lurking beneath the surface of American society. These oppressive structures are more difficult to locate than they once were; gone are the days of Jim Crow. Intersectional scholars attempt to map out how our culture subtly privileges certain identities over others.
One of the purposes of intersectionality, then, is to fight discrimination that exists beyond the reach of our legal and political framework. Even when society and its laws do not explicitly discriminate against any one group, Crenshaw argues, discrimination and oppression are still pervasive, sown into the very fabric of society itself. The merits of this argument aside, the inherent difficulty in moving from fighting objective discrimination to fighting subjective discrimination is that the latter is identified largely through one’s personal “lived experience”: one of the biggest subjects of intersectional scholarship.
Thus we begin to encounter the limits to intersectionality theory, which lie not necessarily in the truth of its assertions, but rather in the fact that its abstraction of social life leaves much to be desired and unavoidably leads to a number of corrosive outcomes when put into practice.
For instance, in assigning certain experiences to certain groups, intersectionality’s advocates often, in effect, assert a monopoly on the experiences of those groups. But intersectional feminists do not speak for all women and critical race theorists do not speak for all black people; indeed, many members of what intersectionality deems to be a victim class are not convinced that they are as systematically oppressed as they are supposed to be.
Further, to codify a hierarchy of identities and their corresponding privileges is, as Michael Oakeshott wrote, to “reduce the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles . . .[with] no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula.” As a result, intersectionality’s faithful must twist the external world to fit the theory’s framework, which insists, for example, that desperately poor rural white Appalachians are are somehow elevated in societal privilege over the likes of Don Lemon, Oprah Winfrey, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. This inevitably leads to a politics not just removed from reality, but callous and tribal in its own right.
Finally, and perhaps most important, this new elevation of identitarianism wreaks havoc on the values necessary to the cultivation of a pluralistic society. Tolerance, individualism, and colorblindness are “deconstructed” to reveal the oppressive power structures concealed beneath their pretenses. Classically liberal values are revealed to be tyrannical, the tools of the oppressor; the primacy of gender and racial status rules supreme.
Truth is reduced to subjective experience, something we define for ourselves: We “speak our truth.” Yet we do not act; rather, we are acted upon. We are subjected to the dispassionate will of power structures beyond our control.
True liberation is not to remain chained to theoretical abstractions, but to step outside and see the world for yourself.