Kimberle Crenshaw is a law professor at UCLA who is best known for coining the term, “intersectionality.” As Wikipedia describes it, intersectional theory is “the study of how overlapping or intersecting social identities, particularly minority identities, relate to systems and structures of oppression, domination, or discrimination. There is nothing particularly harmful (or novel) about noting that people have multiple identities and that those identities overlap, sometimes in important ways. The problem with intersectionality, which makes Crenshaw worthy of The Higgy, is that it has fueled an intellectually lazy and politically disastrous approach to virtually all social issues.
Intersectionality is intellectually lazy because it provides a single, overly-simplistic framework for understanding everything. As Jonathan Haidt describes it, intersectionality divides the world into victims and oppressors. In a type of re-warmed Marxism, all victims share the same struggle against the same underlying oppression, because all forms of oppression are connected. The fight against racism cannot be won without addressing sexism, classism, ableism, etc…
Rather than having to learn about the complex circumstances and histories of different conflicts around the world, all we have to do is figure out who the victims and oppressors are. Once we’ve forced the world into our Manichean framework, we know who should be helped and who should be stopped. The problem is that the world is a lot more complicated than that. People can be both oppressors and victims at the same time, depending on which issue we choose to make the focus of our attention. And the struggle against one oppression may be completely independent of or even undermine the struggle against another oppression.
For example, the National LGBTQ Task Force decided to exclude an organization that seeks to make connections between LGBTQ communities in Israel and America from holding an event at the Task Force’s national conference in San Francisco. Invoking the idea of intersectionality, some people convinced the Task Force that LGBTQ people in Israel could not be seen as victims (the good people) because they are oppressors of the the real victims, Palestinians. Of course, dividing the world into oppressors and victims obscures the complex ways in which Palestinians may be oppressors of LGBTQ people or Jews at the same time that they may be victims of other types of oppression. People are typically a mix of good and bad, which means that we might want to consider each type of grievance independently and understand it within its own context. Instead, intersectionality encourages its adherents to label everyone as good or bad abstracted of individual circumstance or history, so we know who should be helped and who shunned (or worse).
To earn the good status of being the victim rather than the oppressor, people will compete in the who has suffered more Olympics, which is hardly a rational way to make moral or political judgements. The people who claim to have suffered more may not be the most virtuous and those who are prospering may not be the most evil. And encouraging people to compete for victim status discourages people from doing things that may help themselves so that they don’t risk appearing less victim-like.
In addition to being intellectually lazy, intersectionality is politically disastrous. By connecting all issues, intersectionality prevents its adherents from agreeing with people on one issue while disagreeing on another. If certain people are the oppressors and others victims, you can’t make common cause with the “oppressors” for the issues on which you have common interests. You might think that linking different victims would give them a larger political coalition, but linking different oppressors drives away even more since few are the victims of every oppression. Almost everyone can be framed as an oppressor in one way or another, all of whom are ineligible from joining your coalition against any particular injustice.
We’ve seen this type of political self-immolation in education reform, most notably at the infamous New Schools Venture Fund conference. The more people demand that everyone in their coalition join them in opposing all injustices, the fewer people they have left to oppose any one injustice. Some charter school people who have turned their hostility against private school choice are about to discover how lonely, small, and weak their purified coalition is about to become. Especially given that Republicans dominate most state governments, purging mainstream Republican ideas from their version of the choice movement seems doomed to fail. But given that intersectionality may find virtue in failure and sin in success, perhaps these folks don’t mind failing so much.
I don’t know enough about Crenshaw to say whether she has other redeeming qualities, but The Higgy does not demand that its recipients be awful people. They only have to have done something to detract significantly from the human condition. Introducing and promoting the concept of intersectionality certainly qualifies Crenshaw for this dishonor.
In addition to dividing reform coalitions, another problem with this approach is it forces you into a position of hostility toward all people who aren’t already in the coalition – and your hostility to them naturally turns them against you. And guess who has more power?
I recently listened through 17 hours of the speeches of Martin Luther King (best $3 you’ll ever spend on iTunes) and you know one thing that struck me? He kept talking about how segregation was bad for white people. That man was a political genius.
Thanks for explaining “intersectionality.” The term has been bandied about and I wasn’t sure what it meant. As an unwitting oppressor I see myself falling behind in virtue for lack of any status that qualifies me as a victim. I foolishly thought that my actions were what made me virtuous or evil. Now it appears that simply being a white, straight, male makes it nearly impossible to be anything other than an oppressor, and according to some a deplorable oppressor at that. Despite the fact that I have worked so hard for so many years in underpaid charter schools in largely minority communities trying to better their educational opportunities, I am an evil oppressor. Hmmm. Some of my acquaintances, have come out as gay, after years of appearing straight with wives and children. But now they are righteous victims of oppression. It is a strange world we are living in. I certainly hope that we can get more school choice, so that more American children can be educated with a world view that makes more sense.
I’ve said this before:
This seems to be a prime example of what my daddy says happens when folks get b.s. degrees in college, and he didn’t mean bachelor of science.