Thursday, September 6, 2012

the problem with the middle-class feminist theory of intersectionality

When I first heard of Kimberlé Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality, I loved it because I thought it explained the way that different prejudices interact with different people. I misunderstood it entirely.

Intersectionality assumes all prejudices are unique. Identitarians love it because it was founded on the notion that different forms of oppression have no connections; they only have intersections. It is extremely convenient for capitalists who don't want you to wonder about underlying causes.

Its great problem is its inherent anti-scientific nature—it rules out the possibility of interrelatedness. It leads social justice warriors like Coffeeandink to say things like, "...I do think class is a significant axis of oppression separate from but interacting with race and gender. I just don't think it's the root oppression that is the basis of all other oppression, or that eliminating class injustice will magically cause other forms of prejudice and injustice to fade away."

Now, the last clause is a common straw man, but as for the basic identitarian take on class, race and gender being separate—

Historians like the eminent Trinidadan historian Eric Williams disagree: Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” People who use "race" and "racism" in wildly imprecise ways have trouble understanding what he meant, but until the development of the African slave trade, prejudice was tribal, not racial—perhaps the most famous example is the Greek prejudice against barbarians, people whose talk sounded like "bar-bar-bar" to them.

Socialist feminists also disagree with intersectionality. Engels wrote, "The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male." While Engels is not saying that sexual oppression is class oppression, he's suggesting a link that later writers would explore about the relationship between the nature of economic hierarchy—what middle-class feminists call kyriarchy—and sexual exploitation.

While "kyriarchy" strikes me as a redundant word, it is fascinating that capitalist feminists are fumbling for a broader understanding of oppression. It may force them to abandon intersectionality.


RACE - The Power of an Illusion . Go Deeper | PBS.

Slavery and the origins of racism by Lance Selfa.

'The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy', by Rev. Thandeka.

Marxist Internet Archive Library of Feminist Writers.

ETA: After considering the discussion in the comments, I wrote do different forms of oppression intersect or dogpile?


  1. Hi Will,

    A little quibble: intersectionality is not about prejudice, it is about systemic oppression and place in society. Prejudices are feelings, and the argument is that oppression operates on social positions and is broader than any individuals' agency or emotions. So the starting point of intersectionality is that an individual is impacted by all of the social categories they exists in. It is more a response to the Oppression Olympics (so to speak), questions of "who is more opressed: women or black people, the disabled or gay, etc"? The Engels quote you give actually supports intersectionality by suggesting that class and sexual hierarchy is linked. The argument is that all social oppression uses the same hierarchical justifications to exist, but because various social categories are salient in a society at any given point, they will impact different people differently.

    1. To get the small quibble out of the way, Engels isn't making a specific suggestion about sexual oppression and class oppression: maybe they intersect, maybe they spring from the same root. We just don't know why, in most surviving cultures, men began oppressing women—though we can look at the ways women are used to increase a man's wealth and guess that there's a relationship between owner and worker that's relevant. But so long as there are exceptions, we can't say it's in any way "natural" for men to take advantage of women--I really should learn more about places like Mosuo.

      Where intersectionality clearly fails is with racism. You can't discuss the development of race honestly without talking about economic exploitation. The notion that humans are naturally prejudiced against people who look different isn't supported by science or history.

      As for the social categories you mention, class doesn't fit. Matt Bruenig put it nicely, "The fundamental problem with cramming poor people into the identitarian framework is that, unlike every other identity treated in that framework, justice for poor people requires their elimination." Identitarians think class is an identity, but it's not. The other day, I quoted Angelus Novus: "Class is a structural position, not a cultural identity." It's why you can find women and gay folk and people of all hues and all the major religions in the Forbes 400, but you can't find any working class people there.

  2. Will ... I think you've stumbled upon some weird "strawman" version of intersectionality. What you've described is not what I've encountered. What I've encountered is pretty well described on Wikipedia:

    The theory suggests—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.

    Or in other words ... you can't just look at one type of oppression (e.g. racism) without also looking at the other types of oppression (e.g. classism) that interact with it.

    1. Sure, the theory says these things act together, but they also say they act independently.

      At least, that's what's said by the anti-racism folks who want to deny a class component to racism.

      Hmm. And there's a straw man in Wikipedia's article: I don't think anyone ever said they didn't act together. The question is whether they're independent and intersecting, so therefore you can discuss them like spherical cows, or if they're related in complex ways--not intersecting, but intertwined, or sprouting from one or two sources.

    2. You have the same name as me :)

  3. As far as I can tell intersectionality is one of those ideas that, in the large, is obviously true, so everyone with an axe to grind grabs hold of it as a credibility booster, and then continues to grind their axe.

    That's "common usage" of it, though, not the actual theory of it, which I don't really know anything about, or even if there IS a coherent and well-thought-out theory. For all I know it's axes all the way down.

    1. Yeah. At the surface level, it's glaringly true: oppressions intersect. Where it's misleading is in its implication that oppressions only intersect.

      Hmm. I suspect academics devoted to race and gender had to grab intersectionality in order to keep their disciplines valid, because their frameworks had become so divorced from everyday life, where oppressions don't so much intersect as dogpile.

      Huh. I like that better than intersectionality, because dogpiling includes the possibility that someone set the dogs on you.

  4. Intersecting is a bad word to use, since it carries with it an idea of reduction. The set of fruit intersected with the set of red objects is a smaller collection - that of red fruit. If you are oppressed in enough ways, does that intersect the oppression down to no oppression at all?

    In fact, they multiply. If you're poor and black, that's more oppression than either one alone, not less. Dogpile works as well!

    1. Yeah. Looking at the small piece of the Venn diagram may be why those folks are so oblivious to white poverty, even though there are twice as many poor white folks as poor black ones.

      And it may be why they think poverty is just like any other oppression. They can't imagine that being poor might be the biggest dog in the pack.

  5. Will wrote:
    Sure, the theory says these things act together, but they also say they act independently.

    At least, that's what's said by the anti-racism folks who want to deny a class component to racism.


    Again, I think you're presenting a "straw man" version of anti-racism if you're suggesting that it's common for anti-racist activists and other anti-oppression activists are either denying or otherwise ignoring classism when talking about racism.

    Your experiences may be different than mine, but I haven't seen this classism-blindness in the Unitarian Universalist settings that I've encountered anti-oppression work.

    Classism is a major issue covered in the UUA's Weaving the Fabric of Diversity religious education curriculum:

    And classism also included in the anti-oppression work of LREDA and other UUA-affiliated groups.

    The UU sociologist and historian James Loewen addresses classism in his books about US history along with racism, sexism, and other types of oppression.

    1. Well, it's common in my experience. Maybe I've run into a unique set of online social justice warriors.

      Mind you, it's not that they won't mention "classism" now and then. But when they do, it's in awfully vague terms--see the sentence I quoted in my post. I think part of the problem is with the word "classism" itself, which suggests the only problem with class is upper-class prejudice against working class folks, as if class is just another social identity.

      This may only make sense to me, but imagine 19th century activists arguing for "anti-slavism", the idea that slaves should be treated with dignity and respect--they would be working to better an institution that should be eliminated. Just as I would've been an abolitionist then, I'm a socialist now.

  6. Seems to me that "intersection" implies independence. We don't talk about the "intersection" of striking a match and the match burning; we talk about cause and effect. Isn't that the issue here? If racism is a product of the class struggle (as I believe it is), then isn't it inherently misleading to speak of the intersection of class conflict and prejudice?

    I may, of course, be missing something here. I don't claim expertise on intersectionality. Or the class struggle, for that matter. :-)