I’m not into jargon. I’m really not impressed by made-up terms used to describe something that could have been described more simply using existing words. In fact, I think that any conversation about social justice that invokes big words is going to be patently unhelpful since it makes the whole process very cerebral. So when the term “intersectionality” started popping up on my Facebook news feed, I became very curious…in a suspicious kind of way. I wondered, why are all my social change friends suddenly throwing around that word like it’s confetti at an activist party? It seemed like the newest fad concept, the same way environmental justice is still a fad concept – not everyone knows what it means, but enough people know about it that it’s creating buzz. I did some digging and learned that intersectionality is not so new, but it’s not so old either. It’s been around since 1989, when it was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a pioneer intellectual behind Critical Race Theory, to understand the experiences of people with multiple social identities that cannot be adequately understood by analyzing each identity in a vacuum. For example, a gay Asian man is going to have a unique set of experiences that can only be described using a holistic perspective rather than using a purely racial or sexual lens.
It’s 2013. Twenty-four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things (I mean, the term is younger than I am!) but I think that’s enough time for a concept to grow and mature, at least on the conceptual level. But that’s not the sense that I’m getting. Back in 1989, intersectionality was used to describe the experiences that arose from the intersection of race, gender, and class. Somehow, after twenty-four years, it has only managed to add sexual orientation to that list? Hmmm, I’m not impressed. Here is my 3-point criticism of intersectionality and why I think it’s a sham term.
How intersectional is intersectionality? What bugs me the most about this term is how it’s being implicitly credited as elevating the social justice work of intellectuals and activists. But how elevated is it really? When I hear my colleagues use intersectionality to describe their “innovative” work on the connections between race and gender, or gender and sexuality, or ability and race, all I can do is yawn in my head and ask rhetorically, “That’s it?” You do know that ecologists and physicists have shown for over a century now that the whole universe is interconnected, right? You do know that ancient spiritual teachings have been telling us for millennia that we are all one and that the action of one affects everything else and vice versa, right? And speaking more practically, that all the issues we are faced with today from animal abuse to the abuse of women, from the exploitation of people as slaves to the industrialization of our food, and from the financial crises to the wars in the Middle East are all influencing each other and come from common underlying philosophies of greed and a profound of sense of alienation, right? So please, if all you are researching is race, class and sexuality or what have you, then do not call your work intersectional. Your work is at best bisectional or trisectional. To be truly intersectional, you would need to drastically expand your notions of the issues that matter and dare to approach unfamiliar subjects like mathematics and indigenous science and see what those ways of knowing have to say about your work.
The term is ignorant and disrespectful to activists who have been doing intersectional work way longer. Just because you created a new term to describe your work doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is new. You stand on the shoulders of giants who have long been doing this stuff and they never needed to come up with as unapproachable a word as intersectionality. I mean, my god, the word is seven syllables long! The history of America is replete with stories of indigenous, Native American societies, black slaves, Asian and Latino immigrants fighting to protect their homelands because they knew that maintaining a connection to the land was the key to ecological integrity, economic prosperity, community health and happiness. American history is replete with brave women protesting for the right to vote and the right to enter the workforce because they knew that voting and employment were tied to their own liberation and to the wealth of their family. Today, thousands of truly innovative activists and social entrepreneurs are creating organizations around the world that tie sustainability, economy and equity into a single mission. This type of work is what I consider truly intersectional. It is intuitive. It is visceral. It is not at all cerebral. If you’re going to describe your work as intersectional, it would be great if you could acknowledge your place in the long line of truly intersectional people that came before you and give credit where it’s due.
The term ironically perpetuates the Western worldview. The funniest thing about the concept of intersectionality is that it simultaneously tries to defy the Western mode of compartmentalized thinking and perpetuates it at the same time. To most non-Western societies, especially indigenous societies who are in tune with the cycles of the earth, the interconnectedness of life is pretty much an accepted reality. It’s so obvious that it’s not even a thought to be had. It’s in the people’s subconscious, their worldview. It is a peculiar characteristic of Western civilizations to try to understand life by breaking it down into different pieces and analyzing each piece in isolation. Thus you have the study of racism in a vacuum, and the study of economics in isolation, and the study of environmental problems as their own discipline apart from sociological issues. Intersectionality was born out of the 1980’s feminist movement in an attempt to shine light on the fact that white women were not a representative voice of the feminist movement and that women of color had experiences owing to their race that were different from their white counterparts. The irony of the concept lies in its double-edged nature. If your understanding of intersectionality only applies to the intersection of two to three different identities but leaves out all the other forces in the universe, then you’re essentially still thinking in linear, compartmentalized terms. If you’re going to use a term that aims to decolonize our minds of Western values, then please make sure that the term doesn’t sound so academic and that it actually teases us with the possibility a fresh, new way of experiencing the world. In fact, it’s best if you avoid conceptual terms altogether. Write a poem instead.
Lastly, you don’t need more jargon to have people understand what you’re saying. In fact, you’re probably confusing people more by using jargon. As Albert Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Make your work and your knowledge accessible. Keep it simple and I promise you that your words will become more profound.