If you haven’t heard the term “Intersectionality,” it probably doesn’t seem important. The study of traffic intersections? Yawn. But intersectionality is actually a new development in the history of feminism and class and gender studies that has wide-ranging implications for our cultural dialogue about race, gender, and society. Have you noticed that this dialogue, which has been part of American life for many years, has gotten louder and shriller in recent times? You may have intersectionality to thank.
But what actually is intersectionality? Basically, it’s a movement within feminism that exists to remind us that there are cultural disadvantages other than being a woman. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender, but she has a racial advantage. A Latina lesbian woman “experiences discrimination because of her ethnicity, her gender[,] and her sexual orientation.” Intersectional feminists are here to tell us that Latina lesbians are really getting the short end of the stick. Especially if she/zhe is also a Muslim, and hails from the wrong side of the tracks.
The term is a relatively recent one. As The Gospel Coalition writer Joe Carter notes,
[It] was coined by critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in [an] article…which was published…in 1989. Crenshaw highlighted how certain aspects of one’s identity (specifically race and gender) intersect to make individuals invisible as subjects within the law. Because anti-racism laws were designed for black men and anti-sexism laws were designed for white women, she notes, black women are treated unfairly by laws that appear to protect them. As Crenshaw says, “antidiscrimination doctrine essentially erases Black women’s distinct experiences and, as a result, deems their discrimination complaints groundless.”
Intersectionality is not just the insistence that these realities exist, but also that something must be done about it. Intersectionality can be seen in part as a power play within feminism, where relatively “privileged” women—affluent, straight, white women for example—are being told that they need to sit down, shut up, and recognize the “marginalization” of other groups (queers, people of color, those who are economically disadvantaged). The days in which the great feminists were upper-class white/Jewish women like Betty Friedan, or, in more recent days, Sheryl Sandberg (a Facebook executive and the author of Lean In, a mainstream feminist manifesto) are over. Intersectional feminists say it’s time for something different.
According to one Gender Studies professor, “Intersectional feminism is especially important right now as we face a situation in which many women are confronting multiple forms of vulnerability…In times like this, there is a real danger that feminism itself can function in an exclusionary manner by marginalizing less powerful and less privileged women and allies—the very people who most need feminism today.”
If some women are being marginalized, says intersectional theory, then there needs to be a mechanism for maximalizing (my term) the influence of women who have previously been marginalized. The Women’s March earlier this year in D.C. attracted criticism because no women of color were listed as organizers. That quickly changed, and the Women’s March added Muslim, Latina, and African-American activists to its leadership. Aside from the formidable resumes of these women, there is a dangerous precedent here. They were chosen not because they were necessarily luminaries in their field but because of their religion, class, and skin color.
Does that sound a little, um…racist or bigoted to you? An intersectional feminist would insist that it’s not. Action taken to replace white organizers with people of color is not unilateral. It is only taken in response to the apparently racist action of the organizers who left out people of color in the first place. First, there was marginalization of people of color, then there was maximalization, to add people of color where they should have been in the first place. If that sounds wrong, it if sounds like three big steps in the wrong direction, I completely agree. If one race, class, or gender has been treated unequally, the solution is to treat every race, class, and gender equally. If you instead privilege one previously maltreated group, you are perpetuating the problem.
Intersectional tension is behind some of the increased conflict on college campuses in the last few years. Several troubling videos, notably from Middlebury College in Vermont and Evergreen State College in Washington, show students making intersectional theory into intersectional praxis. Especially in the Evergreen State videos, left-wing students (many of them of color) turn on white administrators and teachers who are equally left-wing, because of a supposed failure to recognize the intersectional marginalization of those students. The white professors are repeatedly told to shut up: your right to speak will now be determined by how marginalized you are. Weaponized intersectional thought is a tool of subjection. It’s no longer enough to parrot Social Justice orthodoxy; you will now have to compensate for your privilege by shutting your big white mouth.
Thankfully, the economy of God’s grace doesn’t work like that. As John Piper has noted, what brings Christians together is not a shared race, class, gender, or language. It is chosenness. Christians are chosen by God, not for any human qualities they possess, but unconditionally through God’s eternal wisdom. Christians who share in the death and resurrection of God’s Son have no place to separate our brothers and sisters based on different levels of privilege, and how these intersect with each other.
As I write this, I keep thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. Though a flawed man in many ways, King got it right when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed that he had a dream, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” This is what it comes down to. Although your race and gender and class are ingredients in the “cocktail of you,” they are not the main ingredient: they do not make up, as King realized, the content of your character.
If intersectionality were merely a tool to bring oppression to light and counteract it, no one would be opposed to it. Oppression does exist, and Christians have always tried to end it. Instead, intersectionality is a power play. It is a new excuse: an excuse for racism and classism and bigotry, an excuse for students to go crazy on campus—it is even, as Andrew Sullivan writes, an orthodoxy, a religion. Like all false religions, and all false gods, its idols need to be torn down and trampled. Only at the cross of Christ and at His empty tomb, is true justice and redemption for the oppressed to be found.