The Personalist Project

http://www.thepersonalistproject.org/home/comments/The-Pitfalls-and-Limits-of-Intersectionality

Accessed on April 30, 2017 - 8:56:29

Intersectional, Shmintersectional

Devra Torres, Feb 13, 2017

My last post included a little dig at some students I overheard in a coffeeshop, self-consciously chattering about "intersectionality." I assumed then that it was an up-to-the-minute buzzword, but no, it turns out it was coined way back in 1989--it just seems to have gathered steam lately. Kate Cousino wrote about it last week, and you can read her insights here.

When the students I was eavesdropping on said the Women's March was so, like, intersectional, I think they just meant that there were lots of different kinds of people there. Google's definition is this: 

Intersectionality: the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage

(If you want to get a good migraine going, read the entire Wikipedia entry, especially the part about the way the various identities "reciprocally construct" each other.) 

On the one hand, worrying about intersectionality might seem a step in the right direction. It's an improvement on selecting a single, currently favored characteristic--just skin color, or just gender--and viewing each person through that lens and that alone. On the other hand, it's a pseudo-solution to add a characteristic or three, puzzle earnestly over all the "reciprocal construction" going on, and leave it at that. 

The term was inspired by a genuine dilemma: a General Motors plant was accused of segregating workers by both race and gender: blacks were welcome to apply for some jobs, whites for others; women for some, men for others. But there was no "intersection": the women's jobs didn't overlap with the blacks', so a whole segment of the population--black women--was excluded from every job. And the plaintiffs lost, because the judge objected to the black women combining "their race and gender claims into one." Heads I win, tails you lose.

Wikipedia

So you can understand the frustration. Whether the injustice was as clear-cut as described by the plaintiffs, I don't know. There's plenty of other simplistic labeling, though, that cries out for redress. For instance, many of those who have presumed to speak for all us women, all these decades, have been white, upper-middle-class women --"happy people with happy problems." Or if not exactly happy, they have certain privileges (like nannies, cleaning ladies, and high-prestige journalism jobs from which they always seem to be taking a sabbatical). These privileges cushion them--but not their more humble admirers--from some of the consequences of living out their ideologies. They forget that not everybody is living in SoHo, on leave from The New Yorker.

So maybe they initiate a divorce on frivolous grounds, or intentionally pursue single motherhood. Bad ideas for anybody, but without the amenities of the celebrity life, they can wreak extra havoc. Celebrities set the pace, and the middle-income or inner-city women read about them in the supermarket checkout line and follow suit--and they and their children pay the price. (I'm not claiming to read the heart of any celebrity in particular, or to imply that everybody blindly imitates celebrities, just to note a harmful tendency.)

That's just one case of real-life calamity ensuing because of a failure to account for the variety of human experience. People get labeled, with a few arrogating the right to speak for everybody, ignoring difference in the name of diversity. It's a lack of imagination and a lack of logic. But taking the intersectionality route doesn't just overlook something about the person--it ignores what a person is. As the "About" tab of our website describes it, there's an "'infinite abyss of existence' (Newman) in the interiority of each person, in virtue of which each always exceeds the finite qualities and properties that he or she displays."

No matter how we pile identity upon identity--and no matter how closely we examine the interplay among them all--as long as we ignore that interiority, our goal of doing justice to the person will keep on receding, Each person is a whole constellation of qualities and conditions, with a unique history, yes--but each of us is also more than the sum of all these. Slapping a single label on a person is a sin of injustice and reductionism, but so is multiplying the labels and scrutinizing the interactions.

And if you're studying the whole subject, and the world in general, through the lens of power differentials--as so many intellectuals with blind spots do--so much the worse.

Grains of truth are not altogether absent. But impressionable kids in coffee shops deserve better.

Common domain Images:

"Diversity":Flickr.

"Rosie the Riveter: Wikipedia

Seesaw: Flickr