Intersectionality is not limited to identity politics

Part 3 of Intersectionality Series

By: Takeia R. Johnson

There are a number of criticisms lodged at the theory of intersectionality (Carastathis 2016; Carbado 2013; Cooper 2015; Nash 2008). One of the most prominent and enduring criticisms is:  intersectionality is only useful as a theory of identity and therefore its application is limited to Black women as subjects and researchers. 

The Statement made clear that centering Black women’s social locations and experiences within systems of oppression did not exclude other groups from the conversation. It also articulated an explicit intention of identifying collective struggle and advancing collective movement-building. Through the process of centering Black women as the most marginalized, all groups benefit from the social justice successes targeting Black women. 

Rather than viewing identity as an essence, identity should be analyzed as a political location (Collins and Bilge 2016; Alcoff 2006). This is how identity was conceptualized in the Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement. For the CRC, identity was important because identity shaped experiences within interlocking systems of oppression. When used as an avenue towards collective coalition-building, identity politics becomes an essential tool in social justice movement organizing. CRC’s members were mostly Black queer women. Issues particular to Black women, and Black queer women in particular, were the original basis for convening the collective and the target of its political agenda. 

Identity Politics are Essential to Political Organizing 

Using identity politics as the beginning and ending of intersectionality simplifies the significance of identity politics itself. Doing so also simplifies and belittles the critical analysis and critical praxis that intersectionality offers.

Narrowing the scope of intersectionality to a theory of identity results in (1) the exclusion of other marginalized groups and (2) the stripping of its roots as a tool to criticize and reject oppressive structures. This narrowing also makes it impossible to practice intersectionality as it was meant to be, and used to be, practiced — as a social justice movement organizing tool. Without a complex understanding of identity, intersectionality is deemed useless when it comes to struggles against legal, economic, racial, reproductive, and other structural forms of injustice. 

Identity politics should be reclaimed as “a starting point for intersectional inquiry and praxis [practice] and not an end in itself” (Collins and Bilge at 132). 

         Negatively associating intersectionality with a narrow and de-politicized view of identity politics also represents a “powerblind” discursive practice (Tomlinson 2019).  Barbara Tomlinson (sociologist), defines powerblind discourses as the ways in which 

“authors and activists present themselves as unaware of their own racial power, as independent of and isolated from the currents of racial power that permeate their societies and the institutional matrices in which they work.” 

Feminist reading and writing practices have an unspoken commitment to powerblindness. Such uses of powerblindness reach the legal profession when a law firm is considered “diverse” when it claims “women” as the “diverse lawyers.” Typically, a law firm’s roster of women lawyers—as associates and partners—is mostly comprised of white women. Therefore, corporate clients who are committed to diversity will hire and send work to those “diverse” firms.  

Powerblind rhetoric are used for several purposes in feminist studies. One of the most obvious occurs when feminist rhetoric appears to erase race while also devaluing research done by women of color. For example, when sociology of the law professor Leslie McCall begins her seminal article “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” she relegates to a footnote that intersectionality “was probably first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw” (1989, 1991) and then offers a string of citations of “many other key texts” that “introduced the conceptual framework and offered similar terms” (McCall 2005: 1771). These references are provided without context and thus result in making “white authors and readers feel that they are color-blind” (Tomlinson 2019: 9). 

While feminists of color are relegated to a footnote devoid of context or analysis, the first paragraph of McCall’s article proudly touts feminists alone for embracing intersectionality in the academy. McCall goes on to write, “One could even say that intersectionality is the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with related fields, has made so far” (1771). The effect of this proclamation is significant because it is a powerblind strategy which dissolves the concept of intersectionality into the history of white feminism (Tomlinson 2019: 9). When intersectionality has been absorbed by the socially powerful politics of feminism, the legal profession takes that understanding as the proper way to practice and analyze intersectionality. 

Therefore, organizational (e.g., law firms) and institutional (e.g., legal profession) level reform will have the most positive impact on white men. For example, the “business case for diversity and inclusion” rhetoric did not take its cue from social justice reform. Instead, the business case is sold as a capitalist effort to financially, culturally, and socially benefit white men, the holders of the most capital in America. As owners and partners, white men increase their income, levels of responsibility, and social standing when a law firm is awarded a contract from a corporation when that corporation believes those law firms to be fully committed to diversity and inclusion efforts. Minorities are left to reconcile powerblind diversity and inclusion strategies with the experience of not being the intended or actual recipients of diversity and inclusion efforts. 

References

Alcoff, Linda, Michael Hames-García, Satya Mohanty, Michael Hames-García, and Paula ML Moya. 2006. Identity Politics Reconsidered. Springer.

Bilge, Sirma. 2013. “INTERSECTIONALITY UNDONE: Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10(2):405–24.

Carastathis, Anna. 2016. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. U of Nebraska Press.

Carbado, Devon W. 2013a. “Colorblind Intersectionality.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38(4):811–845.

Cooper, Brittney. n.d. “Intersectionality.” Retrieved September 27, 2015 (https://www.academia.edu/15810756/Intersectionality).

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989:139.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6):1241–99.

Hill Collins, Patricia and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality.

McCall, Leslie. 2005. “The Complexity of Intersectionality.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30(3):1771–1800.

Nash, Jennifer C. 2008. “Re-Thinking Intersectionality.” Feminist Review 89(1):1–15.

Tomlinson, Barbara. 2019. Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism. Temple University Press.