The Wars & Whitening of Intersectionality

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Over the course of this Intersectionality Series, I’ve discussed the meaning, the Black feminist origins, and the misplaced idea that intersectionality is deficient because it is based on identity politics which solely applies to Black women. Two themes have appeared throughout. The first is an ongoing debate about who should be credited with conceiving of intersectionality. This is important because properly attributing credit is a form of obtaining power. Shifting power to subordinated people is essential in the study and practice of diversity, inclusion, inequality, and power itself. 

Intersectionality Wars

At its core, the issue of attribution has been reduced to a debate between feminists who are white women and Black feminists. Jennifer C. Nash calls it “intersectionality wars” in her book Black Feminism Reimagined after Intersectionality (2019). Intersectionality Wars is a way to describe the epistemological debates between proponents and critics of intersectionality, particularly differences between Black feminism and white feminism. The term “intersectionality wars” makes a caricature of the severity of Black feminists’ concern with how white feminisms have a history of rejecting the significance, complexity, and existence of Black feminist thought and intersectional knowledge production.

Nash’s project with her book Black Feminism Reimagined After Intersectionality is to “interrupt the black feminist disavowal of intersectionality’s critics, figures who are the absent-presences that haunt black feminist engagement with intersectionality, and to instead argue that the spectral figure of the critic might provide an opportunity to embrace precisely the letting go of the book celebrates” (Nash 2019: 35). When she writes “imagined,” “spectral,” and “haunt,” Nash is invoking a vocabulary of fantasy that says Black feminists’ concerns have been blown out of proportion. It says that Black feminists cannot excel in their use of intersectionality until they allow themselves to stop being haunted by the white feminist spectral (ghost-like) figure. This fantastic vocabulary minimizes legitimate and well-founded concerns. It is belittling and dismissive and oversimplifies a complex history of stripping Black women of their intellectual assets.  

Whitening of Intersectionality

The trouble with Nash’s assessment of Black feminists’ work to reclaim the origins of intersectionality is that it also contributes to what Sirma Bilge calls the “whitening of intersectionality” (Bilge 2013). Bilge explains that the whitening of intersectionality stems from the institutionalization of intersectionality as neoliberal academic performance. Essentially, everywhere you turned, someone was talking about intersectionality. It became the word you dropped when you wanted to appear interested in and committed to diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

The whitening also occurs in some of the trends that “neutralize the political potential of intersectionality,” including: 

  • confining intersectionality to academic theoretical discourse; 
  • depoliticizing intersectionality by ignoring its social justice roots; and 
  • claiming intersectionality as “the brainchild of feminism,” thereby taking the intersection race and gender – Black women – out of its origins. (Bilge 405). 

Bilge is saying “metatheoretical musings” act to depoliticize intersectionality in a way that is solely contemplative (a thought exercise) without engaging in action or application of the theory. When it comes to social change, “metatheoretical thought” is useless without practice.

In addition to being criticized as overly simplistic identity politics, intersectionality also tends to be criticized as failing to meet certain standards of complexity by legal scholars. They diminish intersectionality’s ability to analyze structural oppression. This argument oversimplifies and misunderstands the depth of intersectionality. However, such a critical move is necessary for these scholars to “resolve” the issues by  proposing theories of post-intersectionality like  “assemblages,” “symbiosis,” “interconnectivity,” “cosynthesis,” and “multidimensionality” (Puar 2017; Carastathis 2016; Ehrenreich 2002; Kwan 1997, 2000; Chang and Culp 2002; Hutchinson 1997, 2002; Valdes 1995).

The idea that something is “wrong” with intersectionality is off-base and, more importantly, has significant negative effects on the public perception of intersectionality’s contributions and utility. Barbara Tomlinson captures the nature of the criticisms and prescribes a way forward for future critiques when she argues that the dominant narrative criticizing intersectionality “encourages feminist scholars to assume that their task should be to condemn, reform, and appropriate intersectionality, rather than to foster intersectionality’s ability to critique subordination” (Tomlinson 2019: 8). Criticism is important because without it, ideas remain stagnant and don’t fulfill their potential (Ferree and Choo 2010). Bad criticism, however, only serves as a distraction and detractor.  

Have you found yourself questioning the utility of intersectionality or disinterested in using the term as more than a buzzword? Ask yourself, “Why?” Why haven’t you engaged more deeply in order to learn more about the uses and complexities of intersectionality? Are your reasons based on your privilege as a man and/or a white person? Will you become committed to taking an active interest in intersectionality’s development as a concept and a practice? Or, are you committed to claiming your firm “takes an intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion,” but both you and your firm refuse to do the work of considering and changing how social inequalities perpetuated by white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism are also rampant within the legal profession?

How is your workplace intentionally intersectional in its diversity and inclusion efforts? 

By: Takeia R. Johnson — writer, sociology ph.d student, and lawyer