At The Atlantic, the ever-thought-provoking Conor Friedersdorf ponders whether the dreaded notion of intersectionality can be a force for good as well as the scoring system for the oppression Olympics.
Here is intersectionality as David French understands it:
While there’s not yet an Apostle’s Creed of intersectionality, it can roughly be defined as the belief that oppression operates in complicated, “interlocking” ways. So the experience of, say, a white trans woman is different in important ways from the experience of a black lesbian. A white trans woman will experience the privilege of her skin but also oppression due to her gender identity. A black lesbian may experience the privilege of “cis” gender identity but also oppression due to race and sexuality.
So far, so good. He continues:
It’s identity politics on steroids, where virtually every issue in American life can and must be filtered through the prisms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
But that is a claim that the insights of intersectionality are being applied too zealously, or to the exclusion of other truths, not that the underlying idea is flawed.
And Conor drops the bomb.
The core insight is true—oppression does operate in complicated, “interlocking” ways—but reflecting on it, and using identity as one of many lenses to see the world fully, needn’t entail a commitment to identity fundamentalism any more than embracing insights of any ideology requires donning the blinders of a fundamentalist ideologue.
Is it true? Well, the word “does” is in italics, so I guess it must be. But even if we accept this premise, does it add any value to our understanding of people? Putting aside the tacit assumption that the world is comprised of systems of oppression, an assumption that is premised in a pretty miserable conception of humanity, the best that can be said of a very old, very well-known idea that group stereotyping doesn’t explain any individual in the group is that it’s been given a new jargon word, as if Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 coining of intersectionality created a notion that never occurred to anyone before.
To the extent the word contributes anything to the dialogue, it’s a more refined stereotype than the gross ones that most of us use constantly in trying to make sense of the world. Obviously, we cannot get to know, up close and personal, every person with whom we interact, so we impute things to them based on perceived characteristics. That could be skin color. It could be word choice. It could be tattoos.
If we apply a more intersectional means of stereotyping, we end up with new assumptions about people based not just on their skin color, but that plus gender, or sexual orientation as well. But does this make our assumptions about them valid? Perhaps more valid than the old style of gross stereotypes, but not the same as actually knowing the person for realsies.
It has always been known that we don’t really know other people. We paint them as one-dimensional cartoon characters because we have no other choice, forced to deal with other people without having the opportunity to spend quality time getting to know each and every one of them. We impute things to them, whether positive or negative attributes, because that’s the best we can do. We’re often wrong. Maybe extremely wrong.
So Conor has a valuable point that intersectionality, used for good rather than evil, can help us to refine our assumptions, to take into account more than the most obvious attributes we observe. But that doesn’t make the core concepts of intersectionality true; it just makes them a little less false than our gross stereotypes.
The better assumption would be that everyone is an individual. Each of us has problems in our lives that others don’t know about. We have joys as well. Maybe our intersections matter, and maybe they don’t. Maybe we prefer not to wallow in misery, and would appreciate it if you keep your systems of oppression out of our timeline.
If we accept the premise that intersectionality is true, as Conor explains it, we need not bother to consider that people are individuals, who may reflect whatever intersectionalism says about them, but may not. Even if it’s not a valueless concept, it doesn’t mean it’s real as to any individual. This shouldn’t be forgotten or subsumed by extolling the virtue of a better brand of stereotyping.