by Philip Hammond on behalf of DDU academics
The concept of ‘intersectionality’ seems omnipresent today. Human Resources departments in public institutions and businesses miss no opportunity to trumpet its significance. HR Magazine emphasises ‘the importance of intersectionality in HR’, while Personnel Today warns that failure to take proper account of intersectionality could mean that ‘organisations will undermine well-intentioned efforts to improve inclusion’. Despite the term’s ubiquitous usage, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development worries that intersectionality is ‘still not fully recognised by firms’, and offers guidance on ‘What HR managers need to know about misogynoir’ (a neologism denoting prejudice against black women), because ‘recognising this issue can help a HR team make great strides in stamping out any discrimination’.
The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined in a 1989 article by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar and an important figure in the development of critical race theory, to describe something that now seems obvious: that people can potentially face discrimination on multiple grounds simultaneously. Crenshaw critiqued the anomalous interpretation of anti-discrimination law by US courts, discussing three cases from the late 1970s and early 1980s where the legal system had proven incapable of dealing effectively with discrimination on the basis of both sex and race. The courts had perversely insisted that only one factor — one ‘protected characteristic’ in UK legal terms — could be taken into account as the basis for a claim of discrimination. Crenshaw used the metaphor of a crossroads to explain that:
Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them.
The rigid ‘single-axis framework’ adopted by the courts made no sense, and for plaintiffs alleging that discrimination had occurred because they were both female and black, it seemed clear that justice had not been served.
The common-sense appeal of the idea has led even otherwise harsh critics to acknowledge its kernel of truth. Yet despite Crenshaw’s legalistic presentation, the concept behind the term ‘intersectionality’ was never just about the law. It was always a political proposition which had deeper roots — discussed further below — in the leftist, feminist and antiracist movements of the past. There is therefore something very odd about the way it has now become a tool of workplace management and HR bureaucracy. Indeed, many adherents of ‘intersectional’ thinking are uncomfortable with the incongruity. Writing in the Du Bois Review, for example, Sirma Bilge, notes that:
Intersectionality, originally focused on transformative and counter-hegemonic knowledge production and radical politics of social justice, has been commodified and colonized for neoliberal regimes. A depoliticized intersectionality is particularly useful to a neoliberalism that reframes all values as market values: identity-based radical politics are often turned into corporatized diversity tools leveraged by dominant groups to attain various ideological and institutional goals
Bilge’s own assessment of this development is that intersectionality has become too ‘white’ — by which she means it has been incorporated into hegemonic ‘ways of knowing’, losing its radical edge. But that seems to describe, rather than explain, what has occurred. How has an idea that originated within radical movements for social change come to be assimilated into the apparatus of corporate ‘equality and diversity’ training?
The changing politics of intersectionality
In the two decades before Crenshaw gave a name to intersectionality, the underlying idea had repeatedly been raised as an internal critique within radical movements. In her 1969 pamphlet Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, for example, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Frances Beal was sharply critical of the US labour movement, the women’s movement, and the black liberation movement. She argued that ‘the unions have historically been racist and chauvinistic’, pointed to the limitations of a ‘white women’s liberation movement [that] is basically middle class’, and confronted the sexism of the male leaders of the antiracist struggle who were ‘exerting their “manhood” by telling black women to step back into a domestic, submissive role’. Similarly, in their 1977 statement the Combahee River Collective explained that it was their ‘disillusionment’ with male-dominated antiracist organisations and their ‘experience on the periphery of the white male left’ that had led them to ‘develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men’.
Yet although they can be seen as early exponents of identity politics, these activists maintained a markedly more universalist outlook than prevails today. For Beal, the point of drawing attention to the ‘double jeopardy’ of discrimination faced by black women was to argue that it was ‘to everyone’s disadvantage’ if such divisions persisted — and that overcoming them could be ‘a stepping stone to the liberation of all oppressed people in this country and around the world’. Likewise, the Combahee River Collective combined an endorsement of ‘identity politics’ with calls for ‘the liberation of all oppressed peoples’, emphasising ‘solidarity’ and rejecting ‘fractionalization’ and separatism. Drawing attention to differences was understood, at least rhetorically, as a step towards forging a truer universalism by confronting and overcoming division.
Such critics had a point in drawing attention to the backward attitudes of the leadership of the labour movement, the sexism of male-dominated Black liberation organisations, and the limitations of white, middle-class feminism. Over the course of the 1980s, though, as the labour movement and the left suffered serial defeats and the radical tumult of the post-1968 moment began fading from memory, this legitimate critique increasingly became a way for radicals to distance themselves from the white, male, heterosexual, working-class masses, and to emphasise difference as a value in itself.
By the time that Crenshaw was writing about intersectionality, universalist aspirations had already been largely abandoned in favour of the sacralisation of victimhood and identity. In a 1991 article, she questioned the assumption that ‘race, gender, and other identity categories’ should be seen as ‘vestiges of bias or domination’, and challenged the view that ‘our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance’, as implied, for instance, in a colour-blind approach to antiracism. Instead, she argued, ‘delineating difference’ should be seen as a ‘source of social empowerment’. The limitation of then-current identity politics, for Crenshaw, was ‘not that it fails to transcend difference’ but rather that it ‘frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences’. Division was now something to be celebrated and proliferated, rather than overcome.
A hierarchy of victimhood and privilege
Although activists deny engaging in what Betita Martínez called the ‘Oppression Olympics’, the logic of intersectionality is not just to proliferate divisions, but to create a hierarchy of oppression. Crenshaw’s influential 1989 article on the ‘intersection’ did so with another striking image: that of a tower of people ranked according to how many factors of disadvantage they suffered from:
Imagine a basement which contains all people who are disadvantaged on the basis of race, sex, class, sexual preference, age and/or physical ability. These people are stacked — feet standing on shoulders — with those on the bottom being disadvantaged by the full array of factors, up to the very top, where the heads of all those disadvantaged by a singular factor brush up against the ceiling. Their ceiling is actually the floor above which only those who are not disadvantaged in any way reside. In efforts to correct some aspects of domination, those above the ceiling admit from the basement only those who can say that ‘but for’ the ceiling, they too would be in the upper room. A hatch is developed through which those placed immediately below can crawl. Yet this hatch is generally available only to those who — due to the singularity of their burden and their otherwise privileged position relative to those below — are in the position to crawl through. Those who are multiply-burdened are generally left below unless they can somehow pull themselves into the groups that are permitted to squeeze through the hatch.
In Crenshaw’s basement, the greater the number of factors a person is burdened with, the greater their disadvantage, and the higher their victim status.
In making this point, she also highlighted another important aspect of intersectional thinking — the idea of ‘relative privilege’. According to this pernicious logic, individuals are not only defined by their given identity characteristics (such as being a gay black woman), and not only cumulatively oppressed by the sheer number of such characteristics they possess, they are also invited to see those with fewer ‘factors’ (such as a straight white woman,) as benefiting from ‘privilege’. Whatever Crenshaw’s intentions, there is no logic of solidarity here — only a logic of corrosive resentment which pits different victim-identities against each other. Competitive victimhood makes no sense in the context of a movement that genuinely seeks to build solidarity and transcend divisions. But in the context of today’s victimhood culture, in which claims-making on the basis of marginalised identities is culturally validated, there is a powerful incentive for such competition.
The simplistic procedure of adding up the number of identity factors, like they were sacks of potatoes, to calculate the degree of oppression from which a person suffers also points to another problem with the intersectional approach: its analytical weakness. The different factors mentioned by Crenshaw — ‘race, sex, class, sexual preference, age and/or physical ability’ — are surely not of equal weight in every context. The fact that different characteristics ‘intersect’ does not tell us anything about what the salient variables might be in any given set of circumstances. Nor are these factors all qualitatively comparable: aging is a natural process affecting everyone in different ways throughout their lives, for example, but the same cannot be said of being working class.
Reflecting on Crenshaw’s notion of intersecting avenues of oppression, Barbara Foley asks:
Who created these avenues? Why would certain people be traveling down them? Where were they constructed, and when? The spatial model discourages questions like these…
Although intersectionality can usefully describe the effects of multiple oppressions, I propose, it does not offer an adequate explanatory framework for addressing the root causes of social inequality in the capitalist socioeconomic system. In fact, intersectionality can pose a barrier when one begins to ask other kinds of questions about the reasons for inequality…
Marxist critics such as Foley want to insist on the primacy of class as the core organising relationship of capitalist societies, and to hang on to the aspiration to universalism that the idea of a ‘universal class’ once embodied.
In intersectionalist approaches, not only is it difficult to raise questions about the commensurability of identity categories, but the very idea of an objective and universally-valid analysis looks suspect. Crenshaw explained in 1989 what really lay behind feminist aspirations to speak for the interests of all women, for example:
The authoritative universal voice — usually white male subjectivity masquerading as non-racial, non-gendered objectivity — is merely transferred to those who, but for gender, share many of the same cultural, economic and social characteristics.
If attempts at objective analysis of social conditions seem inherently disingenuous, the only authentic and reliable epistemological standpoint is that of the marginalised. As bell hooks argues in her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center:
Black women…have a lived experience that directly challenges the prevailing classist, sexist, racist social structure and its concomitant ideology. This lived experience may shape our consciousness in such a way that our world view differs from those who have a degree of privilege (however relative within the existing system). It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and create a counter-hegemony.
For hooks, insight can only come from the right perspective — which one may have only by virtue of one’s place in the social structure. The corollary, of course, is that a person who occupies the wrong place in this schema is bound to lack understanding. Coupled with the idea of multiple axes of oppression / privilege, this approach again seems likely to foster division, validating some voices on the basis of their positionality, while allowing critics to be dismissed as simply lacking the correct vantage point.
From the margins to the centre
In the decades since Crenshaw coined the term, there has been a great deal of scholarly debate — sometimes so contentious that Jennifer Nash has dubbed it ‘the intersectionality wars’ — about how to develop, extend and refine the idea. Crenshaw said in a 2017 interview that she never intended it as a ‘a grand theory of everything’ (although she has also proposed establishing a field of Intersectionality Studies), and has sought to retain an activist orientation toward ‘advocates and communities’. Of course it is appropriate that academics debate and investigate the idea of intersectionality, but any idea that this is somehow empowering the oppressed is simply delusional.
Instead, the language of ‘intersectionality’ lends a veneer of moral authority to businesses and institutions who role-play as activists. This now even extends to an organisation such as the CIA, which launched an intersectional recruitment campaign earlier this year. In one advert, a Latina CIA employee intones: ‘I am a woman of colour. I am a mom. I am a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional’. It seems unlikely that this was the outcome that radicals in the 1960s and 1970s had in mind when drawing attention to multiple sources of oppression. One can also only wonder what they would have made of HR specialists explaining why intersectionality ‘makes business sense’, or of training consultants offering to use intersectionality to create ‘a positive brand image’ and increase workers’ productivity.
In today’s context, the only people empowered by promoting the concept of intersectionality are managers and HR administrators. As historian James Heartfield observes in his 2017 study, The Equal Opportunities Revolution:
[T]op-down anti-discrimination measures…[are] instruments of labour discipline, in the hands of the employers and the authorities, to dominate employees. Even where these acts of domination are in favour of minorities, they enhance the power of the elite over the mass. More, the policies derive their power from division. Diversity in the workforce, diversity in society, must be managed….Policies and organisations that were supposed to help to address inequality have ended up institutionalising it.
As erstwhile radicals came to see the majority of their ‘relatively privileged’ fellow citizens as potential oppressors, rather than as potential allies, they helped create the conditions in which workforce differences and divisions are understood as HR problems to be managed in perpetuity.
Philip Hammond is professor of media & communications at London South Bank University