Last week, Jake Kinzey penned a column in The Daily critiquing the politics of intersectionality that he considers ubiquitous, at least on the political left (“The need for a new analysis,” Commentary, March 24, page 9). I argue below that his ‘new’ analysis mischaracterizes intersectional politics, and in doing so, reverts to an outdated and exclusionary theory of social change.
The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1991 to identify the fact that women of colour experience an intersection of racism and sexism that is more than the sum of its parts, while remaining marginalized in (white-dominated) feminist and (male-dominated) antiracist work. This context is important, because it situates the concept of intersectionality as a response to narrowly-framed identity politics, and a tool for better understanding the way in which oppression operates. It is an ironic illustration of Crenshaw’s point that her ideas are dismissed, and her name erased, in this white man’s vision of an ‘inclusive’ revolutionary theory.
Marginalized people experience extreme levels of violence to keep them in their place, while at the same time their bodies are treated as raw materials to be pillaged.
When Kinzey argues that intersectional politics play into the logic of capitalism by individualizing social problems, he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how oppression works. His definition of exploitation purely in terms of the capitalist transactions between worker and boss ignores two key elements of capitalist exploitation. First, the unpaid labour that serves to support workers – and thus the entire system – and second, the systemic exclusion of certain people in order to regulate the availability of labour, create demand for everything from wedding rings to jail cells, and keep workers from revolting by reminding them that things could be worse. This unpaid labour and exclusion from education and job markets are made to appear natural because they are enacted along racial and gendered lines. Thus capitalism simultaneously relies on, and reinforces, racism and sexism, as well as the related systems of homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, et cetera. Any coherent critique of, and resistance to capitalism must recognize these forces and their intersections.
Intersectional analysis enables us to build movements that are truly radical, by centring the experiences of those who are worst off in the current system.
These are not merely academic concerns. Though Kinzey uses sex work in a poorly thought-out example, he does not actually engage with the way that these intersecting power structures (primarily) impact the bodies of women and people of colour. Marginalized people experience extreme levels of violence to keep them in their place, while at the same time their bodies are treated as raw materials to be pillaged. The resulting traumas include disproportionate experiences of murder and assault, verbal harassment, the deprivations of poverty, as well as rape, slavery, and incarceration, and the less striking, but still exhausting, realities of sexual objectification, domestic labour, and constant discrimination. Although I focused here on race and gender, the profound importance of colonial exploitation in the development and continuation of capitalism must be recognized, and the intersections between colonialism and the oppressions described above could fill a book (or ten).
Given the highly differentiated experiences we have under capitalism, it is disingenuous to characterize the struggles of marginalized people to define liberation according to their own lived experiences as reformist. In fact, a revolutionary politics based in the experience of the prototypical worker (a white, abled man) is bound to be incomplete. In contrast, intersectional analysis enables us to build movements that are truly radical, by centring the experiences of those who are worst off in the current system. Unfortunately, Kinzey has rejected the analytical framework that could actually enable the fundamental revolution he claims to want, in favour of a reductionist vision of Marxism that has been found lacking time and again by theorists and activists of all stripes.
Mona Luxion wishes to acknowledge the wealth of conversations that have informed eir critique of this article and eir understanding of intersectional praxis as a whole. E is a PhD candidate in the School of Urban Planning and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.