September 29, 2014

Commentary | March 24, 2014
The need for a new analysis
Intersectionality theory cements the problems it tries to solve
Written by | Visual by Carmen Fenech | The McGill Daily

The activist buzzwords you’re likely to hear nowadays revolve around the idea of privilege, and its theoretical counterpart, intersectionality. Perhaps you’ve never heard of intersectionality, but you’ve likely come across terms such as ‘white-normativity,’ ‘safe(r) spaces,’ or ‘privilege.’

These terms haven’t entered the mainstream by accident; their relative popularity is due to the fact that the intersectional approach is currently the predominant outlook among activists in North America (as well as being fairly widespread in Australia and the UK).

Its ubiquity in North America has caused a heated debate between its supporters and detractors. To its credit, intersectionality has provided a generation of activists and academics with new ways of thinking through old problems. The main issue challenged by proponents of intersectionality is that many activists still think of the ‘oppressed’ as a homogenous block, rather than as a diverse group of people. Stereotypical images of the white, working-class male will simply no longer do. In this respect, intersectionality is about understanding the different types of oppression that individuals might encounter, along with how these different oppressions interact with one another.

It is best thought of as a response to activists who focus on one form of oppression to the exclusion of other types, a reductive stance known as ‘essentialism.’ One gets the feeling, however, that the general attack on ‘essentialism’ is targeting a very specific type of essentialism. This is the dreaded ‘class essentialism.’ To counter this reductive view of class, proponents of intersectionality like to highlight the importance of what they see as non-class issues, such as racism, ecology, sexism, et cetera. In this, intersectionality has been quite useful.

The main issue challenged by proponents of intersectionality is that many activists still think of the ‘oppressed’ as a homogenous block, rather than as a diverse group of people.

But when intersectionality is considered in terms of its ability to help solve those issues, it’s found a bit lacking. Consider the widespread use of the term classism among intersectional theorists. Classism refers to the “unfair treatment of people because of their social or economic class.” A few decades ago, it was more common to talk about class exploitation, or the fact that exploitation is inherent to any society with classes. Problems were conceptualized in a more systemic way, and the solutions often involved some sort of systemic (and revolutionary) change.

Today, many activists still hold to the idea of revolution, but do so in a more individualized way. Instead of exploitation, we now talk about classism. It shifts the attention to the impoliteness the different classes show toward one another, rather than to their existence in the first place.

For example, consider what an ‘intersectionalist’ would say about Elite Daily’s list of “The 20 Mistakes You Don’t Want To Make In Your Twenties,” particularly number six. This is the mistake of “spending your money on women who aren’t escorts” (much of this entry has now been removed).

The author writes, “Your sex life is an investment – and the smarter the deals you execute, the savvier of an investor you become.” He goes on to suggest that while some “may immediately jump to the negative connotations of a woman who is paid for sex, we suggest you take one step back. As an entrepreneur herself, why would you not want to deal with someone who has the same honesty and integrity that you do.”

It is part of the general logic of capitalism and, in particular, neoliberalism, to individualize social problems.

A proponent of intersectionality would most likely perceive the author as being, among other things, classist and sexist. They also agree with the author’s opinion that prostitution should destigmatized.

These things are true, but don’t get to the most problematic aspect of the article, which is in considering one’s sex life as an investment. One could, in theory, take away all of the ‘classist’ and ‘sexist’ elements from the transaction being described, and still have it be a capitalist transaction. In the same manner, a boss can be nice to their workers, eschewing any particular acts of classism, racism, or sexism, but at the end of the day, they’re still the boss.

This is because class (like race, sex, gender, et cetera) primarily indicates a social relationship, not a ‘quality’ that individuals possess. The individual is not the fundamental unit within society.

This brings us to the most troubling aspect of intersectional theory – it pays lip service to the idea of systemic change, but can only offer individual solutions. The way in which class becomes mainly about ‘classism’ is a perfect example; if one doesn’t believe that class can be overcome systemically, why not settle for individual (and reformist) solutions like ‘redistributing privilege?’

Intersectionality’s insistence on the ‘connectedness’ of different types of oppression turns into its opposite.

It is part of the general logic of capitalism and, in particular, neoliberalism, to individualize social problems. This individualization is shown in how intersectional theorists often think about the categories of race, gender, and class, and their relation to the capitalist economy. The usual trick is to treat class and the economy as if they were the same thing. In reducing the economy to class, two key things occur.

The first is that this explanation glosses over the fact that the economy is more socially encompassing than the category of class. The second is that economic factors are hidden away in the category of class, rather than being seen as the medium in which the categories of race, class, and gender interact.

This need to segregate the economic and hide it in the category of class produces an unexpected result. Intersectionality’s insistence on the ‘connectedness’ of different types of oppression turns into its opposite.

The goal of intersection turns into a desire for separation. Rather than placing the emphasis on people connecting and intersecting through mass movements, activists go into their own corners and tend to narrowly focus on their specific concerns. They do so because they believe that their (particular) concerns can be solved through reform instead of revolutionary transformation. This is not to downplay the positive aspects of reform; it is just pointing out that it cannot ultimately solve the problem it tries to fix. The same goes for intersectionality.


Jake Kinzey is a U4 Education student. He can be reached at jacob.kinzey@mail.mcgill.ca.

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