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A charming little video on YouTube features schoolchildren explaining to each other what “intersectionality” is. To them it means identity: the combination of factors, like skin color, gender, and ability, “that makes you, you.” Simple, right? Not so much. Intersectionality is an academic theory, the origin and definition of which are easy to explain. But the implications are thick and sticky as molasses.
Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw invented the term as a way to describe the unique challenges of black women. Her Exhibit A was a legal case, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1977), in which black female employees sued the automaker after their termination. The plaintiffs claimed their case did not involve racial discrimination only, or gender only, but a matrix of the two. The district court dismissed that claim, fearing that introducing a new level of injustice “governed by the mathematical principles of combination and permutation,” would risk “opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.” To the contrary, wrote Ms. Crenshaw: Combination/permutation is the only way to understand our social dynamic. Intersectionality is not about identity per se, but about “how systems contribute to exclusion.”
In the 1990s, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins stirred the term into her lectures on “interlocking oppression.” As campus activism grew during the first decade of this century, “intersectionality” became a useful umbrella concept for a network of expanding grievances—a Pandora’s box, if you will. Females, Blacks, Latinos (and Latinx), “non-white” Asians, atheists, gays and lesbians, as well as the transgendered, gender-fluid, disabled, and fat-shamed could all, if they were so inclined, find a place in its matrix of exclusion and privilege. Only one group was left out: white males. But they could buy indulgence out of their privilege prison by becoming fervent “allies” of marginalized groups.
“Intersectionality” was mostly an academic term until this decade. But with the election of Donald Trump, it ballooned into the intellectual framework for unfocused rage. It’s the rationale behind angry chants about racists, sexists, and homophobes, all of which Trump and his supporters represent.
Should we be alarmed? Not at all, says Lauren Nelson, the “friendly atheist” at the Patheos website. “The idea behind [intersectionality] is no more complicated than having some empathy for people whose struggles we may not have experienced ourselves.”
But then, she’s a white woman. Black, (less-friendly) atheist Sincere Kirabo believes intersectionality demands “seismic social change.” He berates the “naysayers” who feel a little uncomfortable with that. Patricia Hill Collins agrees we need a revolution: At a recent conference she insisted there could be no compromise with conservatives: “You must be oppositional. You must fight.”
Forms of oppression do exist, but intersectionality theorists mistake both the symptoms and the cause. Oppression doesn’t come from a conspiracy of whiteness. It’s the default mode of anyone in power, regardless of outward identity factors. We are defined equally by inward factors, and in our hearts we can all identify as sinners. Where sin has room to flourish, it will.
Forms of oppression do exist, but intersectionality theorists mistake both the symptoms and the cause.
If a disease is misdiagnosed, the treatment can be treacherous. If a goal is impossible, the means may be deadly. A society where everyone is treated with equal fairness and no one has a grudge—we call that Utopia. Utopian revolutions never succeed; the solution is worse than the original problem. Since perfection remains out of reach, anger expands. Infighting abounds. Young idealists who enter college inarticulately yearning for a noble cause become thought police, relentless privilege-checkers and microaggression-hunters. Students who remain “unwoke” (the vast majority) turn into casual cynics.
Reducing everything to politics—even decent behavior, which Sincere Kirabo calls “respectability politics”—makes human interaction a system of power structures. This is a withering way to see the world: casting one’s actions as bullets, cased in rigid “identities,” riddling walls of oppression with no clear vision for replacing them.
There’s another place where identities intersect: the crossways of work and faith, family and community. This is where life happens; not walls but garden soil. When a bullet hits, it is spent. Where a seed is planted, it grows.