Intersectionality is an icepick

Intersectionality is a thing, and intersectionality is a word. Intersectionality (the word) is an icepick. There are inhospitable environments where you wouldn’t survive without having it in your hand to gain purchase on the slippery terrain, and there are places where in all likelihood you’re going to end up with it lodged in your skull by a rival lefty on a power grab.

This post is about intersectionality the word – a word I’ve never used on my blog, which is more five years and 350 entries old. It just hasn’t come up. I’ve written comment pieces and features for the Guardian, New Statesman, New Humanist and various lifestyle and entertainment magazines over the same period. The word intersectionality isn’t in any of those either. I’m a white, middle-class feminist and I’ve never written about intersectionality.

In fact, hadn’t even heard of it until earlier this year. It’s not just me: this chart from Google trends shows search activity for “intersectional” (blue) and “feminism” (red). “Intersectional” is a flat line of nothing from 2004 until the end of 2012, where a tiny cluster of pixels represents its high point of interest to date. As a word, this is the newest of neologisms.

Things get a bit more interesting if I take out the “feminism” searches so we can see “intersectional” in detail (though there’s some noise introduced by the fact that “intersectional” appears to have an American college sports meaning as well as a political one). Then you you can see that “intersectional” erupted in 2005, puttering about in various degrees of obscurity until the recent mini-surge driven by criticism of Caitlin Moran for her interview with Lena Dunham.

Compare the first chart with the second, and it wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that “feminism” is on a long-term downward trend and “intersectional” is at the very beginning of its ascendancy. One day, maybe, people with an interest in social justice and equality will talk about themselves as intersectionalists rather than feminists or anti-racists. But at the moment, there’s no way around the fact that not many people appear to know or use the word “intersectional”.

That doesn’t make it an automatic candidate for the banned list: language is an organic thing, and what starts off niche will enter general currency through repeated use if it proves useful. It does, however, mean that every time you use the word “intersectional”, you’re making a trade-off between specificity and accessibility. (For what it’s worth, I read the Vagenda editors’ comments about intersectionality as referring to the word not the thing, and I understood them to be making this same point.)

There’s a riposte to this, made by Ray Filar: equality is an important concept, important concepts demand their own vocabulary, and anyone who needs a dictionary can just fucking google it. But this makes intersectionality a sort of test that the reader must pass, rather than a tool the writer is using to describe and shape the world. Your willingness to familiarise yourself with an obscure vocabulary becomes a measure of your political soundness. And that, I think, is where intersectionality (the word) betrays intersectionality (the concept).

I am lucky. I’m middle class and have the university education to match. My time in seminars has instilled in me a sense that forbidding, polysyllabic words are an invitation to come and play. Intersectionality hadn’t entered the day-to-day talk of an English department when I was studying (the earliest usage I found in Google books was 2003), but having made friends with différance, the Lacanian unconscious and homosocial behaviour, I’m not about to be put off by a pissy bit of adjectival-noun coinage.

If you haven’t got the same background in or affinity with academia, though, intersectionality is a word that says this is not for you. We’re unmistakably in Orwell’s-fifth-rule territory here. And that’s troubling, because the whole point of intersectionality (the thing) is to expand ideas of equality and the human subject beyond the narrow bounds that are generally allowed to count for normal. If we express that idea using language that most people have to research in the first instance, then we’ve failed the idea in the expression.

Political writers and activists presumably want to persuade and galvanise their audience. If you’re already imposing on the reader’s beliefs, don’t make a further imposition on their time by asking them to do your work for you and translate your opinions into a language they can understand. If you wouldn’t use a word at the schoolgates or to a co-worker, then it’s probably doing more to identify you with your politics than it is to spread them. Similarly, intersectionality (the word) can be used to mark enemies: to hold unexamined privilege (that is, to lack intersectionality) is a quality of a person, not their work, and many uses do more to discount individuals than redress bias.

In the time I’ve been not-writing about intersectionality, I’ve written difficult, careful features about witchcraft beliefs and child abuse; about forced marriage; about supporting international abortion rights without overriding the voices of the women we seek to help. As I’ve written these pieces, I’ve thought about class, culture, race, religion and disability. I’ve thought about how an individual’s background might constrain the options they have, and about how authorities and campaigners can be respectful of difference without deferring to harmful prejudice. Without writing about intersectionality, I suppose I’ve written intersectionally. And I believe I’ve done it better for not using intersectionality the word.

Thanks to Bim Adewunmi, who probably won’t agree with this but who has been kind enough to talk to me about all this stuff at length

14 thoughts on “Intersectionality is an icepick

  1. I googled this word a month ago. It didn’t help. I have a degree. It’s a useless one but all the same, I would’ve hoped my education would help. It didn’t. Maybe I’m so oppressed by dint of my race, my poverty and my disabling mental illness that other feminists will forgive me for still not understanding what intersectionality is.

  2. Full disclosure: I’m a white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied male in (I hope and trust) good mental health. My understanding of Intersectionality is that, for this reason, it is a potentially endless network of linkages between things I am not.

    This either means I’m in a good position to comment on Intersectionality objectively or it means I have absolutely no right to comment on it whatsoever. I’ll go with the former but wouldn’t be surprised or take issue with anyone who thought the latter (I think it would be a shame though).

    I found this piece interesting and it says something of what has troubled me about this concept – which I too had not known about until the recent debate about Girls. Namely, the word. As I grasp it, Intersectionality simply describes a truth: that you can be a woman and you can also be disabled and you might also be Asian. And there’s three facts about your existence that create three separate potentials for discrimination. But all three are part of one existence.

    However, the way I have seen this word used recently suggests an *expectation* that everyone in these myriad sections must be unified of purpose, must feel the same way about each other’s discrimination, must be as alert to it… and as active about it?

    Of course, when you think about that for a while, you start to see the kind of utopia that the human race doesn’t do very well. Boiled down, using the word actively (as opposed to descriptively) is saying “your oppression is my oppression”. It kicks away the cop-out of empathy and says “no, we are all sections of the same problem”. If you want to look at it negatively, it’s an over-intellectualised recruiting tool, not much different – in its absolutist tone – from ‘either for us or against us’.

    Intersectionality is, itself, glaringly (pick your word) middle class, bourgeois, liberal etc. You can tell this because it conveniently avoids the sections where it all breaks down a little. An Asian woman who is disabled might also be devoutly Muslim. Does Intersectionality require her vigilance and activism on sexual orientation? And if so and she refuses on account of her beliefs, is she a bad or lesser feminist? Does, indeed, her religious beliefs automatically discount her?

    And, if you turn the Intersectionality telescope around and look through the other end, it’s also quite a cushy cop-out of its own.

    I think Caitlin Moran’s comment on racial representation on Girls was worthy of strong criticism. From what I understand about the point of Girls, I don’t agree that Dunham should betray the thing she wanted to create just because she is a feminist and therefore in one of the ‘sections’. But, I also DO give a shit about racial representation in film and TV – it’s a pretty clear problem. I don’t get how you could not give a shit about it, even if you don’t think it necessarily applies to every dramatic work.

    But the argument over Moran’s comment has not been about racial discrimination, about whether Caitlin Moran has expressed a form of racism or indeed whether indeed Caitlin Moran *is* a racist. No, Intersectionality provides a little bit of a safety net there – it’s not about whether Caitlin Moran is a racist but it’s whether she’s a good feminist after all.

    I’m sure Caitlin Moran isn’t a racist by the way but who knows, maybe she is? Her dignified silence on the matter seems to me to have been entirely based on not reaping the feminist whirlwind, not the race one. It would be quite easy to clarify that comment but I have not seen her do that.

    So, is Intersectionality an absolutist concept that seeks to bind many people via their own and shared oppression. And does it also somehow help to miss points and obfuscate a simple issue that would benefit from wider discussion and understanding?

    And if so, tell me in our history when something like that has ever been helpful?

  3. My qualifications total 1 A Level and I’ve never read a feminist text in my life (unless you count flicking through The Beauty Myth once). I heard about intersectionality a few years ago online, along with the idea of kyriarchy and despite my total lack of academic skills, I really didn’t find the idea of it hard to grasp.

    In fact I found it a lot easier than having to explain the concept every single time to just use the word. And as long as you’re not sneering about people for not knowing what that something is, but explaining there’s a word for thinking about how privilege interacts on different levels, then I see no issue with it.

    And frankly if people are getting pissy having it explained to them as white, financially stable, well educated, cisgendered, hetero middle class feminists that they they’ve got privileges not everyone else has, I think there’s another issue rather than using big words.

    But there is no reason to assume that someone in a different class or educational bracket can’t hear a word and understand what it means if educated. That’s patronising and reductive and seeing as the only people I’ve seen unable to get their heads round it in the past few weeks have been the most privileged ones with a tonne of degrees, perhaps missing the point somewhat?

  4. Intersectionality (and to a far greater extent, kyriarchy) are obscure. They are linguistic markers. For you, those markers were inviting; for other people (the ones who don’t already identify themselves with your politics) they’re repellant. Fine if you don’t want them as readers, but don’t pretend using the word makes you more inclusive.

  5. I completely agree with the general thought that there’s a time and a place for academic language (and the place is usually, “in the academy”, or perhaps “in the pub after the seminar”), and I love the ice-pick metaphor, but the original “MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!” post from just over a year ago doesn’t strike me as an especially academic piece of writing (and it’s one that uses its own powerful metaphor–shit puff pastry–to communicate its core argument to people who might initially be put off by Latinate polysyllables).

  6. Yes, the Tiger Beatdown piece is a really strong one, amd says a lot that I agree with. I don’t think it’s enough to pull the word from one register into another, and the trade off between specificity/accessibility remains (I’m quite conservative linguistically, and I’m sparing in my usage of “patriarchy” and “misogyny” too). There’s something else about it too: Dzodan makes a test of it. You will be this, or you will be bullshit. Reading through the things she requires intersectional feminism to be, I ultimately feel a sort of heaviness: is anyone able to practically fulfil all those criteria? If they can, will they still be capable of pragmatic action? I don’t know, but the general tenor of debate recently makes me wonder whether just declaring myself a bullshit feminist would save me an inevitable ideological monstering.

  7. I first encountered this meaning of intersectional while proofreading academic papers on disability law. If I hadn’t, the online debates you mention would probably have been my first exposure to it. The word has a few other technical senses having to do with different kinds of intersection: geometry, set theory, architecture, logic, roads; none is especially well known.

    But since the meaning discussed here is quite specific, and signifies an idea for which there’s no obvious other word (at least that I’m aware of), it’s a useful one to know. The fact that most people don’t know it has more to do with its newness than any inherent obscurity.

    It might help if there were a brief working definition that people could quote or refer to, parenthetically or as an aside or in a footnote or through a link. Is there one? None of the major dictionaries cover it yet, except as the word relates to other kinds of intersection. It could be something like this:

    In critical theory and sociology, Intersectional and intersectionality refer to how human categories such as gender, race and sexuality interact in different ways, rather than existing in isolation, and how discrimination and oppression can operate through the intersection of these categories.

    Someone more capable and knowledgeable could improve on this.

  8. “In fact, hadn’t even heard of it until earlier this year. It’s not just me: this chart from Google trends shows search activity for “intersectional” (blue) and “feminism” (red).”

    Q: What if it predates Google? If one was black/female/lesbian and a feminist in, say, the 1980s, how did one get to understand and express how all of that works?

  9. Like I said, the earliest reference on Google books is 2003. It is a relatively new one. That doesn’t mean it’s bad; but it does mean you make a deal with explicability when you use it.

  10. I agree that ‘intersectionality’ is a word that not everyone knows. And that using jargon can be off-putting. My professional life is mainly in science communication and I spend a lot of time encouraging scientists to use more straightforward words for things, rather than unthinkingly using jargon.

    But I do think there are times when having a word that means a specific something is useful. The wonderful science writer Ed Yong, in this post on jargon, recommends that if you feel you need to use a word in a piece you can do that, but should explain what it means, and not use too many new words at once.

    So maybe you’re right and we need to make more effort to explain intersectionality if we’re going to use the term. My effort in 140 char or less was ‘feminism isn’t just about well-off, white able-bodied women. But all women.’

    By which I meant – intersectionality is about recognising that for a white, well-off, able-bodied straight woman, gender may be the only way that she’s disadvantaged. But other women are being disadvantaged in more than one way.

    A black woman may feel excluded from mainstream feminism. She may feel that racism is a bigger problem for her than sexism. She may feel that she’s got more in common with the struggles of black men, than the struggles of white women. She may feel that she experiences sexism in a different way because of her race.

    A black woman might feel that the things that are important to her are dismissed by white feminists when she tries to raise them. She may experience racism in the feminist movement. A disabled, or poor, or queer woman may experience a different set of issues.

    There are some posh, white feminists (and of course, I’m not saying you’re one Sarah, cos I know you’re not) who seem to be only interested in gender issues and dismiss the problems people experience due to their class, race, sexuality, etc as not important. They’re bothered about Oxbridge admissions policy, but not about Sure Start centres closing, or payday loan companies, or racist stop and search, or the millions of things that don’t affect them because of their privileges.

    To be honest, I’m a white, middle-class educated, able-bodied woman and I realised recently that I’ve been guilty of underestimating what non-white people have to deal with. I knew that black kids were far more likely to get hassle from the police, and lots of stuff like that. But I thought that in lots of other settings racism would be a thing of the past. I guess that was naive. I read about this study on responses of US college professors to potential students

    It looks like (in this very specific example), gender has very little effect – especially for white women. They are barely disadvantaged at all. But race has a huge effect. It’s easy for a white woman who’s only being disadvantaged in one way to really focus on that and miss the stuff that’s affecting other people.

    Intersectionality is about recognising that maybe other people are being oppressed in ways that you aren’t, and listening to them. So, if your feminist group meets in a pub, and muslim women tell you that excludes them, listening to that and trying to meet somewhere that doesn’t exclude some women. It’s trying to give a shit about the stuff that other people give a shit about. Not only caring about the stuff that affects you directly.

    It’s taken me a lot of (too many) words to say that, but I don’t think it’s that hard a concept. And what infuriated me about the Vagenda article was that they spent the whole article essentially calling for intersectionality, while decrying the word. They could have just said, ‘We think this word is off-putting, but we think the concept is really important, try using instead.’ Instead of (it seemed to me) attacking a kind of straw-feminism that they claim is elitist, too impenetrable and jargon-and-theory heavy.

    Ultimately, I don’t think the people who use the term intersectionality are the elitist ones – I see it used by activist types and by black and queer feminists. Not by the Fawcett Society…

  11. * In penultimate para, penultimate sentence should read: ‘We think this word is off-putting, but we think the concept is really important, try using [alternative term] instead.’

    I used pointy brackets but I think they get stripped out…

  12. I agree – I hope I made this massively clear above – that it’s a concept to live by, and a word that is a necessary addition to the vocabulary. (The racism and sexism post you wrote is an outstandingly good example of why.) But like you say, it takes a certain amount of explaining to establish a new word in your reader’s mind, and if you’re building a criticism of someone around a word they probably haven’t heard, I think that opens a question about what kind of response you expected. I’ve certainly seen that happen in recent weeks, and I think that’s what Vagenda were (somewhat naively) replying to in their piece. The word intersectionality isn’t elitist, perhaps, but it is niche.

  13. The core problem with the Vagenda article, I thought, was that they were mistaking the words used for the way people were engaging. They envisioned “a professor” talking to girls at a state school and said that if she used these particular words, she’d put them off. But the problem’s not the language, but the way of engaging. If your way of talking to people about feminism is to go out believing you have Great Insight and Stuff To Teach The Them, surprise surprise, you’re going to put people off. If you’re going out and asking people about their lives, listening to their answers and offering a framework that can help them make sense of it, it tends to go quite a lot better. It’s not about the words you use, it’s about whether you’re talking or listening. Ask them how they experience the world, how racism and assumptions about their background and what it means to be a girl affect them, and give them the language when they ask for it.

    But I do think there’s also a nasty overtone to the specific criticism of the word “intersectionality”. In my experience, the people who are put off by the word intersectionality are the people who think it is taking something away from them. Very often, it’s white middle-class straight women, who interpret it as an attack on them for having owned mainstream feminism for too long, but they displace their discomfort onto this other group of people who they claim are put off by it. Vagenda assumes that “intersectionality” is introducing a new and complicated concept, rather than just naming something that most women have lived with all their lives. White straight middle-class Western feminists are literally the only feminists who get to think non-intersectionally.

    The word intersectionality is mainly used online by feminist bloggers who are women of colour, trans* people, sex workers, from the global south – and yeah, they are quite often people who have some sort of academic or economic privilege, but that’s mostly likely because it’s pretty hard to reach any kind of audience from those subject positions without that economic or academic priviliege. I think it’s particularly ugly when white British and American feminists to turn that against them and claim that *we* know better about what those marginalised and disengaged people over there want and need because we are somehow more objective and in touch.

  14. (sorry, last sentence sounds like I’m having a go at you Sarah – the criticism is directed at Vagenda! I disagree with your reading of their article and identification of the problems, but I don’t think you are doing the same thing.)

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