Intersectionality is an icepick

Posted on 18 October, 2012 by

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