WFR’s Declassified Social Justice Survival Guide: Intersectionality

You can’t attend an institution of higher learning in the 21st century without hearing about a large number of academic concepts surrounding race, gender, and social justice that are difficult for laypeople to understand. If I had a dollar for every time I heard about privilege, intersectionality, and institutional racism over the past several years, I could probably pay off my college loans.

Conservatives who encounter these terms in political discussions and debates on campus may be confused and not understand the terms being used. Even if they do have a strong grasp of the concept at hand, they may find it difficult to make a counter-argument to the claims of their opposition. The goal of the Wake Forest Review‘s Declassified Social Justice Survival Guide is to arm students with the knowledge they need to not only understand social justice theories but to also effectively refute them. This week’s topic: intersectionality.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality theory was coined by black feminist legal scholar and activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. The theory states that people who are a part of a marginalized identity group, like African-Americans, women, LGBT individuals, and disabled individuals, are subject to different kinds of oppression like racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.  However, according to intersectionality, people who carry more than one of these identities, like a lesbian African-American woman, for example, suffer from a system of oppression that arises from their “intersecting” identities. Through intersectionality, feminists and other critical theory scholars explain how socially created categories create a social hierarchy with those who face less oppression, like straight white males, on the top and those who face more oppression, like a lesbian African-American woman, on the bottom. The video below explains the theory in basic terms.

Criticisms of Intersectionality

Use of Subjective Evidence

Intersectionality theory believes that a person who experiences oppression is the best person to judge their experience. This belief is based on standpoint theory, which posits that standpoints are relative and cannot be judged by any objective criteria. Standpoint theorists argue that generally, the “oppressed” are less-biased or more impartial than the “privileged.” Two issues arise from the use of subjective narratives as evidence for intersectionality. The first problem is that there is no evidence that the oppressed are less-biased or more impartial about their own experiences than anyone else. The second issue is that a paradox is created every time people who face similar oppression have different interpretations of similar events. This paradox makes it almost impossible to create a common or actionable cause due to the lack of objective evidence.

Inverse Social Hierarchy

Intersectionality advocates for changing the social hierarchy so that those who face more oppression are placed on the top. However, this creates another paradox because instead of eliminating social hierarchies it places those who currently are considered “privileged” at the bottom of the societal totem pole. When fully played out, intersectionality doesn’t eliminate oppression but creates an overbalance of power where the oppressed group becomes the oppressor.

Perfectionism and “No True Social Justice Activist”

Those who believe in intersectionality, I’ll call them social justice activists, often face a problem of infighting due to different interpretations of what measures must be taken in order to advance the theory. In an article in the New Statesman, Helen Lewis described the problem well:

I’ve given the example of disability, because I think most people would agree that obviously any public meeting should be accessible to wheelchairs. But what about the deaf? The blind? Should a group of feminists starting their own meet-up in a university hall enlist someone proficient a sign-language in case that’s needed? Should they print their leaflets in braille?

In her example, Lewis points out that even when organizers try to follow the tenets of intersectionality, there will almost always be other activists that point out organizers aren’t perfectly accommodating everyone or focusing on the right people. We saw this during the Women’s March when feminists argued amongst each other whether the event was intersectional enough. I call this the “No True Social Justice Activist” problem: no matter how hard you work to advance social justice you can never focus on the all right people or make all the right decisions to be perfectly intersectional.

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