Intersectionality theory was supposed to help us understand each others’ suffering and fight for a more inclusive world. In practice, it’s become divisive and obstructive.
Intersectionality theory starts with the common-sense realisation that multiple sides of a person’s identity affect their social life.
For instance, it makes perfect sense that, being an international student in Cambridge, my experience would at least be somewhat different from that of someone who is a British student in Cambridge, different in other ways from an international young professional’s, and in other ways from a British mature student at a different university – and so on.
Sometimes these ‘identities’ translate into advantages or disadvantages. Some of the boxes you fit in matter more to you, some less. Nothing wrong up to this point, right? This is the common-sense way of thinking about inequality and difference which acts as the thin end of the wedge for ‘intersectionality theory’.
But two dangerous (and widely held) assumptions have crept into everyday appeals to this way of analysing inequality.
The first is that these identities mean separate, completely sui generis sets of disadvantages, rather than disadvantages which are different and similar in subtle ways, while being inflicted on people due to their membership of different communities.
The second, which follows from an extreme reading of the first, is that a person outside of any ‘identity’ cannot understand the suffering of ‘insiders’, or help think creatively about how to end it.
That would mean Emma Watson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sheryl Sandberg, vocal and influential feminists in their own right, cannot speak on behalf of other women who are not exactly like them in all other ways. Why? Because they are white, they are heterosexual or they are rich.
Here’s a nice example of how these two assumptions can turn the lens of intersectionality theory into a divisive red mist. Between contemporary soi-disant feminist activists, “white feminist” is probably the dirtiest name you could call someone. The Women’s March against Trump was attacked for being ‘dominated’ by white women. The author linked to here claims that noticing Starbucks cups in the garbage triggered the PTSD she had supposedly developed from life as an Asian-American.
When the movie Suffragette came out, many were upset by how little representation women of colour were given, but internet outrage did not really set in until the cast did a photo-shoot selling a t-shirt that said “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”. Of course, the word “slave” has a particular cultural and historical significance for contemporary black people due to the persistence of racial inequality in America. But the critics of the slogan are not particularly paying attention to the historical context of the slogan either. Judging a quote from 1913 Britain by the standards of 2017 North America simply is not doing the suffragette movement justice.
I cannot trace when the word “white feminism” gained currency, but the liberal media has decidedly launched its assault on “white feminists”, which results in videos like these:
And the hate is expanding. The target of ridicule seems to have expanded to “white people” in general. When I saw the video titled “How To Protect White People’s Feelings In The Workplace” on my newsfeed, I was astonished by how videos that attack a racial group so blatantly can go so viral in the media. Simply replace “white people” with “black people” and you will understand how horrendous it is.
The assumption behind the “white feminist” slur is that women who are white are too lacking in the empathy, imagination or intelligence required to understand the problems faced by women of colour. If you are a feminist and happen to be white, and you happen to talk about your personal experiences of sexism, you will most likely be asked to ‘check’ your ‘privilege’.
The case of the ‘white feminist’ slur is only an example of one intersection – sex and race – becoming a site of division between people when it should provide an opportunity for shared struggle.
Intersectionality theory was supposed to help create solidarity among disadvantaged social groups; in practice, it has deteriorated into a lazy excuse for people to shut down opinions coming from those deemed ‘more privileged’ according to some obscure formula.
Intersectionality theory was supposed to make personal experiences primary, in the face of hard data’s abuse in sustaining the status quo; in practice, it is deteriorating into an excuse for discrediting others’ experiences as irrelevant because they are not ‘one of us’.
Feminism was supposed to be a force for eradicating the impact of sex (and associated gender) differences on our freedom. But those who claim to be its vanguard are too busy mocking allies who differ from them on any non-sex axis.
Mutating the practice of intersectionality analysis is probably the most fatal mistake that the contemporary feminist movement has made.
The fatal conceit does not stop there. Some have proceeded to quantify disadvantages based on the principle of intersectional inequality.
A quite extreme example of the quantification of privileges is Buzzfeed’s video below, “How Privileged Are You?”.
Eight Buzzfeed staff members took a quiz that consists of 100 questions such as “are you white?” and “have you ever worked as a waiter?”. They then tick boxes and a privilege score is generated for them. According to Buzzfeed, people can be ranked based on their privileges.
With their misguided reasoning, they then go on to conclude that only people who reach a certain threshold of disadvantage can comment on other people’s misfortunes.
Are you a white woman? Avoid talking about #blacklivesmatter. Oh, but you are a working class white woman? Then, yes, certainly you are more capable than other standard white people to sympathise with the plights of the black community. Sound ridiculous? This is the rhetoric used to comment on Adele’s humble admission in this year’s Grammy’s that her award should go to Beyoncé instead. (Beyoncé’s net worth is estimated at $1.6bn dollars. If she is disadvantaged, I am made out of spandex – Ed)
What are the implications of the debasement of intersectionality theory into pointless abuse? One concerns the feminist movement and the politics of identity. The other concerns us all.
Those who would have much energy to give to the feminist cause, and the causes identitarians champion, will become too intimidated by accusations of ‘privilege’ to contribute their opinions. This is a problem because nothing about being privileged makes one incapable of designing good propaganda; or exposing mistaken reasoning or lazy planning; or adding the weight of one’s voice to a campaign, or body to a march.
When I was taking the Buzzfeed quiz, I felt slightly relieved every time a privilege did not apply to me. I have no idea why I tried to detach myself from privileges. Do disadvantages give me the moral high ground, and do they make my opinion more likely to be well-reasoned or well supported by evidence?
By telling people to ‘check their privilege’, and that they can’t understand, men, white women, abled-bodied women, well-off women, cis-gendered women, heterosexual women (and the list goes on) are pushed away from movements which need broad participation and support.
More widely, our ability to be kind can be eroded by this kind of narrow thinking. When I sympathise with African-American women who have lost their children to police brutality, I do not do so because I am black, a mother or a victim of police violence myself. I do so simply because I understand her pain as a fellow human being. Empathy, the advanced cognitive ability of humans to feel for someone who is not exactly like us, therefore has become a victim of progressivism. This is the true tragedy of our generation.
Olivia Lam reads Human, Social, and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge.
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