Intersectional feminism. It’s all the rage on campus and on social media, but what is it? And is its new popularity a welcome development?
Suddenly intersectionality is on the boards. News stories are turning up everywhere. Intersectional theory was first developed in the 1970s and 1980s by a group of African American feminist scholars and activists. They accused the women’s movement of neglecting black women and of misunderstanding oppression. Pathologies like and racism and sexism, they said, are not separate systems—they connect and overlap—and create a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. White women, for example, are penalized for their gender—but privileged by their race. Black men, suffer from their race, but garner advantage from their gender. Black women—are in double-jeopardy—they are disadvantaged by both race and gender.
Patricia Hill Collins, professor at the University of Maryland and former president of the American Sociological Association, is one of the chief architects of intersectionality theory. The textbook she co-authored describes the United States as a “matrix of oppression.” Beneath a veneer of freedom and opportunity, there lies a rigid system of privilege and domination. Now most Americans don’t see it, but Collins and her co-author alert students to the fact that the true nature of their society has been hidden from them. “Dominant forms of knowledge have been constructed largely from the experiences of the most powerful.” The text promises to introduce students to deeper “subordinated truths” by avoiding what it calls “Western” and “masculine” styles of thinking which could obscure these truths.
According to the theory, those who are most oppressed have access to deeper, more authentic knowledge about life and society. In short: members of privileged groups (especially white males) should not only check their privilege, but listen to those they have oppressed—because those groups possess a superior understanding of the world.
Initially, the primary focus of intersectional feminism was on black women. But the number of victims quickly multiplied. This graphic from a popular Women’s Studies textbook includes 14 or 15 marginalized identities.
The Factual Feminist is concerned. Now there are social scientists who use a sensible, non-politicized version of intersectionality to understand complex social identities—I have no quarrel with them. But what concerns me is how intersectional feminism is taught and practiced on the college campus. I have many objections—I will limit myself to three.
Problem 1: It’s a Conspiracy theory: If intersectionality theory were merely a reminder to be sensitive to different kinds of social advantages and disadvantages, that would be fine. But it is much more than that. It is an all-encompassing theory of human reality-- constructed to be immune to criticism. If you question it, that only proves you don’t understand it—or are just part of the problem it seeks to correct.
That is why articles by skeptics almost never appear in textbooks like these. And certain groups—men, for example—are sinners who are marked with a capital P. If they dare to question the theory they will be told to check their privilege. Their job is to atone for their unearned advantages and learn from those they have oppressed. Some men are really taking this to heart. Consider this tweet:
@arthur_affect--As a dude who cares about feminism sometimes I want to join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea
Intersectional Feminism: What is it?