Tuesday, May 28, 2019

On Conservative "Support" for Intersectionality

Vox has an interesting profile interview by Jane Coaston with law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, best known as the originator of the term "intersectionality", on the contemporary uses and misuses of her progeny. One of the most fascinating portions of it is when Coaston starts interviewing conservatives who have, over the past few years, treated intersectionality as their primary intellectual bogeyman. To a man, there response was basically identical: "intersectionality", as conceptualized by Crenshaw, is "relatively unobjectionable" (Ben Shapiro); even "indisputable" (David French).

What they say is that Crenshaw's ideas, themselves, as articulated in the late 1980s and early 90s, are unproblematic. Clearly, Black women experience forms of discrimination that differ in kind from those faced by White women or Black men. Who could argue? What's problematic is how intersectionality (is perceived to have been) extended in contemporary college debates, where it does allegedly stand in for some sort of inversion of hierarchy where White men are at the bottom of the pack.

This is something I've started to hear more and more frequently. In Gabriel Noah Brahm's essay on "Intersectionality" (in the infamous Israel Studies "Word Crimes" symposium), for example, Crenshaw's original 1989 essay is called a "modest, precise, and useful intervention in American jurisprudence." But things go quickly off the rails: "Over the last several years, it has become the watchword, shibboleth, and passkey to belonging on the "woke" left, among the "politically correct" who arrogate to themselves the duty of thought-policing the rest of us." Brahm contends that among intersectionality-skeptics, "A consensus that cuts across the liberal-conservative divide has emerged ... to the effect that the term's expanded uses as a metaphysical totem have outrun its otherwise valid, more limited definition." (the "liberal-conservative" is generous: Brahm lists nine critics he has in mind, of whom at most two -- Cary Nelson and, when he's in the right mood, Hen Mazzig -- can be described as "liberal").

Yet, like most conservative critics of intersectionality, Brahm's description of its contemporary effects is a self-contained system, remarkably insulated from the words or ideas of actual contemporary intersectionalists. Indeed, once he gets past the portion of the paper talking about Crenshaw's original essays, Brahm effectively ceases to cite any work on intersectionality by any self-described intersectional theorist.

Once or twice, an essay will be cited seemingly at random as offering "a representative piece of intersectional feminism", despite not meeting the seemingly minimum threshold of ever saying the words "intersectional" or "intersectionality" (this is especially hilarious given Brahm's insistence on the power of intersectionality the word as a "watchword, shibboleth, and passkey". Some passkey -- it needn't even be used to open the doors!). But for the most part, contemporary intersectionality is understood almost exclusively in terms of what it is stipulated to mean by popular conservative critics in outlets like Commentary and The Daily Caller. As we know, they hate it, even though they concede that the primary texts aren't actually problematic at all. In other words, conservatives are fine with what intersectionalists describe as intersectionality, but loathe what conservatives call intersectionality. So maybe the problem lies in the conservative descriptions?

And that raises the question: what do we make of the conservative contention that they are actually willing to endorse the "original", supposedly unproblematic intersectional claims? The basic form of the question is whether they think -- in harmony with Crenshaw's original argument -- that discrimination against "Black women", specifically, should be recognized as an independent basis for Title VII liability beyond "race" or "sex" discrimination. I've seen little evidence that they do back any legal or statutory reforms to provide clarity here, but perhaps I'm wrong.

More broadly, the question is whether conservatives object to research programs which seek to uncover the specified and particular modes of discrimination faced by, e.g., Black women, or other permutations of several marginalized identities. After all, to quote French, it's just "commonsense ... that different categories of people have different kinds of experience."

Yet in practice, I'm guessing the answer is no. The closest Brahm gets to citing a contemporary articulation of intersectionality by a backer rather than a critic is in the National Women's Studies Association declaration of what "Women's Studies" is:
Women's studies has its roots in the student, civil rights, and women's movements of the 1960s and 70s. In its early years the field's teachers and scholars principally asked, "Where are the women?" Today that question may seem an overly simple one, but at the time few scholars considered gender as a lens of analysis, and women's voices had little representation on campus or in the curriculum. Today the field's interrogation of identity, power, and privilege go far beyond the category "woman." Drawing on the feminist scholarship of U.S. and Third World women of color, women's studies has made the conceptual claims and theoretical practices of intersectionality, which examines how categories of identity (e.g., sexuality, race, class, gender, age, ability, etc.) and structures of inequality are mutually constituted and must continually be understood in relationship to one another, and transnationalism, which focuses on cultures, structures and relationships that are formed as a result of the flows of people and resources across geopolitical borders, foundations of the discipline.
This seems to be an articulation of intersectionality that is no more "problematic" than Crenshaw's original: "categories of identity" and "structures of inequality are mutually constituted  and must continually be understood in relation to one another." A little more jargon-y, perhaps, but not something that strays far from Crenshaw's original formulations. Yet Brahm cites this as his proof-text for the claim that "the majority of radical academic feminists today, in theory and in practice, hold to some version of this sort of 'post-essentialist' understanding of what it means to study gender" and therefore(?) the contemporary feminist project is irredeemably fascist, antisemitic, and racist. (Don't shed too many tears: feminism "achieved its proper goal long ago, when women gained equal rights under the law in the developed world"; now " we can all contribute toward restoring sanity in the academic arena by rejecting" contemporary feminism's "shrill, hectoring discourse").

So what we're really seeing is the classic historical pivot of contemporary conservatism: hating some feature of progressive discourse right up until it becomes too mainstream to effectively challenge, at which point critics say that the term they've just spent years assailing used to be valuable and important but only now has turned astray. The National Review did it with "civil rights", David French did it with "white privilege", and now they're all doing it with "intersectionality". It's bad scholarship and bad history, all wrapped together in a neat little bow.

1 comment:

steevee said...

I suspect conservatives who hate intersectionality and don't have to make any pretense of academic rigor would quote some random tweet saying "cancel all cishet white men" or something as an example of what's wrong with it. You've pointed out a larger phenomenon: it's hard to say that the '60s civil rights movement or '70s feminism were terrible for the US, so conservatives' attitude often is "Martin Luther King was a saint, Black Lives Matter are scum who should take a cue from him instead" or "second wave feminism was great, but now feminism has gone too far" without really knowing anything about King's thought or second wave feminism.