The Intersectionality Muddle

As a rallying cry, intersectionality aims to resist the possibility that the structural relations between the forms of power and discrimination in different times and places might not be the same, argues Cary Nelson.

February 15, 2016

In November 2015, the National Women’s Studies Association endorsed a broad boycott resolution calling not only for a boycott of Israeli universities but also for the “boycott, divestment and sanctions of economic, military and cultural entities and projects sponsored by the state of Israel.” In an effort to connect with the NWSA’s core commitments, the group condemned the “sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated [by Israel] against Palestinians and other Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel and in the Golan Heights.”

Thereby, the organization not only created a fictional claim about the only Middle Eastern country with relatively full gender equality, roughly comparable to that of America except for some cultural practices in conservative religious communities, but also ignored the real violence against women and repression of women’s rights throughout much of the Arab world. Embracing what it characterizes as an “intersectional” perspective, the NWSA argues that all oppression is “interconnected.” But apparently some examples of oppression are more interconnected than others.

The concept of intersectionality has played a significant role in the academy since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among the useful work it did was to help people recognize that poor black women experienced a form of dual discrimination because they lived at the intersection of gender, race and class. At the time, some people privileged gender above all other identity categories.

The concept of intersectionality helped give theoretical warrant to the need to understand social positioning and the experience of identity as products of multiple forces and categories. Female identity was not constructed in the same way across all social and national differences, despite numerous analogous consequences.

Over the last two years or so, the concept has begun both to evolve and to mutate. People are now calling on intersectionality to do kinds of political work it hadn’t done before. Its most dramatic new incarnation has been in the component of the Black Lives Matter movement that seeks to link the African-American struggle for equality with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the experience of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. “From Ferguson to Palestine,” “Palestine2Ferguson,” “Justice From Ferguson to Palestine,” “Resistance Is Justified From Gaza to Ferguson,” and “From Ferguson to Palestine, Occupation Is a Crime” are slogans that have spread across the United States in the wake of the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American in Ferguson, Mo.

The academic justification for linking African-American and Palestinian struggles often relies on extending the theory of intersectionality, which now proposes that injustices and systems of discrimination, oppression and domination intersect within a society. That continues to be helpful in understanding the relationship between race, class and gender, among other social categories, and it is a useful way to compare how those forms of social differentiation and discrimination compare and contrast in different societies.

But the Ferguson-to-Palestine logic rests on a far more speculative claim: that injustices intersect even if they occur in different parts of the world in different contexts under different political systems. Then the intersection often occurs only in the mind of the beholder or in a political manifesto, and it begins to function like a conspiracy theory. It is the rationalizing glue that holds together a series of historically and culturally unrelated political causes and builds alliances based on them. As David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, writes, “Much more than a theoretical framework, intersectionality is a comprehensive community relations strategy.”

That is because intersectionality has been transformed from a theory into a political slogan, into a rallying call, in activist and scholar Angela Davis’s words, for “an internationalism that always urged us to make connections among freedom struggles,” thereby honoring “the intersectionality of movements.” In his foreword to Davis’s 2016 Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, author and professor of philosophy Cornel West defines intersectionality as “a structural intellectual and political response to the dynamics of violence, white supremacy, patriarchy, state power, capitalist markets, and imperial policies.”

Unfortunately, as a slogan, intersectionality aims to resist the possibility that the structural relations between the forms of power and discrimination in different times and places might not be the same. As a rallying cry used to mobilize solidarity, it sweeps such differences aside -- even denies that they exist. Intersectionality did not in itself constitute a theory of how race, class and gender intersect, but it named one and gave encouragement to develop such a theory. Simply invoking the word now constitutes proof of a connection, as if the term intersectionality itself had evidentiary status.

The slogan eviscerates the analytic usefulness of the theory. In a telling moment, Davis regrets that “too often people feel that they are not sufficiently informed to consider themselves an advocate of justice in Palestine.” These are, she reminds us, issues of justice, as indeed they are. But political solidarity should be a consequence of understanding, not its alternative.

Davis’s regret is not limited to what’s happening among the general public.” She is also still very much involved in the academy. She was prominent in the NWSA’s discussion of an anti-Israel resolution in 2014, is a notable figure in the Black Lives Matter movement and is a prominent speaker on campuses. She is thus someone who links the two evolving uses of intersectionality: first, as a conceptual tool potentially useful in drawing out otherwise unrecognized relationships between social forces and, second, as a political slogan aimed at organizing solidarity and making analytic rigor superfluous. She regrets that students sometimes feel they cannot speak out against injustice if they are not experts. Of course, one hopes students will be inspired to become experts in the Middle East -- but, at a minimum, they should seek to be well-informed.

The Black Lives Matter movement has helped force Americans to acknowledge that white police officers in America can kill unarmed black people, particularly black men, with near impunity. That fact overlays the longest-running social wound in the United States: the history that begins with slavery, continues through the American Civil War and Reconstruction to Jim Crow, and encompasses decades of lynching, violence and discrimination. Even in the post-civil rights era, the mass incarceration of black men -- often punishing nonviolent drug offenses with disproportionately long terms -- distinguishes and shames the United States among all nations. Schools in black neighborhoods financed with local property taxes remain separate and unequal. Black voting rights won at great sacrifice in the 1960s are once again under assault throughout the South.

While there have been significant gains in opportunity for African-Americans since the civil rights era, including the rise of a black middle class, inequality and poverty remain widespread and systemic. If American courts, legislatures and Congress are to be turned away from their current course, it will not, however, be by linking the necessary cultural, educational and political work with the fate of Palestine.

Even if fans of intersectionality actually tracked injustices worldwide, rather than limiting examples to Israel and the United States, it is not clear the effort would help us do the political work necessary in combating racism here. Indeed the effort to link injustices here and in Palestine fuses America's struggle over race with a conflict in Palestine that has never been primarily about race but rather about how nationalism, religion, ethnicity and history create peoplehood.

It may well be that intersectionality has been too thoroughly corrupted to preserve what was once its academic and political utility. If so, there’s little to be gained in crying over spilled verbiage. But its continuing corruption needs to be tracked and called out for what it is.


Cary Nelson is a professor of English and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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