In Defense of Intersectionality

So you know how every time I say that mass immigration is not the bee’s knees, somebody brings up that I’m an immigrant and that I seem to be enjoying it a lot? Because obviously there can’t possibly be any difference between the immigration experience of a hyper-educated, multilingual, academically gifted person who emigrates for fun and the experience of somebody who is forced to migrate because of gang violence and poverty?

Noticing this difference is what in my job is called “intersectional analysis.” The term has gotten a bad rap because a bunch of Shakesville-type bloggers made it sound completely stupid but it refers to a useful skill.

When you are talking about “people of color,” do you mean people like Michelle Obama or the woman of color who cleans her toilets? By “women,” do you mean women like Ivanka Trump or like the sweet old lady we all saw on TV whose neighborhood was destroyed by looters leaving her with no grocery store for miles around?

Normal people don’t need to make a special effort to see these differences but academics really do. As all teachers, we have a strong narcissistic component and tend to see everything in terms of ourselves, our lives, our friends, and our experiences. It’s very useful to be able to step away from this unhealthy self-centeredness.

As an example, I’m quoting in my book a pair of academics who gush that the transformation of Central America into one huge borderland “opens up possibilities for reimagining our categories and creating new paradigms.” That there are people whose lives are being devastated by this process isn’t even noticed because, hey, there’s a reimagining of categories going on, step aside, you dumb proles.

Against this type of typically academic cluelessness an intersectional analysis is very helpful.

The reason I’m writing this is that my book on intersectional feminism and transnationalism will come out later this year and I don’t want people to dismiss it out of hand because the title sounds icky. Yes, it does sound icky. But the argument itself is actually good.

14 thoughts on “In Defense of Intersectionality”

  1. Will you tell us when your new book comes out? The subject sounds fascinating, and I don’t want to miss it with work and all.

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  2. “Normal people don’t need to make a special effort to see these differences but academics really do.” – I always wondered why intersectionality wasn’t glaringly obvious to everyone and why it needed to be said at all. Now it makes sense.

    Looking forward to reading your book. Unlike your other scholarship, seems like this one I can actually understand. 🙂

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  3. Intersectionality is actually a useful way of thinking about things. It should bring more nuance into the conversation. Instead it often tends to work in the opposite direction. The puzzling thing about academics is how we specialize in nuance (allegedly) but then turn around and oversimplify in the worst ways. We aren’t allowed to ponder how much certain things are caused by others, but instead have to ascribe a single cause to an effect.

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    1. Yes! Also, people forget that mentioning an artist who is female, gay, disabled and Hispanic doesn’t make for intersectional analysis. Because there still has to be an analysis. Everybody has different identities but so what? Simply noticing that isn’t enough.

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  4. The brilliance of your argument, coupled with the succinctness with which you advance it, is the reason why I keep coming back to your blog. Not just food for thought, but refreshment for thirsty minds.

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    1. Thank you! That’s very kind. I read a book of scholarship today that, to me, was word soup. I understood nothing. And I wonder, what’s the value of an analysis that even an academic in the same field can’t comprehend?

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  5. What I have trouble wrapping my mind around is why the arguments against immigration of low-skilled people aren’t also applied to the highly skilled.

    If we look at the country of origin, doesn’t the brain drain disadvantage it? As for the host country, aren’t we taking good jobs that would have otherwise gone to Americans?

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    1. Who says it doesn’t apply? Trump supporters have been going hoarse begging him to stop H1B expansion. There are whole organizations dedicated to stopping the importation of workers in the knowledge industries.

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    2. Have you seen all the griping discussion about fake IT job listings?? Maybe it’s not as bad as it used to be?

      When my husband was fresh out of college, he was mystified by all the promising-looking job listings in his area, that when you clicked into them required all sorts of crazy credentials– degrees and professional certifications that really didn’t seem to be required in order to do the job that was advertised, and certainly didn’t make sense given the salary the jobs were offering.

      The standard explanation for this, once we started asking around, is that the job listings are fake. They only exist so that the company can say “We’ve been advertising this job for a long time, and there just aren’t enough qualified applicants (never mind that it’s a simple job that any reasonably intelligent person can learn in a week or two), we really need some H1B visas to bring tech workers over from India for this!” This apparently saves them from the hassle of hiring Americans, who tend to demand raises after a while, sue for harassment, quit and work for another company once they rack up some experience, etc.

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      1. I came from Canada on the H1B visa as a software engineer, and the tactic my company used was to advertise in newspapers qualified job applicants were very unlikely to read. The job descriptions were reasonable, and I was paid as much as my American colleagues and given raises. That was around, say, 2010. That said, yes, being unable to find native workers is theater.

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  6. One of your best posts. Like with civil rights, we have a Trojan Horse problem in which there are two versions of intersectionality. There is the intersectionality you talk about in which there are different kinds of oppression and that you cannot use a one size fits all approach. This is recognized by all reasonable people across the political spectrum. And then there is the intersectionality of the scorecard, which attempts to paint white male conservatives as the source for all evil in the world. It is the intersectionality that allowed the woman yelling at Nicholas Christakis in the infamous Yale video from 2015 to believe that she was oppressed. The irony here is that, as with the two versions of civil rights (Chris Caldwell and Shelby Steele are both fantastic on this as you know), the second version of intersectionality is often in direct contradiction to the first. For example, the first kind of intersectionality acknowledges that a person can be oppressed and be an oppressor (just about all of us fall into both categories to some extent). Intersectionality two has a rigid bifurcation of oppressed and oppressor in which, to the extent that you can claim to be oppressed or that the other person is an oppressor, you have the moral license to engage in behavior that we might otherwise consider oppressive.

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    1. Thank you! I’m feeling more optimistic about the book now. The title alone will scare reasonable people away and those whom it will attract will end up being disappointed.

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