Seven Types of Intersectionality

The first problem with the concept of intersectionality is that we aren’t always talking about the same thing, and maybe even don’t know what are we talking about. — Lise Vogel
  1. Someone is knocked down at an intersection, where traffic is “coming and going in all four directions”, and it is not immediately obvious which stream of traffic was responsible for the incident. The analogy is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (Crenshaw, K., Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics (1989)), and describes the situation where the plaintiff in a discrimination case — a black woman — has been discriminated against on account of her race and/or her gender. The problem here is one of legal epistemology. Was it sexual discrimination? No, because the white women received equal treatment. Was it racial discrimination, then? No, because the black men received equal treatment. The law scratches its head. This problem is apparently too difficult for it.
  2. Axes intersect at the origin.We are now concerned with race and gender as “multiple grounds of identity” participating in the construction of the social world. It’s understood that the social world is a world of identities and differences, and that these are constructed and not simply given. An identity position has grounds, however: much as one might say “grounds for divorce”. We’re not talking about essences, but about structural causes (“axes of oppression”). There is a sense in which identities are wronged into being — and another in which they are occasions for remaking the world, for social “reconstruction”. (Crenshaw, K., Mapping The Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Colour (1993)).
  3. To practice a multiply-grounded social identity is also to experience a multiply-oriented selfhood: the social actor at the intersection of race and gender is also the subject of intersectional lived experience. This is the crux of standpoint theory, the crossing where structure meets agency. Someone will say, “it’s not just a theory — it’s what I live in my daily life”. But the reflection of experience in theory is also a reflection of theory in experience: the experience of experience under the rubric of some theory, of experience as theorisable. A particular social model is implicated in someone’s self-understanding as intersectional subject, just as a particular (i.e. Lacanian) psychoanalytic model might be implicated in their self-understanding as a “split subject”. That model is not simply “given” in experience, or directly derivable from it.
  4. The open sets of a topological space are closed under union and (finite) intersection. Think of a topological space as providing a minimal logic of place: of social locations, for example. There is a location marked “women”, and a location marked “black people”. Their union is a location marked “women and black people”. Their intersection is a location marked “black women”. This is ultimately a vision of order, of overarching structure: every combination of nameable locations is specifiable, is itself a nameable location. There is no unknowable place, and no element in the structure that cannot be placed in multiple, overlapping neighbourhoods. If the space is a Kolmogorov space, then for every pair of elements there is at least one place to which one element of the pair belongs and the other does not: each pair of points is “topologically distinguishable”. There is then no commonality without difference, no point of structural indiscernibility. Crenshaw: “I should say at the outset that intersectionality is not being offered here as some new, totalising theory of identity”. A Kolmogorov space is what it might look like if it were to become one. Here is where the “generic” begins to separate itself from the “intersectional”, as the movement of the unnameable within the structure, or of “force” against “place”. (Emo Philips’s famous joke about religious sectarianism — — captures the ontologically schismatic character of Kolmogorov spaces: there is always some point on which the other can be identified as a heretic).
  5. To an intersectional structure, and to intersectional oppressions, identities and experiences, must correspond an intersectional analysis and politics. It is usually feminism (why?) that is called upon to be “more intersectional”, that is always not-yet-intersectional-enough. As if there were always an excess of structure (and/or lived experience) over analysis, and as if one were always running to catch up. The temporality of this runs in one direction only: we were not intersectional enough in the past, we must be more intersectional in the future. (Rather than, say, “there was a golden age of intersectionality which we have lost and must now strive to recover”). Is there a limit to this process, an end-point, a projected moment of final accomplishment? What is (in) the future of intersectionality?
  6. As a discursive marker — emblem, hashtag, shibboleth — “intersectionality” signals the coming-to-discourse of intersectional identities, and the spread of an ethic characterised by the foregrounding of such identities. The process of bringing the “margins” to the “centre” of discourse, of speaking-as rather than being spoken-for. A displacement, therefore, in the logic of social places: a re-ordering of hierarchy. But also, sheer memetic reproduction: retweeting, signal-boosting, rituals of affirmation. (What is a “successful hashtag”? One which is widely reproduced, which engenders a large response). Saying “intersectionality” becomes a way of (signalling that one is) doing it. This is not a special weakness of intersectionality, but the way of all discursive markers. A French Maoist of the 1960s might have used “proletarian” in much the same way.
  7. “Intersectionality” finally names a projected system of correspondences: between social structure and lived experience, between lived experience and theory, between theory and political practice, between political practice and discursive representation. (And within theory: I have seen it claimed that an intersectional “approach” or even “method” is necessary in order to accomplish an intersectional analysis). Each “post” in this system is related to the others via its intersectional character, as if intersectionality were a global semantic “bus” routing messages from post to post. What may seem semantically unstable or protean to the uninitiated is thus in fact highly systematic. But a signifier capable of doing this kind of universal mediating work is no longer functioning as a descriptor; it is rather, like “power” in Foucault or “difference” in Deleuze, being employed meta-descriptively as the “glue” holding a system together, or as the guarantor of an idiom.