Intersectionality is vital
The concept of intersectionality affirms that the combined impacts of oppression and marginalization are greater than the sum of their parts. For example, a person can be a member of an oppressed race, they can be congenitally disabled, they can be poor, they can lack education, they can be an immigrant classified as an outsider, they can be a member of a lower caste, they can be elderly, gay, transgender, a nonbeliever, or belong to a minority religion. They might be a crime victim, or a victim of chronic physical or sexual assault. They might be neurodivergent, or suffer from a wide variety of mental or physical health problems.
Any one of those things can represent a severe challenge–a challenge not faced by members of young, healthy, straight, white, Christian male majorities. When a person is a member of multiple oppressed groups, those challenges compound, often exponentially. By the same token, membership in an oppressed class can provide motivation for activists and world-changers.
Intersectionality broadly implies that those best qualified to report on the experience of marginalized groups, are the members of those groups. Particularly when a person is in multiple marginalized categories. An example would be a non-binary, atheist, pansexual, Black, first-generation immigrant.
The experience of that person is so far removed from the experience of white straight Christian males, as to render each almost incomprehensible to the other. The challenge and opportunity of intersectionality, is to transform such chasms of misunderstanding, into bridges of mutual tolerance and respect.
You and I, we are strangers by one chromosome
Slave to the hormone, body and soul
In a struggle to be happy and free
Swimming in a primitive sea
You and I, we are pressed into these solitudes
Color and culture, language and race
Just variations on a theme
Islands in a much larger stream
You and I, we reject these narrow attitudes
We add to each other, like a coral reef
Building bridges on the ocean floor
Reaching for the alien shore
For you and me, sex is not a competition
For you and me, race is not a definition
For you and me, we hold these truths to be self-evident
For you and me, we’d elect each other president
For you and me
We might agree
But that’s just us
Reaching for the alien shore
–Neil Peart, 1994
Privilege and oppression have nearly infinite and subtle gradations. For example, as I’ve discussed in the past, white straight males such as myself have every possible privilege in the United States. But I’m also an atheist and a democratic socialist and the child of cult leaders. Which renders me potentially unelectable. In many parts of the US, it renders me unemployable unless I were able to conceal my political / religious beliefs, and my past. So it’s possible to be both privileged and oppressed. When you closely examine the concept of intersectionality, the Venn diagrams get so deep as to render us all in some way totally unique in our experiences.
The goal of intersectional analysis, then, must be to reach an understanding of people who have very different experiences and life circumstances than yourself. To be able to engage in perspective-taking, to imagine yourself in their shoes. This takes some work. People tend to be self-justifying in their perspectives, magnifying their own struggles, while discounting the unique struggles of others.
By listening to the perspectives of those in marginalized groups, particularly those with multiple intersections, people not in those circumstances can gain a greater sense of what kinds of policies, norms and ethics would lead to improvements for those marginalized groups. This is an important mission, illustrated by Rawls famous thought experiment known as the “veil of ignorance.” The veil of ignorance is useful. Not knowing where you might land, you would design a fairer society, than if you knew you’d occupy a place of privilege. But what’s even better than the veil of ignorance? A detailed understanding gained from listening to those who have lived as victims of oppression.
However there can also be a sort of destructive mission-creep. And that is to make the terrible assumption that whenever some issue arises that impacts intersectionally-oppressed people, that those people are the only ones who have the relevant perspective to speak about that issue. In an academic or political environment seeking a rational or governing consensus, this can become self-defeating.
Mansplaining and whitesplaining
The original meaning of the terms “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining” were in reference to a less qualified man or white person “explaining” something to a more qualified woman or black person.
“Mansplaining” was first popularized by author Rebecca Solnit in her 2008 essay titled “Men Explain Things to Me.” In the essay, Solnit shares an anecdote about a man at a party who insisted on explaining a very important book to her, without realizing that Solnit herself was the author of the book he was discussing. The man had only read a review of the book but felt confident enough to explain its content and significance to Solnit, who had researched and written the book.
Obviously none of this should ever happen. People who are recognized experts in their field should be given the respect they deserve on their topic of expertise, regardless of race or gender. And anyone who flaunts their racial or gender privilege to try to contradict an expert about their area of expertise risks making a toxic fool of themselves.
But there’s a different usage of these terms, that’s been creeping into the discourse. And that is to reflexively shout down whites or males on any topic concerning causes of–or solutions to–oppression. Valuing and listening to lived experience, is not the same thing as saying that members of marginalized groups are right about everything 100% of the time. It’s not the same thing as saying that people in marginalized groups don’t get emotional or make mistakes or get their facts wrong. It’s not the same thing as saying that whites, or men shouldn’t engage in civil discussion about intersectional issues. It’s possible for experts of any background to disagree, and it’s possible that a member of a dominant group could also have valuable insights. Integrating diverse perspectives including those of privileged groups, while still preserving the value of the lived-experience of marginalized groups represents an ongoing imperative, in service of the goal of greater equity and justice.
So if you’re using these terms to dismiss or invalidate the opinions of someone else solely based on their gender or race–don’t. Consider the substance of their argument. Don’t stifle legitimate criticism or debate, and don’t label individuals as “mansplainers” or “whitesplainers” without an adequate understanding of the issue at hand. If you do, you risk perpetuating yet another harmful stereotype, that men and white people are inherently condescending and patronizing.
Judge people of all categories by their actions. We don’t want anyone to be judged solely on their race or gender, right?
Intersectionality, colonialism, ‘selective outrage,’ and whataboutism
White Americans expressing solidarity with Ukraine over Russia’s 2022 invasion have been accused of selective outrage by some people of color, because they might not express equivalent concern, for example, about the Saudi government’s atrocities in Yemen. Or about past colonialist atrocities. Or in general about American military adventurism in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya. Past wrongs don’t make a current right. And citing past wrongs can too easily deflect from current accountability.
Whataboutism only makes the world worse. Also known as “tu quoque” (Latin for “you too”), it’s a rhetorical tactic that deflects criticism by pointing to the wrongdoings or flaws of others, while refusing to address the initial criticism itself. The purpose of whataboutism is often to derail or undermine the original argument by creating a false equivalency, shifting the focus from the issue at hand to an unrelated or tangentially related matter.
The invasion of Ukraine generated significant whataboutism, both from Russia and elements of the American left. Example: “Putin’s committing war crimes and acting like a Nazi.” Response: “Well, Ukraine is full of Nazis.” Which is ironic since whataboutism became popular during the Cold War. The Soviet Union often attempted to deflect criticism from Western countries by highlighting their own shortcomings, such as racial segregation in the US. This tactic allowed the Soviets to avoid directly addressing the criticism and instead put their accusers on the defensive.
The Soviet Union wasn’t wrong about the damage caused by US capitalism and racism, then or now. But their whataboutism didn’t fix America, and it successfully convinced significant sectors of the American left to look the other way, and ignore rampant Soviet human rights abuses. Russia continues to use this tactic under the right-wing authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.
It’s therefore a terrible abuse of intersectionality for people of color to adopt Soviet-style whataboutism regarding Ukraine. No one’s justifying colonialism. We should all be unequivocally against the violation of national sovereignty and the targeting of civilian populations, no matter who does it. The world would benefit from a strengthened United Nations with the capacity to punish nations who violate international law.
Intersectionality can hinder accountability in pop-culture
As we are all painfully aware, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars, and got himself banned from the event for 10 years. But condemnation of his transgression was by no means universal. Intersectional discussion of the infamous slap deflected attention from the singular inappropriateness of Smith’s actions, to secondary issues of Chris Rock’s insensitivity toward issues of discrimination against black women’s hairstyles, or concern about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s health issues.
I am unequivocally against discrimination against black people’s hairstyles, especially those caused by disease. And the CROWN act has written protections against such discrimination. It’s the law in California, and was just passed by the US House of Representatives. This bill needs to become law across the nation.
Folks, these dueling conversations represented a toxic muddling of issues. The slap was wrong. Hair discrimination is wrong. But the slap was the triggering event. So keep the conversation focused. One does not excuse the other.
Walking and chewing gum
A third example is when I once discussed Kyrsten Sinema’s outrageous clothing choices in conjunction with her betrayal of voting rights (and her betrayal of all the feminists who sacrificed throughout history to make it possible for her to become a Senator). I was accused by a female commenter of “body shaming.”
I am unequivocally against body shaming of any woman or man. Unfortunately it’s not so simple. Kyrsten Sinema’s quirky personal style woudn’t be an issue for anyone if her politics were as liberal as her outfits. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Her clothing choices represent a form of hypocrisy. Am I the only one who sees this?
By the strict rules of intersectional gatekeeping, speech is only valid when accompanied by lived experience. Under that rubric, I shouldn’t be able to discuss intersectionality at all. There are, no doubt, some people who think I shouldn’t have written this article! How dare a white man discuss oppression? But I reject the terrible idea that my whiteness or maleness disqualifies my participation in the progressive project. And I reject that anyone else’s intersectional category prevents them from speaking about issues of national and global importance.
Judge me on the quality of my ideas, not for my gender or skin color.
It’s not in keeping with liberalism to silence anyone. With the distinct exception of those who would suppress tolerance itself. With that caveat, I advocate increased tolerance generally. So I won’t accept intesectional censure from the left, any more than I will tolerate the religious right silencing me about atheism or socialism.