Intersectionality is a word that my Chrome browser does not recognize. It offers internationalism, intersection, and internationalization as potential replacements for my incompetent typo. Intersectionality is a word, however, and my competency levels are indeed high enough that I am in fact spelling it correctly. And, as a real word, intersectionality describes possibly one of the most critically important sociological aspects of the world today.

It is the notion that when differing identity markers (race, class, gender, etc.) intersect, they offer a distinct experience from the possession of a single marker. For example, a white woman will have a different experience of the world than an aboriginal woman. If society uses broad strokes to address its ills (in the form of feminism, say), then those broad strokes will address them from the perspective of the most dominant marker of that group (upper-middle class white women). This means that those who possess multiple markers are pretty much ignored by the mainstream, and progress is somewhat glacial for the more oppressed minorities.

However, there is a bit of a catch. Perhaps you are a homosexual, and are furious that I put in an etcetera before including sexual orientation in my list. I am also ableist and ageist in my exclusions. Markers can carry on ad infinitum, and our aboriginal woman from earlier may also derive divergent experiences based on her height, weight, the marital status of her parents, her own marital status, abuse she may or may not have suffered as a child, abuse she may or may not suffer now, her social status among her peers, and now I will throw in the etcetera. We also can’t ignore the individual attitudes each person will adopt in the face of their experiences, which in turn will alter the experience of… their… experiences. Right. Anyway, if we rely on intersectionality to address the unique experiences of intersecting markers, then ignoring any marker will result in a generalization that intersectionality was theorized to prevent in the first place.

Which is fine. We’re all special snowflakes. No biggie. My mom and dad have been telling me that since I was a kid without the use of words Chrome doesn’t understand. Intersectionality is about addressing oppression, however. That’s why when I said gender, I picked female instead of male. Since we’ve determined intersectionality essentially divides us into our own singular selves, then oppression must split along the identity marker variances, and form unique pockets of oppression in each individual.

How does one address this? It’s pretty simple to make policy to take care of women (even if, you know, we still don’t), but policy that is directed toward the oppression of the unique individual is preposterous. Even the commonly held vision of intersectionality that addresses the relatively broader trends in race, gender, class (sexual orientation, mental and physical health, age…) leaves much to be desired in creating practical specifics that can lead to more fruitful progressive policies outside of adding a plus sign when writing out LGBTQ+. We all desire uniqueness, and luckily we possess it, but when addressing social ills, demanding the recognition of our partitions as separate from all the others is not the solution. Conquerors don’t need to do the dividing if the people are doing it to themselves.

Intersectionality looks at oppression from the top down. It sees the unique oppressions felt by minority groups and correctly establishes them as distinct in the way that they intersect. We see the effects of oppression in all their unique glory, but what about the cause? If I, as the infamous straight, white, male, look down at all the people I’m oppressing, I can see that uniqueness. What do those unique experiences see when they look at me? What does it look like from the bottom up?

Anne Bishop offers an interestingly Marxist analysis: class is the measure of oppression against all of the oppressed. This makes sense, to some degree. Racial minorities and women are statistically poorer than their counterparts, so identifying class as the root cause of oppression is often regarded as true, but sadly it’s not. Communist countries the world over have proven that eliminating class does little to eliminate oppression. Incidentally, it’s easier to figure this out without analyzing world politics, as a trans individual being beaten to death clearly isn’t being oppressed by class.

Bishop does raise a good point, however: there is a whole being ignored if we focus solely on the individual processes of oppression. It’s just not class. It’s power. Communist countries divert power from the class structure into the political structure, and bullies exert their dominant power in the form of violence. The cause of oppression is a power imbalance, and limiting ourselves to its effects can only treat the symptoms while the disease rages on.

Does an intersectional ideology really distract from the root cause of oppression? Not inherently, but it certainly can. The idea of being an “ally” to an oppressed group means that sympathizers from outside of that group can only take a supportive secondary role rather than stand beside them as equals, thereby increasing the volume of the voice against greater inequality and oppression. It also seeks to enfranchise people into an already broken system. To go back to Marx, equality and equitable treatment of racial, gender, and sexual minorities in a system that necessitates oppression is not a success. It only further entrenches neoliberal ideology as the default.

Why would I start out by saying intersectionality is super important, and then write a whole bunch about how it’s divisive and counter-intuitive to solidarity? Well, mostly because it’s an accurate description of the way the world works. The language we use and the actions we take will always have an impact on the world around us, and possessing intersectional awareness will greatly improve our approach in those areas. We can’t ignore its truth, but we also can’t ignore the singular root that is responsible for the problems intersectionality identifies.

 

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