Intersectionality Is a Hot Topic -- and So Is the Term’s Misuse

Intersectionality Is a Hot Topic — and So Is the Term’s Misuse

Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality 30 years ago to describe how Black women experience interlocking forms of oppression. She noticed a pattern in court rulings against Black women’s anti-discrimination lawsuits; the legal system treated race and sex as separate issues, refusing to recognize how both compound and contribute to Black women’s marginalization. As a legal framework, intersectionality provides an avenue for legal recourse. It calls attention to how the cumulative effects of race, gender, class, and other individual characteristics intersect in the experiences of marginalized Black women and other women of color.

Since then, intersectionality has been catapulted into the mainstream. Its meaning, however, has become less clear. This has inspired debates on the original meaning of intersectionality known as the “intersectionality wars.” These wars center on popular feminism’s common misappropriation of intersectionality, on who gets to restore the original meaning of the term, and who’s encroaching on the conversations. They also center on how popular feminism profits from the intellectual contributions and labor of Black feminists while undervaluing Black women. Even Crenshaw has weighed in on these wars, explaining that these are “conflicts over the narrative” on “what the story is” and “who gets to tell it.”

Inspired by the intersectionality wars, Jennifer C. Nash’s new book Black Feminism Reimagined After Intersectionality daringly pushes the boundaries of Black feminism’s engagement with intersectionality, inviting readers to resist treating the term as a turf. Nash, an associate professor of African American studies and gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University, mainly looks at how intersectionality has become a leading theory in academia, where Black feminist scholars are positioned by the university to assume a defensive role, disciplining others on its “correct” use and its histories. According to Nash, treating intersectionality as a turf requiring protection from outsiders limits our ability to engage in rich discussions. Rescue work (the labor invested in continuously correcting other people’s use of the term or its histories) she argues, reduces our engagements to accusations of misreadings, misuse and trespass. In Nash’s view, performing this labor stands in contradiction to Black feminism as a political project rooted in radical conceptions of freedom. Nash cautions us to resist the lure of “holding on” and instead urges us to “let go,” a practice that can reinvigorate Black feminism’s “radical imagination.” In this exclusive interview, Nash elaborates on what inspired her to write the book and how the Trump era has thrust conversations around intersectionality into the public sphere.

Claudia Garcia-Rojas: I want to begin by asking you to break down the meaning of the title to your new book: How should we read the title?

Jennifer C. Nash: [I titled it] Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. I like the mystery of the “after.” [I] don’t suggest that “after” is about abandoning intersectionality and its promise — but that we, Black feminists, might want to imagine what Black feminism looks and feels like after we reimagine our relationship to intersectionality specifically, and to Black feminist intellectual innovations more generally.

What inspired the book?

The book was born of my experiences working in women’s studies programs and departments for a decade. I wanted to understand how, when and why intersectionality had come to be a keyword that we were obsessively reciting, and to explore the Black feminist feelings that attached to intersectionality’s prevalence in women’s studies. Intersectionality is loaded with both promise and pressure to be perhaps the only ethically pure form of left politics. While I was writing the book, Donald Trump was elected. Suddenly, intersectionality was on its biggest stage ever, and the book’s inquiry took on another dimension — in a moment when “white feminism” is the villain and “intersectional feminism” is the only viable form of feminism, it felt important to me to step back and understand what intersectionality actually means, beyond the most ethical form of feminism.

You explain how Black feminism has assumed a disciplinary role within the field of women’s studies, serving as a corrective to white feminism and broader histories of racism. This has led to Black feminists being imagined as “saviors” and “world-ending figures” who are called upon to “perform intellectual, political, and affective service work” for the university. How did we get here?

It’s a complicated story. Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, intersectionality often came to stand in rhetorically for diversity and inclusion, and the idea of “diverse” curriculum, “diverse” faculty, “diverse” reading lists, often ushered in intersectionality to the center of the programmatic life of women’s studies — and the university — because intersectionality was imagined as diversity par excellence and Black women were imagined to be the most diverse bodies.

I also think none of this is apart from what’s happening in the political life of feminism. We are currently in a moment where “white feminism” is seen as worse than patriarchy. Whatever “white feminism” means, whatever its relationship to “white women” is, it is clear that there is a significant strand of feminist politics that sees it as dangerous, as undermining feminism’s goals, as colluding with patriarchal power. And the notion that “my feminism must be intersectional or it will be bullshit” has shored up the notion that Black women are not only the heart of the U.S. left [wing] — Democrats’ most reliable voters, the only [ones] who consistently come out to vote against fascist leadership — but also the voices who should be leading feminism. So, what’s happening in academic feminism and what’s happening in popular feminism map onto each other in fascinating ways.

You explain that this has conditioned Black feminists to claim ownership of intersectionality, thereby treating it as property, policing it to ensure that “it is not traversed by outsiders.” Do capital, neoliberalism and the emergence of the neoliberal subject play a role in this analysis, and, if so, how does it complicate – or not – your argument? Can defensiveness can be a form of agency?

This is a hard question. Part of what I want to think about in my book is how this idea of Black feminist work as property has intensified around intersectionality. I definitely think that defensiveness is a form of agency –– but in the book, I try to think of it as imagined agency. It is definitely the case that defensiveness is a profound way of feeling like one is doing something on behalf of Black feminism, and perhaps even on behalf of Black women. But I also think defensiveness has tremendous costs for Black women, including the psychological cost of constantly assuming the defensive or corrective posture (which, frankly, I find exhausting) and the mental cost of being enlisted as an “intersectional expert,” which is often simply to provide cosmetic or aesthetic diversity work for institutions of various kinds.

How do you see your argument playing outside of the university?

I think the book’s argument anticipates conversations about Black feminism in other academic disciplines and about Black feminism’s place in feminist politics more broadly. Trump’s election has made intersectionality quite literally ubiquitous. The notion that intersectionality will save us — feminists — from patriarchy, white feminism, transphobia and capitalism has come to dominate (at least rhetorically) feminist conversation. So, intersectionality is loaded with both promise and pressure to be perhaps the only ethically pure form of left politics.

In your book you argue that “there is a single affect that has come to mark contemporary academic black feminist practice: defensiveness.” Can you elaborate on this?

I see defensiveness manifested in what I see as Black feminists’ increasing preoccupation with guarding intersectionality, protecting it, correcting how it is used, insisting that it should only be used to talk about Black women or women of color. I want to think about Black feminist defensiveness — which I see as a kind of ethical response to feminism’s peculiar relationship with intersectionality — as actually leaving Black feminists stalled. We expend a lot of energy protecting our turf, policing its boundaries. It is this ongoing effort that I describe as “holding on” to intersectionality. I use “letting go,” on the other hand, to describe the risky endeavor of embracing the call to really be a non-captivity political project, to surrender the alluring project of protecting intersectionality. When I say non-captivity project, I mean that Black feminism has had a fundamental commitment to freedom — to thinking about what freedom looks and feels like, to thinking about who we are and how we relate to each other in a world where we are free.

You introduce the term “intersectionality wars.” What does it spotlight?

I wanted to show that these arguments almost always seemed to be about whether a scholar was “for” or “against” intersectionality (and “for” or “against” Black women, who I argue are imagined to embody intersectionality). It seemed to have become almost impossible to interrogate intersectionality without being asked to either defend or disavow the analytic.

You turn your attention to the various criticisms that have been waged against “intersectionality’s critics,” doing a nice job of demonstrating the holes in the various arguments used against scholars. You suggest that “black feminists produce the critic rather than expose the critic.” Please unpack this statement for us.

One manifestation of the defensive posture is a sense that intersectionality is constantly subjected to criticism, that critique has become the predominant mode of engagement with intersectionality. According to this logic, critique is everywhere, and it seeks to undermine intersectionality. I show that while Black feminists regularly describe intersectionality as “under siege,” the victim of relentless attack, the only scholar regularly cited as attacking intersectionality is [Jasbir] Puar. Thus, I became interested in understanding why Black feminists have been so invested in producing and obsessively amplifying the idea that intersectionality is subjected to an overwhelming critique. I felt that this preoccupation revealed more about the psychic life of Black feminism than about intersectionality’s imagined vulnerability.

In your second chapter, “The Politics of Reading,” you describe how being faithful to the author’s original argument is seen as a form of care, but attempts at faithfulness reinforce the idea that these concepts are property, which positions some people to feel defensive. How do you see this unfolding?

This chapter began with my interest in how Black feminists often make the argument that intersectionality would be more analytically powerful if we all read its foundational texts correctly. A number of books have made this claim –– arguing for a more careful and faithful reading of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s foundational articles. I became interested in how much this argument sounded like conservative arguments for originalism in law, and in how much these arguments suggested that intersectionality was an object that was contained, circumscribed, delineated. In this figuring, intersectionality is quite literally something fixed that Black feminists own or hold onto — that logic is what I wanted to disrupt.

In the chapter titled, “Surrender,” I find your argument of reading the concepts of intersectionality and transnationalism — understood as extending across national boundaries — together interesting and productive. What does such a reading enable?

First, I want to show how women’s studies — as a field — has constructed itself around keeping these two analytics separately, intellectually and programmatically. Nowhere is this more evident than in the academic job market where “intersectionality” and “transnationalism” rarely appear in the same advertisements, and where they call for different bodies of study and even different scholarly embodiments.

Second, I wanted to show that women’s studies has imagined both analytics as correctives rather than generative bodies of thought and debate, thus revealing something deeply troubling about the racial logics of the field.

Third, I wanted to think through why a series of terms — decolonial, postcolonial, subaltern — in the context of feminist theory, are so rarely deployed to understand Black women’s experiences, positions and locations.

Finally, I wanted to ask what it might mean for Black women to cede intersectionality as the property of Black women, and to imagine it as a capacious analytic that can speak for/about women of color more broadly.

In your final chapter, you explain that you see many possibilities for critical intervention by Black feminists in the field of law. Tell us how your concept/practice of “love-politics” informs this perspective and what is the driving vision behind it.

This chapter was born from my abiding interest in sitting with Black feminist scholarship that doesn’t fit into the logics of the present moment. What do we make of Black feminist theorists — like Crenshaw or like Patricia Williams — who are deeply invested in the law as a potentially radical space? Is the law as a site of freedom, of reparation, of compassion, even? My impulse is never to disavow thinkers. I am hailed by Alice Walker’s reminder that, “A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children and, if necessary, bone by bone.” So I came to this chapter wanting to see how we can think alongside Black feminists who see law not as the site of Black death, but (also) as a space of Black life and radical possibility, even as a space that allows us to think through what it might mean to invest in love as a political ethic.

You end by saying that “letting go” is a practice of freedom. How does one “let go”?

I think there are myriad ways to let go. [I] avoid prescription because I am interested in what we might collectively imagine. I try to gesture toward “letting go” of the preoccupation that intersectionality can only rightfully describe Black women or women of color, even as I recognize the risks inherent in that claim. I am interested in what happens when Black feminists resist the impulse to determine what is or isn’t Black feminism — who is or isn’t [a] Black feminist. I find this desire to classify, to determine who or what belongs at our table, to be a form of territoriality I want to eschew. I also think “letting go” might include thinking about aspects of intersectionality theory that feel risky, including Crenshaw’s attachments to the state and to law. It is increasingly the case that Black feminism has imagined itself as a kind of anti-institutional project, and thus scholars who have deep investments in projects like law, who envision law as a site of both violence and social change, get written out of the Black feminist canon.

To be clear, letting go requires that we feel a sense of vulnerability, and that we sit with that vulnerability rather than trying to mitigate it. It’s risky. And that’s why I’m invested in it — because I am deeply curious to see where Black feminist conversations go when we aren’t preoccupied with securing our borders.

Note: Jennifer C. Nash participated in a collaborative process of editing the transcript of this interview for clarity and length.