Intersectionality – You’re probably using it wrong

A busy intersection from above, with traffic flowing through it.

I recently asked folks who follow me on Facebook (yes, I’m an old – I know lots of people and participate in lots of social groups that are only on Facebook and yes it’s a problem) and Mastodon what “intersectional” and “intersectionality” mean to them. Of the respondents, most were familiar with only the popular definition.

(Here’s the popular definition:) Roughly, intersectionality describes a system of understanding relative privilege by accounting for a person’s total experience, quantifying or qualifying by factoring in all of their different experiences of marginalization, along all myriad axes of marginalization and injustice.

BUT PLEASE NOTE. It is missing a vital component of the original meaning of the terms.

Some respondents even went so far as to talk about how complex that can get, how difficult intersectional analyses can get, how difficult it can be to understand our places in the world, through our identities and experiences.

But that’s actually just the popular definition. The popular definition sometimes also includes attempts to quantify and systematize relative suffering, enumerating all the axes of oppression, and providing rating guides for quizzes, like how there are similar non-diagnostic quizzes for many kinds of social, mental, psychological, emotional ills that we all share.

But intersectionality actually means the exact opposite of that, in a way.

One of the tenets of intersectionality that Kimberlé Crenshaw formulated in her original papers is that people’s experiences of complex marginalization are incomparable. Not that they are difficult or challenging to compare, but that they simply cannot meaningfully be compared. People experiencing marginalization do so in generally extremely complex and unquantifiable contexts. It’s a non-starter to try to compare one person’s experience of being marginalized to another person’s experience.

I know. It’s difficult to wrap your  head around. But think of other comparisons you may be tempted to make, but don’t. Do you compare your pain to someone else’s when they stub their toe? I know the impulse is to do so, sometimes, but ask any etiquette specialist: we feel what we feel. There’s no need to boast about your high pain tolerance if your sweetie is yelping and hopping up and down. Instead, what do you do? You provide comfort and support.

As a good friend told me recently while I was preparing for what was surely going to be a painful tattoo process (and it was), what hurts the most, always, is the pain that is happening to you right now. Which is comforting in a way. Not super useful unless you have good mind-body control or a good hypnotist or good painkillers. But helpful in a long term thinking about pain or discomfort sense.

So the correct (in the social, ethical sense) call is to provide support, comfort, and move the stubby toe thing out of the way so it doesn’t happen again.

In Crenshaw’s writing and papers about intersectionality, moving the stubby toe thing out of the way translates to embettering our social support services, and also how they work (to reduce overhead and administration costs for people experiencing these lives of complex marginalization, as well as for the organizations that serve them), as well as reduce and restrict our impulses to gatekeep. Also see and understand Trauma Informed caregiving and social support. Because when providing social support services for other humans, the guiding principle should be, “people who ask for help need help”, not “only people who qualify and go through the complicated application processes deserve help”.

I also want to talk a little about Crenshaw’s context, because this isn’t just about the technical definitions of the words. But about factoring in context, colonialism, and the impulse for, specifically, white supremacy (and other kinds of kyriarchy) to co-opt and appropriate other people’s good ideas and adopt them, altered, as their own. (As a warning, not a lot of folks are talking about this specific case of appropriation, and it’s new, and sort of edgy in even social justice-friendly circles. But I also think it’s a good point, so I tend to promote it.)

Kimberlé Crenshaw is a Black woman. She wrote about intersectionality in the context of legal and social studies, studying the experiences of other Black women, experiencing US social support services, and trying to navigate complex and changing and sometimes arbitrary seeming and sometimes even explicitly having rules change in response to their Blackness. And their need for support. And their presence.

I tend to think, and agree with the idea that since that’s the case, we who are not multiply and complexly marginalized Black women, should keep our appropriating mitts off of the terminology. After all, we have already demonstrated that we can’t be trusted not to remove critical parts of the original definitions of the terminology to fit our own needs.

I’m of similar mind about terms like “intersectional feminism” because I think it doesn’t factor in how the terminology was originally meant to convey the incomparable nature of complex identities and marginalizations. But to be honest, those phrases are already out there and (mis)used by almost everyone, so I think we have to live with it. At least for now. Until the next generation gets wiser about it.