A Short Review of Collins’ and Bilge’s Intersectionality

Sociologists Partricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge’s short book Intersectionality provides a good, academic overview of how the concept of intersectionality is understood and deployed by scholars in a variety of fields. Intersectionality.jpgWith the recent passage of SBC Resolution #9 “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,” it also offers a timely exposition of both the ‘narrow’ definition of intersectionality as an analytic tool and the ‘broad’ definition of intersectionality as a metonym for the worldview of critical theory.

On page 2, the authors give a clear, succinct definition of intersectionality, which I’ll quote here in full:

Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways. When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other. Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves.

To summarize in less technical terms, the concept of ‘intersectionality’ states that people are complex and can’t be understood as the sum of their identity markers. For example, the experience of a poor, unwed mother is qualitatively different than the experience of a poor man, or a poor married mother, or a wealthy unwed mother. She will experience unique challenges and have unique needs that we will miss if we focus only on her gender or marital status or class.

This narrow definition of intersectionality is further illustrated by the authors’ concern that intersectionality can be used by people who do not share their allegiance to social justice. For example, the authors conceive of intersectionality as a “critical endeavor” committed to “criticizing, rejecting, and/or trying to fix the social problems that emerge in situations of social injustice” (p. 39). Yet they realize that intersectionality is “not universally understood this way” (p. 40), and lament the fact that “some projects invoke intersectional rhetoric in defense of an unjust status quo… [using] intersectionality as an analytic tool to justify social inequality” (p. 40). They give the example of white supremacist literature employing intersectional reasoning, and conclude: “Ironically, intersectionality as an analytic tool is deployed not as a tool for democratic inclusion, but rather to justify racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual segregation and subsequent social hierarchy” (p. 41).

Coming from ardent proponents of intersectionality, this claim is important. Collins and Bilge fully recognize that ‘intersectionality’ can be used as an ‘analytic tool’ in the service of ideologies they do not share, even ideologies like white supremacy that are morally reprehensible.

Yet equally important is the authors’ insistence that while ‘intersectionality’ can be used as a neutral analytic tool, it should be used as critical tool of social justice: “Initially, intersectional inquiry was inherently critical because it criticized existing bodies of knowledge, theories, methodologies, and class room practices, especially in relation to social inequality” (p. 31). They affirm that the concept of ‘intersectionality’ originally emerged within the context of black feminism, the Black Power movement, and critical legal studies (p. 63-87). One of the six “characteristic themes” of intersectionality is ‘social justice’ (p. 25, 194, p. 200-202): “people who claim intersectionality as a field of critical inquiry and praxis often hold an implicit and often explicit commitment to an ethics of social justice as part of their analytical lens… its raison d’etre is not simply to provide more complex and comprehensive analyses of how and why social inequalities persist… but also to engage questions of social justice” (p. 202). Thus, they stress that -in their opinion- practitioners of ‘intersectionality’ ought to reaffirm their commitment to social justice, identity politics, activism, and liberation, where all these terms should be understood within the framework of critical theory.

Under this broader definition, ‘intersectionality’ is not just a tool but a worldview, and one that is fundamentally incompatibly with Christianity. I’ve discussed this issue at considerable length elsewhere, but here I’ll provide just one striking example. When the authors speak about ‘social justice’, they explicitly assume that racism, sexism, classism, ageism, homophobia, and transphobia are all forms forms of ‘oppression’ which need to be overthrown. For example, they quote favorably from the  journal Intersectionalities, which provides the following self-description:

The journal aims to underscore issues relating to oppression, privilege and resistance in society and social work. Of critical consideration are the ways in which intersections of age, disability, class, poverty, gender and sexual identity, … colonialism/imperialism, … ethnicity, … and the environment are enmeshed in processes of social justice and injustice. (p. 38)

Similarly, they cite Paulo Freire, a key developer of critical pedagogy, and state that his classic Pedagogy of the Opressed can be read as a “core text for intersectionality” (p. 160). They then comment: “those oppressed today [are] homeless/landless people, women, poor people, black people, sexual minorities, … disabled people, and the young” (p 160-161). God hates oppression and commands us to seek justice, but it’s crucial for Christians to understand that these terms have been redefined by critical theory, such that ‘young people’ and ‘sexual minorities’ are viewed as ‘oppressed’ groups who need to be ‘liberated.’

Overall, this work is somewhat dry and academic, but it highlights a key danger in the ‘intersectionality’ movement. Although lowercase-“i” intersectionality can be used as a neutral, analytic tool, the slide into capital-“I” Intersectionality as a worldview is subtle, rapid, and dangerous. The distinction between the two is legitimate and important, but is one that people may easily miss. Moreover, when the word ‘intersectionality’ is used in popular culture, it far more often refers to the worldview than to the tool. For that reason, Christian should be exceptionally careful and discerning in how they employ ‘intersectionality,’ mindful of the unbiblical ideologies in which the term may be embedded.

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