In a provocative new essay for New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan asks, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”
It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained—and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue—and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.
Although the concept has been around for almost three decades, many Christians have never heard of intersectionality or are unaware of the way it has morphed into a competing worldview. Here are a few things you should know.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality (also known as intersection theory or, in a more narrow usage, intersectional feminism) is the concept that subjectivity (i.e., that which influences, informs, and biases people's judgments about truth or reality) is formed by mutually interlocking and reinforcing categories of race, gender, class, health, and sexuality.*
Historically, intersection theory has primarily focused on the intersection of race and gender and been used as a framework to show how “systems of oppression” (such as patriarchy and racism) do not affect individuals independently but tend to “intersect” in ways that affect some individuals more than others.
Consider, for example, the experiences of a black man, a white woman, and a black woman. The black man may be oppressed by racism because he is black, but he enjoys the privileges of being male. The white woman may be oppressed by patriarchy because she is a woman, but she enjoys the privileges of being white. In contrast, the black woman exists at the “intersection” of racism and patriarchy, so she is likely to suffer from discrimination and oppression to a greater degree than both the black man and also the white woman. The effect for the black woman is oppression that is greater than the sum of its constituent parts (i.e., racism and sexism).
Intersectionality has been called “the most important theoretical contribution that women’s studies, in conjunction with other fields, has made so far.”
Where did the term originate?
The term intersectionality was coined by critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” which was published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989.
Crenshaw highlighted how certain aspects of one’s identity (specifically race and gender) intersect to make individuals invisible as subjects within the law. Because anti-racism laws were designed for black men and anti-sexism laws were designed for white women, she notes, black women are treated unfairly by laws that appear to protect them. As Crenshaw says, “antidiscrimination doctrine essentially erases Black women's distinct experiences and, as a result, deems their discrimination complaints groundless.”
What are the positives aspects of intersection theory?
For Christians, one of the most valuable contributions of intersection theory is that it can help us recognize that various types of structural sin in our world (such as structural racism) can intersect in ways that produce a “multiplier effect,” which can sometimes cause greater harm to individuals caught within such intersections. This concept can help us to acknowledge and address the cultural complexity that arises from living in a sinful world. This insight should encourage us to develop a greater understanding and empathy for our neighbors who are caught up in “intersecting” sin structures.
Using this lens can also help us when we read and study the Bible, reminding us that many biblical characters suffered multiple forms of oppression that compounded their misery in unique ways (e.g., Ruth and Naomi, who were both female and poor).
What are the negative aspects of intersection theory?
The problem with intersectionality arises when it ceases to be an insight and becomes an ideology. As with many useful concepts, intersectionality can be used to promote the flourishing of the human community or can be used to create new forms of systematic sin. And over the past decade, the concept has frequently, as Sullivan noted, been used as a tool for building division not only between the “oppressors” (i.e., white males) and the oppressed (i.e., almost everyone else), but separation between groups deemed to be victims.
Certain political and identity movements (especially online and on college campuses) confer social status based on who is deemed to be most oppressed. This leads to fights over who gets to rank higher on the hierarchy of victimization. Intersection theory thus becomes a weapon to bludgeon rivals and quash dissent. This jockeying for status can lead to some peculiar disputes over who suffers the most from discrimination.
For example, an intersectional activist might recognize that black men in America have suffered oppression. But the heterosexual Christian black man may be considered more “privileged” than a white homosexual Wiccan transgender woman (i.e., a white man). The thinking goes that while the black man may be a racial minority, the “trans woman” is affected by a “matrix of oppression”: discrimination because they’re a “woman” (even though they are a man); discrimination because they are a sexual minority; discrimination because they are a religious minority, and so on.
This desire to gain social status among oppressed groups has led to the creation of an almost infinite number of sub-genres of victimization. Christina Hoff-Sommers relates a story about her experience at a meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association in the early 1990s. In an attempt to “honor all identities,” the conference organizers had the participants assemble in small groups based on their “healing needs.”
After initially dividing into groups based on such factors as race, ethnicity, ability, and age, they found they couldn’t get along and subdivided into even more factions (e.g., black lesbians who had white partners “were called out for their ‘privilege’ and had to form a separate group”). As Hoff-Sommers says, new groups began to emerge: “Women with allergies formed a caucus and issued a set of demands about not wearing dry-cleaned clothing or hairspray.”
Another problem is that intersectional activists expect all people, but especially women and minorities, to conform to their worldview.
Such activists often say we should “Listen to women and listen to people of color,” which echoes the advice of the apostle James that, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). This is wise biblical advice in any situation, and especially relevant when it comes to engaging with minority groups who have often been silenced or ignored.
The problem with this approach, however, is it assumes that all women and minority groups speak as one—and that they either must share the same worldview as the intersectional activists or be forced to do so.
As Helen Pluckrose writes in her essay, “The Problem With Intersectional Feminism”:
In reality, women of color, the LGBT and disabled people are to be found along the whole range of the political spectrum and subscribe to a vast array of ideas, whilst intersectionality is decidedly left-wing and based on a very specific ideology. Although there is considerable confusion and overlap in the use of terms to discuss gradations of leftism, there is a consistent sense of a moderate Left and a far-Left and a common perception of intersectionality with its focus on identity politics and systems of privilege as “far-Left.” This is consistent with how intersectionals see themselves as radical reformers of a liberalism which was too mainstream or too centrist. Some reject the label “liberal” for this reason. They define themselves in opposition to the Right and frequently accuse “moderate” Leftists or universal liberals of having conservative or right-wing ideas.The problem with positioning an ideology on the far-Left and claiming it to represent women, people of color, LGBTs and disabled people is that this requires all members of those groups to be far-Left which they simply aren’t.
[. . .]
On the level of its ideology, intersectionality becomes inaccessible to even more people. To be intersectional is to focus on many different categories of marginalized identity at once, be convinced that they are marginalized and be concerned about them all. It is not enough to be a woman or even to be a feminist. One must also subscribe to critical race theory, queer theory, trans equality, and anti-ableism discourses. People of color, LGBTs and disabled people must subscribe to appropriate theories for their own identity and also those of all the others. The problem is that most women are not any kind of feminist, most people of color are not scholars of critical race theory, many LGBTs are indifferent to queer theory, and disabled people are not particularly likely to consider this part of their political identity. Furthermore, they may or may not be interested in, knowledgeable about, or supportive of the other categories of marginalized identity included in the intersectional framework.
“It is clearly misguided to assume that by listening to intersectionals, we are listening to women, people of color, LGBTs, and the disabled,” Pluckrose adds. “We are, in fact, listening to a minority ideological view dominated by people from an economically privileged class who have had a university education in the social sciences and/or the necessary leisure time and education to study intersectionality, critical race theory, queer theory, and critical analyses of ableism.”
This leads to a third problem: the prioritization of subjective individual experiences over objective truth. The experiences of marginalized groups are not only considered more valid than non-marginalized people, they are also treated as more valid than facts or reality. (In this way, intersectionality helped pave the way for acceptance of reality-denying phenomena like transgenderism.)
What should Christians think about intersectionality?
As an analytic framework for identifying the effects of systemic sin, intersection theory may be of some use to Christians. But when it is used to justify the creation of ever more narrow and increasingly divisive identity groups, it becomes another secular worldview that Christians must reject.
While characteristics such as race and gender are not erased when a person becomes a member of God’s kingdom, our identity as Christians is rebuilt around Jesus. As the apostle Peter says, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
John Piper explains how our identity comes from this chosenness:
The chosen race is not black or white or red or yellow or brown. The chosen race is a new people from all the peoples—all the colors and cultures—who are now aliens and strangers among in the world. See verse 11, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers . . . “
What gives us our identity is not color or culture. But chosenness. Christians are not the white race; they are the chosen race. Christians are not the black race; they are the chosen race. We are the black chosen and the white chosen and the yellow chosen and the red chosen. Out from all the races we have been chosen—one at a time, not on the basis of belonging to any group.
That's why this amazing phrase is individually crucial for you; you are part of the “chosen race” because the race is made up of individuals who were chosen—from all the races. So your first identity is that you are chosen. God chose you. Not because of your race—or for any other qualification—God chose you.
*Not surprisingly, there is no definitive agreement about what intersectionality is, what it means, or what it portends. For this reason I’ve relied on the most common, “mainstream” view of intersectionality and tried to present it in a way that would be least objectionable to feminist scholars.