Intersectionality is a dead end…but there is another way

Intersectionality is a dead end

Intersectionality is an ideological dead end. This doesn’t mean that the concept of intersectionality is devoid of truth or that the practice of intersectionality can’t do good. Studying and practicing intersectionality can broaden your mind and better your interactions. By saying that intersectionality is a dead end, I mean that it can’t get you where its proponents want you to go. You can enjoy glorious vistas on a road that stops short of your destination. And if you are on a road that won’t get you to where you want to go, the sooner that you realize it and turn around and get on the right road the better.

Defining Intersectionality and its hoped for destination

Ijeoma Oluo explains intersectionality in her New York Times Bestseller, so you want to talk about race (Seal Press, 2019). It is a well written book. And Ijeoma is a thoughtful and respected proponent of intersectionality. In Chapter Five she covers “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” She begins with a story that highlights that black womanhood is not valued and concludes: “nobody marches for us when we are raped, when we are killed, when we are denied work and equal pay. Nobody marches for us” (p. 74). I join Ijeoma in her grief and anger at that fact. And I share with her a longing for a just society where every person would be valued as having inestimable worth and irrevocable status. We share that goal. We both want to get to that destination.

Ijeoma goes on to define Intersectionality and its importance in her work: “Intersectionality, the belief that our social justice movements must consider all the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective, is the number one requirement of all of the work that I do” (p. 74).

Ijeoma notes the various identities each person has, and that we aren’t capable of cutting ourselves to pieces. Each part of our identity makes up the fabric of the whole of us: “Each of us has a myriad of identities – our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more – that inform our experiences in life and our interactions with the world” (p. 75). These parts of us can’t be erased or denied: “I’m a black woman, each and every minute of every day – and I need you to march for me, too” (p. 75).  

Ijeoma’s says that the many identities that make up you need to be seen, recognized, respected, and affirmed, for justice to be done.

“I’m a black, queer woman. If I’m harassed on the street, I don’t know if it is because I’m black, if it’s because I’m a woman, or if it’s because I’m queer. In fact, it may be all three reasons at once. But many of our social justice movements would fail to consider the ways in which our multiple identities interact or intersect…As a black, queer, middle class woman, my queer identity may often be overlooked by anti-racist or feminist movements; my female identity may be overlooked by anti-racist or feminist or queer movements; and my middle-class identity may well cause me to overlook poor people in all movements. And when that happens, none of them can really help me or many others.”

For Ijeoma, a just and inclusive society, is one where each person’s many identities are seen, respected and valued. These include race, gender, class, ability and sexuality. Consequently, intersectionality should be applied to more than just our social justice efforts. “Our government, education system, economic system and social systems all should consider intersectionality if they have any hope of effectively serving the public” (p. 77). Intersectionality should be the lens through which every person and every institution view and interact with the world.

Ijeoma acknowledges the challenges to make intersectionality a prominent part of our interactions. Intersectionality slows things down, brings people face to face with their privilege, decentralizes people who are used to being the primary focus of their movements, and forces people to interact with, listen to, and consider people they don’t usually interact with, listen to, or consider. If you don’t make intersectionality your lens, she warns that though you may make progress in helping some people, you will become the oppressor of others (78-79).

In sum, Ijeoma contends that intersectionality should be the ideological perspective by which we live as individual people and as institutions. Its goal is a just society. To use my metaphor of a road, intersectionality is the road that leads to the destination of a just society.  

Thesis

I share the same goal, I long for the same destination, as Ijeoma: a just society, where every person is valued as one who has inestimable worth and irrevocable status. We want to get to the same place. Still I am convinced that intersectionality is a dead end. It just can’t get us to the destination.

Intersectionality is a dead end for two reasons: first, it stops short of affirming individual particularity and consequently gets mired in collectivism.  Second, it misses the right road of affirming inalienable personhood.

Only Christianity offers a view of identity that affirms and empowers both individual particularity and inalienable personhood.

Intersectionality falls short of affirming individual particularity and consequently gets mired in collectivism. It can’t take you to the desired destination.

Intersectionality rightly recognizes that each person has multiple identities or many parts to their identity. But it doesn’t go far enough in affirming every person’s radical particularity, their unique individuality. It gets you going in the right direction. It gives you the impression that it can take you all the way to the goal. But it stops far short. Let me explain.

Proponents of intersectionality are right to point out that our identities have many parts: we are differentiated by our gender. Our race and culture are identity markers. Our physical, mental and relational ability are integral to our identity, as does our economic class and sexual orientation. To this list we should include personality, one’s family of origin and history as important threads that weave together to make a person’s identity. Intersectionality rightly encouraged us to see, recognize and affirm these different parts of a person’s identity. However, it stops short of seeing and recognizing a person’s individual particularity. It gets stuck in collectivism. For all its attempt to affirm the intersections of identity, it actually misses the person.

Consider just how hard it is to see and affirm the identity intersections of just one person. Let’s start with gender. Women possess an XX chromosome and men have an XY chromosome. For centuries society differentiated children as boys and girls, men and women. Today there is a strong movement to affirm “gender fluidity” and recognize and celebrate the gender a person identifies with, even if that gender is different than the biological chromosome they possess. Whatever you think and feel about gender fluidity, most people recognize that within the categories of male and female, there are as many expressions of gender as there are people. Add to this the complication of seeing and affirming a person’s sexual orientation, and you can see how easy it is to miss a person on the relatively simple categories of gender and sexual orientation.

Well, you say, this is the point. Intersectionality takes time and hard work. You have to slow down, really listen to and see a person. True. Let’s consider another part and shaper of identity: personality. Personality is less visible than gender. It is below the surface. It takes a while to discover if a person is an extrovert or introvert (Myers Briggs personality profile, a high D or a high I or a high S or a high C (Disc personality profile), Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Chloric or Sanguine. Though less visible, personality flavors every part of who we are. It matters in how we receive and communicate information, and it definitely should be a factor in how we interact with each other. It too is an intersection.

How about race? Race is a significant part of our identity. But race isn’t monochromatic. Even within race, there is incredible diversity. In their public school my kids learned to distinguish light skinned and dark skinned African Americans. You could be a black man from the hood or from the burbs. Both contexts influence identity. We can’t stop there. What about the intersection of a person’s culture? Culture includes one’s mother tongue, religion, economic status, and ethnic history. Think of the diversity of identity even within a shared culture. Take America for example. A twelve-year old white girl from Appalachia will have a very different cultural identity than a privileged daughter of Manhattan socialites or Hasidic Jews in Queens. The cultural piece of identity is significant and should be affirmed.

Still we can’t stop there. How can we minimize the place that one’s family of origin has in identity formation? The quip that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and the chip doesn’t fall far from the block are common ways of asserting that our identities are profoundly formed by our families of origin, including the invisible wounds of the heart that we all carry. If we minimize the family tree of a person we miss important parts of that person. You can’t really see or know a person without knowing their history, their story. I could go on. I think you get my point. Each person has a singularity – a radical particularity – a unique individuality that is theirs alone.

While Intersectionality takes steps in affirming this particularity, it stops short of declaring that each individual is distinct, marked by their name. Their name is the sign and symbol of their particularity. It stands for them. A named person is not fully seen until all the threads that make up their identity are recognized. But this is impossible. No one – not even the person themselves – can fully grasp their complex individuality. I’ll argue later that only God can. Nor can we, apart from the love of God, dare to stand alone in the singularity of identity, fragile as we are. Instead we group ourselves in collective units to find security for our fragile self.  

Intersectionality leaves us in the dead end of collectivism. Let’s go back to Ijeoma’s self-designation of the intersections that make up her: “I’m a black, queer, woman.” Black refers to her race, queer to her sexual orientation, and woman to her gender.” But even within these three groupings, there is vast diversity. She doesn’t mention that she is a middle-class American who lives in the twenty first century and who was raised in Seattle, although in other parts of the book she mentions these facts. She doesn’t indicate what her personality type is. And while in her book she does share some her traumas caused by micro-aggressions and her mom’s inability to understand and affirm her blackness, she doesn’t include this in her descriptor of herself. Rather, Ijeoma notes the intersections of her identity by mass groupings: Black. Queer. Woman. But to really see her is to know her full complexity, her story and her wounds, her history and personality, her great strengths and struggle as a named person: as Ijeoma Oluo. She can’t even fully know herself. Neither can you or I.  As Nietzsche said, we are hidden even from ourselves. Only God can fully see her and know her

Grouping people into collectives and securing our own identity in a collective is our default because we are insecure. We are too insecure to stand alone and apart from all others in our radical particularity. And we are not God; it is impossible for us to fully see, recognize, value and affirm the radical particularity of each person we come into contact with. Our mind naturally puts people into collective categories. While this is a natural and necessary act due to the number of people we interact with daily, at best it reduces unique individuals to generic groupings, at worst it becomes a prelude for exclusion and oppression. Intersectionality fails to affirm the glorious diversity of each person. The road of intersectionality stops short of the destination.

Intersectionality neglects personhood. It is the wrong road altogether.

My first critique of intersectionality is that it doesn’t go far enough in affirming the unique individuality of each person. My second critique of intersectionality is that it fails to affirm personhood and so misses the right road altogether.

If our end goal, our destination is a just society where every person is valued as one who has inestimable worth and irrevocable status, and if Intersectionality can’t get us all the way to that destination because it stops short in collective identities, we should ask if there may be another road we could take. There is. That road is the affirmation of personhood. The framers of the Declaration of Independence put this road this way: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Rather than dissecting the varied identities that compromise a person, the authors of the declaration affirmed the status of all, regardless of whether they were male or female, black or white, rich or poor, etc. When they said “men” they did not mean just males, but all men and women. When they said that the status of personhood was “self-evident”, they asserted that every person had inalienable rights. Affirming the inalienable status of personhood, is the right road to valuing every human.

Affirming personhood has the advantage of simplicity. When you relate to another person as a person, you look beyond their skin color, sex, social status, personality, history, wounds, family and culture.  You can see them as a responsible person, and treat them with honor and dignity, respect and worth based on the personhood God confers on them. That personhood conferred by God can’t be erased by anything they have done, anything done to them, or any default in them. If God their Creator endows them with the inalienable rights of Life and Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, who are you to take away their rights? If their status of personhood is irrevocable, who are you to revoke it?

But that is precisely what we do. The road of particularity may not go all the way to the destination.  The road of affirming personhood may go to the destination. But that is no good if it is not traveled. It may be the right road, but what good is the right road if none, or only a few take it. The tragic history of humanity bears this out.  Just consider the way that racial groups – Native Americans, blacks, Japanese during WWII – have been treated in America. Consider your own practice: instead of seeing each person you interact with as having irrevocable status and inestimable worth, you probably notice the things that make him or her different, you focus on the things that make him or her an outsider from your group or acceptable to your group. You include people like you and exclude people different than you.

Why?

While personhood is the foundation of identity, it is just that, the foundation. It is not what we see. We see what makes a person different, what sets them apart. We gravitate towards people who are like us. We move away from, take advantage of, or attack people different from us, whether that difference is moral, political, religious, social or ideological. One advantage that the road of Intersectionality has over the path of personhood is that it encourages us to see distinctions and affirm collective groupings. But as we have already observed, that road stops short of affirming the full particularity of the other, and those collective identities become the basis of exclusion, rejection and alienation. The road of personhood may go to our desired destination. But that doesn’t help if we don’t take it.

Personhood is a road that can take to get to our destination of a just society. But if no one walks it, what good is that road? There is an ancient, proven road that millions and millions of people have walked that affirms both inalienable personhood and individual particularity. It is a road that can lead to a just society.  The road of Christian identity affirms both personhood and particularity. It is the only road to a just society that values each person as having inestimable worth and irrevocable status and empowers its pilgrims to dare to be the particular person they are.  

The ancient and well-traveled road of Christian Identity

I will keep this section short. I have written extensively about Christian Identity in my book The Name. The salient points are as follows:

  1. First, Christian identity affirms both individual particularity and conferred personhood. It celebrates that God hand crafts each person using the threads of gender, sexuality, personality, culture, family, history and even our traumas to make each of us a distinct, one-of-a-kind original. It also affirms that God confers personhood. We are all made in his image. No one can erase or revoke our status as persons before God. And nothing we do can compromise that status either. Only Christianity holds both personhood and particularity as essential elements of every person. Our identity is received from the hand of God.
  2. Second, Christian identity empowers us to embrace our particularity and accept our personhood. If God confers personhood, it can’t be revoked. We have solidarity with every other person as image bearers, as sinners, and as those who are loved by God. Every person deserves to be treated with inestimable worth and irrevocable value as a person made and loved by God. We can dare to be the unique individuals we are because God knows us and still loves us. He knows every thread, every part, of our identity. There is nothing hidden from him. And through Christ he has proven his love for us by sending his son to redeem us, not the pretend us but the real us, warts and all. Being loved by God through Jesus Christ, frees us to be the originals that God intends us to be.
  3. Grace is the foundation of Christian identity. Grace is the act of God. It is not a human possibility. The practice of intersectionality is a human possibility. It is a new moralism, an ethical path with rules and transgressions, guilt and shame. But God’s grace creates a new identity that smashes our pride and removes our guilt and heals our shame. We are not saved by who we are or by what we do but by God’s gracious act in Jesus Christ. The Christian is a person who has bottomed out and come to the end of himself or herself and owned his or her need for salvation and trusted in a Savior. The deconstruction of pride by faith in Christ as Savior, creates an identity that is freed from pride based in self-salvation through moral performance, the guilt of failing to keep the law, and the shame of being seen as one who has fallen short. Intersectionality can only bind and condemn the conscience of those who try to keep its ethical path but fail; or it fills those with hubris who imagine that they are keeping its commandments, leaving them to hold in contempt those who fail. But God’s grace humbles the heart and makes one a recipient of unconditional love. From this foundation, a person can now love their neighbor and even their enemy as they have been loved.
  4. Christian identity is a universal way. It is God’s yes to all people. You don’t have to be smart or rich or of a certain ethnicity to have faith. You don’t earn grace by moral performance. You can’t buy it or lose it. It is received by faith, by dependence on a Savior. The door of faith is open to all. Millions and millions of people have found in grace an identity secure in God. They have experienced the joy of receiving their personhood and particularity as a gift from his hand.
  5. The Christian way leads to a just society. Christians are learning to treat every person as an image bearer, worthy of dignity and honor. And Christians are beginning to take the long road of really seeing, knowing and affirming the radical particularity of the other person, as one who displays a splinter of the glory of God that no one else can. By this I do not mean that Christians are doing this perfectly or constantly. No! We regularly fall short. But in halting and faltering steps we are walking in the way of justice: of relating to every person as one of inestimable worth and irrevocable status. One way this is lived out is by the grace of forgiveness. There is no act more humanely impossible and more necessary to treat another person with seriousness and dignity than the act of forgiveness. The command to forgive those who sin against us is laid upon every Christian as a solemn duty. To shirk it is to reject our Savior and leave the way itself.

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