I’ll be the first to admit that “intersectionality” is not a great term – more jargon than rallying cry, it doesn’t exactly slip off the tongue – but as a 21st century Jewish feminist, I also embrace it as a powerful framework for the complexity of identity and politics. Recent events – such as last Saturday’s exclusion from the Chicago Dyke March of a Jewish lesbian carrying a rainbow flag with a Star of David, or Linda Sarsour’s challenge last March to the compatibility of feminism and support for Israel– have been held up by some American Jews and others as examples of intersectionality’s failure. I see them, instead, as proof of how deeply we need intersectionality and how seriously misunderstood the concept remains.
The term “intersectionality” was first coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe how the overlapping of multiple identities complicates the experience of discrimination. Her initial focus was black women, whose experiences are not fully described by considering those of black men and white women. This idea has significant implications for social justice movements, reminding them that if they do not think broadly and holistically about the interplay of multiple identities, these movements cannot succeed.
The further implication of intersectionality is that while we all hold many different identities, they are, of course, not all marginalized identities. One might, for example, be black and wealthy; or male and gay; or female and white. So while a key goal of intersectionality is to fight for the visibility and inclusion of the multiply marginalized, it has also brought to light the complexity of having identities that combine elements of oppression and of privilege.
“The purpose of intersectionality is to help us all realize that identities are complex and diverse and multi-faceted.”
There’s no doubt that holding this complexity isn’t easy or comfortable, as Jews in the modern world know well. (Are we privileged or oppressed? I would argue both.) And so, unfortunately, intersectionality has suffered from some serious slippage, from a call for greater complexity of analysis to a call for ideological alignment. Because, let’s face it, it’s much easier to demand a neat reckoning of oppressed vs. oppressor, us vs. them, than it is to admit that it’s almost always more complicated than that—and we may even be implicated.
But here’s the thing: intersectionality is not about enforcing alignment of identities and politics. In fact, by definition, “intersectionality” is the opposite of alignment! Intersecting lines touch at only one point; everywhere else, they are heading in different directions. The purpose of intersectionality is to help us all realize that identities are complex and diverse and multi-faceted; that we can’t create simple equations to explain, describe, or prescribe them.
This misunderstanding of intersectionality is deployed by its supporters and detractors alike – by those, like the organizers of the Chicago Dyke March, who insist that an LGBTQ march must necessarily be pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist, and by those, like Bari Weiss of the New York Times, who warn us that intersectionality by definition is bad for the Jews. You have to choose, they all seem to say: either get on board with a neat version of intersectionality and pare down those messy identities, or reject intersectionality out of hand.
As always, when we are being asked to choose, I believe we must ask ourselves why. Who benefits from this framing of the conversation? Choices are almost never neutral and unweighted; instead, they cloak deep structural power relations in the language of freedom. A world without intersectional analysis is a world in which we can’t see the big picture, and a world in which we’re forced to amputate parts of our identities is a world in which we cannot be our authentic selves. Neither is a world in which I want to live.
As a historian, I am keenly aware that social movements have often come undone over the attempt to enforce rigid ideological alignments. Movements such as socialism and feminism have fractured again and again over ever-narrower definitions of the true cause of oppression. Similarly, the “my oppression is greater than your oppression” game doesn’t benefit anyone or anything but the status quo.
In this historical moment, we do not have the luxury of splintering in pursuit of ideological purity. If we’re going to survive the current administration and its threats to multiple communities (not to mention the planet and the entire human race), we’re going to need to learn how to build coalitions and hold the complexity that comes along with that. We’re going to be triggered sometimes by finding ourselves sharing space with people and ideas that challenge our worldviews. We’re going to have to figure out how to make that experience productive, not destructive.
My own commitment to social justice is rooted in both Judaism and feminism, and both have taught me to ask the hard questions and to believe in the possibility of change. Intersectionality is a process, and a challenging one at that. We have a long way to go but I believe that we can reclaim its original meaning and practice it more effectively. Frankly, this white American Jewish feminist progressive Zionist sees no alternative.