The Problem with Intersectional Feminism

| by Helen Pluckrose |

Those of us committed to social justice are accustomed to being told that intersectional feminism with its focus on critical race theory, queer theory and anti-ableism is the key. Only intersectionality, we are assertively informed, really listens to the experiences and needs of women of color, LGBTS, disabled people and other marginalized groups. Is this true? If we all embraced intersectionality, would we find that we are better supporting a diverse range of people from marginalized groups? Or would we find that we are supporting only the adherents to a very narrow political ideology of the far-Left and disregarding the majority of women, people of color, LGBTs and disabled people?

The concept of intersectionality was introduced into academic theory and social justice activism in the late 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School and founder of Critical Race Theory. It gradually became the dominant social justice framework. Crenshaw opposed the mainstream liberalism of the time for its aim to look past categories of race, gender and sexuality, thereby levelling the playing field and enabling all people to succeed by their own abilities. She felt this neglected identity and identity politics which she argued to be personally and politically empowering. That “mainstream” form of liberalism is now commonly known as “universal liberalism”, “classical liberalism” or sometimes “Enlightenment liberalism” because it focused on universal human rights, but also on the individual’s freedom to pursue their own path. To Crenshaw, this form of liberalism neglected categories like race and gender around which were built structures of power which needed to be addressed, and failed to consider the way in which multiple layers of identity could complicate the problem.

This is a valid observation. We interact with society on three main levels; as a member of the human race with common needs and drives; as a member of one of numerous categories including gender, race, nationality, culture or religion; and as an individual with our own distinct interests and abilities. Universal liberalism focused on the first and third: universal human rights which would then free individuals to follow their own paths. Intersectionality focuses almost entirely on the second: group identity. We see this most clearly when Crenshaw says “We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” She advocates the former as positive, powerful and celebratory and rejects the latter as striving for a universality that is less likely to be productive.

Intersectionality, therefore, has an intense focus on identity and particularly on racial and ethnic identity. The common positions are “We are here for women of color, trans people, lesbian, gay and bi people and the differently abled” and “Listen to women, listen to people of color.”

Are women of color all saying the same thing?

Listen to them all? Are they saying the same thing?

So, we just listen to them when they talk about intersectionality? Do they all do that?

It seems not.

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. In the US, the number of Americans identifying as liberal reached a record high of 24% in 2015 in comparison to the conservative 38%. [1] Britons are almost evenly divided between Left and Right. [2] Women are generally somewhat more likely to be left-leaning than men [3] but very many are not. 47% of African Americans identify as liberal and 45% as conservative. [4] In the UK, the Conservative party claimed 33% of Black and Middle Eastern voters in comparison to Labour’s 52%, with Black Britons being most likely to vote Labour, whilst among the Asian community, Hindus and Sikhs are more likely to vote Conservative and Muslims to vote Labour.[5] British LGBTs are as likely to be right-wing as left-wing [6]whilst American LGBTs are much more likely to be left-wing,[7] almost certainly because of the religious nature of the American Right and its implications for LGBT equality. There is nothing to suggest people with disabilities are more likely to identify with any particular political position. Intersectionality, simply by positioning itself on the far-Left of the political spectrum, immediately closes itself off from a significant proportion of women, people of color, LGBTs and disabled people.

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.

Only 20% of American women are feminists with 29% regarding it as ethically neutral and 30% as mostly negative.[8] Only 9% of British women are feminists[9] and similarly indifferent or negative views are expressed. This appears to be consistent across races.[10] Of the minority who are feminist, it is unclear how many are intersectional feminists, how many are radical feminists (opposed by intersectional feminists), how many are non-intersectional liberal feminists (opposed by intersectional feminists) and how many have no ideology of feminism but simply consider it the name for the gender equality supported by the vast majority of the population.

Intersectionality faces a particular problem when it comes to intersections between race and sexuality or gender identity. Left-voting people of color are significantly less likely to be supportive of LGBT equality than White Lefties. Black voters voted two to one against Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance[11] to prevent discrimination based on gender identity and sexuality, and in California, 70% of African American voters voted to ban same sex-marriage. [12]Ronald Brownstein in his analysis of Pew statistics on Democrats voters notes a divide, saying “Democrats must weigh the culturally liberal instincts of their now mostly secular wing of upscale Whites with the often more traditional inclinations of their African-American and Latino supporters, who are much more likely than White Democrats to identify with Christian faiths.” He cites the conservative Kevin Williamson, “White liberals simply care a great deal more about some things — the social condition of so-called transsexuals, climate change — than do non-White voters who nonetheless lean heavily toward the Democrats,”

A similar trend is to be found in the UK. There has been a tendency for some in the Black community to regard homosexuality as a “White disease” [13] leading to greater discrimination against Black LGBTs. The “Stop Murder Music” campaign was set up to tackle lyrics in certain genres of Black music which advocated violence against and murder of LGBTs. Homophobia in the Asian community is also higher than the national average [14] whilst gay Asians have reported experiencing racism in gay venues. [15] In a 2009 survey, 0% of (predominantly left-wing) British Muslims said homosexuality was morally acceptable[16] and in 2016, 52% said it should be illegal, compared to 5% of the general population.[17] The same survey found that 39% of British Muslims felt that wives should always obey their husbands, compared to 5% of the general population.

Large proportions of people from marginalized groups simply decline to be intersectional and this is a problem for an ideology which claims to listen to them and represent them. Unlike universal liberalism, in which liberal principles supersede identity and enable liberals to consistently criticise prejudice and discrimination wherever they find it, intersectionality with its focus on identity, becomes confused when marginalized groups discriminate against each other. True to Crenshaw’s original focus on race, this is particularly the case when people of color or ethnic minorities exhibit homophobic or patriarchal attitudes. This has resulted in bizarre situations in which Peter Tatchell has felt compelled to explain why it’s not racist to object to Black musicians singing about killing LGBTs [18]and Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists why it’s not Islamophobic to object to gender specific modesty codes and that it would, in fact, be nice to have support with that from intersectional feminists. [19]

It is clearly misguided to assume that by listening to intersectionals, we are listening to women, people of color, LGBTs and the disabled. 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.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to support the rights of marginalized groups and campaign for their greater representation whilst accepting that they have a range of political views including those which contradict yours. However, this is not what intersectional feminists do. We are told repeatedly that intersectionality is the only way and that it is not optional.

In addition to the slogan about intersectionality being compulsory, the mantras “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” and “Feminism without intersectionality is White supremacy” are also to be found on social media, blogs, campaigns and protests.

Non-intersectional feminists are labelled “White feminists” and vilified furiously. It is important to note that not all “White feminists” are White. The term refers to any non-intersectional feminist.

ninjacates_guide_to_white_feminism_FINAL_A-01.pngFrom BattyMamzelle [20]

As Everyday Feminism tells us,

“Intersectionality is a framework that must be applied to all social justice work, a frame that recognizes the multiple aspects of identity that enrich our lives and experiences and that compound and complicate oppressions and marginalizations… At a more personal level, though, feminism without intersectionality keeps us from fully expressing who we are! A lack of intersectionality leads to an erasure of people and their identities.” [21]

An individual’s identity must be tied to their group categories and must be expressed in an intersectional way. People of color who transgress the boundaries of what someone of their race or ethnicity is supposed to think receive the most vitriol (as heretics always do). Black people considered not to espouse properly Black views which include far-leftism, unconditional support of Black Lives Matter and even specific sports teams are likely to be called “Uncle Toms” or even subjected to racial slurs including “coon” or “house nigger.”

The British liberal blogger, Tom Owolade, takes strong exception to this language,

“Because inherent in those terms is a sinister implication: ‘if you disagree with how I think a brown person should think, you’re still a nigger’ – a slave subordinate to the interests of white people. ‘If you disagree with me, you can’t be thinking for yourself’ is the message.” [22]

Muslim and ex-Muslim liberals encounter the same external restrictions when attempting to critique any aspect of their own religion or culture. When criticising any illiberal aspect of doctrine or culture, including sexism, homophobia, intolerance of apostates or theocratic ideas affecting them or others, they are likely to be labelled “Uncle Toms” “House-Arabs” or “native informants.” Again, the implication is that they are pandering to White non-Muslims and could not possibly have their own views on their own culture or the same moral right to discuss them as White westerners do. The term “native informant” has even been used for Muslim or ex-Muslim critics of Islam in university lectures. [23] This must surely discourage the most vulnerable minority within the minority Muslim community from sharing their thoughts and experiences. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim survivor of FGM and escapee of forced marriage who critiques these and other violent oppressions and Maajid Nawaz, a believing Muslim reformer who works towards a liberal, plural and tolerant vision of Islam have been placed on a list of “Anti-Muslim extremists” for their criticisms of illiberal practices in their own communities. [24] Both of them receive credible death-threats from Islamists.

Intersectionality, by undervaluing shared human experience and rights — universality — and personal autonomy and distinctiveness — individuality — and focusing intensely on group identity and intersectional ideology, places individuals in a very restricted “collectivist” position previously only found in very conservative cultures.

As a White, mostly heterosexual woman with a disability, I have had some experience of these expectations when entering political debate. I am frequently condemned as a “White feminist” and when I point out that I am not a feminist at all, it is demanded that I explain how this is possible if I am woman who believes in gender equality. My ideological differences are not accepted. Instead I am informed that I am pandering to men and am a gender traitor, a fascist and a misogynist. The question of whether or not I should identify as “bisexual” has been of far more interest to intersectional feminists than to me. Both have been argued in the service of showing me to have failed ethically following my expression of non-intersectional views. If I don’t identify as bisexual despite having had a couple of female short-term partners, I am contributing to the erasure of bisexual women. If I do identify as bisexual, despite having always wanted a long-term relationship with a man, and having been in one for 18 years, I am claiming a marginalized identity I have no right to because I do not experience the struggles of bisexual women. If I don’t identify by my disability (which I don’t), I have no right to an opinion on discourses around ableism and if I do, my opinion is perpetuating ableism for people with more severe disabilities. I will usually be reminded that I still have White privilege, class privilege and cisgender privilege and should be quiet and listen. This condemnation is not genuinely to do with the extent of my intersecting “marginalized identities” but my failure to be intersectional about them.

The idea that if one is not an intersectional feminist, one is a misogynist, White supremacist, homophobic, transphobic ableist demands an utter ideological purity that few people can meet or wish to meet. Instead, centrists, moderates and universal liberals of all genders, races, sexualities and abilities continue to oppose discrimination, promote equality and value diversity, independent of intersectionality.

Tom Owolade foregrounds the universal liberal respect for shared humanity and individuality when he says,

“(B)rown people, believe it or not, can be progressives, conservatives, liberals and fascists. The beliefs of black and brown people do not derive from their identity like a linear well. They are human, and as human should be free to believe whatever they want without accusations of treachery. It carries with it the pernicious idea – which I thought was long buried – that individuals shouldn’t be individuals but effectively stereotypes.”

It is regrettable that intersectionality in practice so often manifests in restrictive ideological conformity, exclusionary tactics, hostility, tribalism and even racist abuse. It’s regrettable because liberalism could be benefitted by specialist attention to the ways in which specific groups within society are advantaged or disadvantaged. However, focus on group identity and experience should not come at the cost of respect for the whole world of human ideas and experience and every individual’s right to access and subscribe to any part of it. Until intersectionality respects diversity of ideas as well as of identity and supports every individual’s right to hold any of them regardless of their group identity, it cannot be said to represent anything except its own ideology.


Helen Pluckrose is a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities. You can connect with her on Twitter @HPluckrose


Header Photo: John Moore


[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/180452/liberals-record-trail-conservatives.aspx

[2] https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx?oItemID=101&view=wide

[3] US http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/28/a-closer-look-at-the-gender-gap-in-presidential-voting/

UK https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx?oItemID=101&view=wide

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-baxley/african-americans-democratic_b_12680256.html

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-4-charts-that-show-labour-may-be-losing-the-ethnic-minority-vote-10274051.html

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/mar/23/tories-level-labour-gay-vote

[7] http://www.gallup.com/poll/158102/lgbt-americans-skew-democratic-largely-support-obama.aspx

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/feminism-poll_n_3094917.html

[9] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/only-7-per-cent-of-britons-consider-themselves-feminists/

[10] https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/A_Hunter_Feminist_1998.pdf

[11] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/how-houstons-black-voters-stopped-the-equal-rights-ordinance/433335/

[12] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/03/26/how-proposition-8-passed-in-california-and-why-it-wouldnt-today/?utm_term=.e498b9995545

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/jan/16/gayrights.world

[14] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11290475/Homophobia-taints-the-British-Asian-community.html

[15] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8555503.stm

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/may/07/muslims-britain-france-germany-homosexuality

[17] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/apr/11/british-muslims-strong-sense-of-belonging-poll-homosexuality-sharia-law

[18] http://www.petertatchell.net/international/jamaica/blackhomophobia.htm

[19] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/21/as-muslim-women-we-actually-ask-you-not-to-wear-the-hijab-in-the-name-of-interfaith-solidarity/?utm_term=.58412b899605

[20] http://battymamzelle.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/This-Is-What-I-Mean-When-I-Say-White-Feminism.html

[21] http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/why-our-feminism-must-be-intersectional/

[22] https://tomowolade.wordpress.com/2015/06/27/the-racism-of-some-anti-racists/

[23] http://www.secularism.org.uk/blog/2015/06/the-islamophobia-delusion

[24] http://cjonline.com/opinion/2016-11-12/matt-johnson-defense-ayaan-hirsi-ali-and-maajid-nawaz


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