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Issue: 8.3: Summer 2010
Guest Edited by Mandy Van Deven and Julie Kubala
Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert

On Difficulty: Intersectionality as Feminist Labor

Jennifer C. Nash

Intersectional conversations are often framed as very hard work or as "difficult dialogues."[1] While intersectionality is imagined as hard work, it is also celebrated as good work; intersectionality has been lionized as "the most important contribution that women's studies, in conjunction with related fields, has made so far," and there are more special journal issues, conferences, and edited volumes devoted to it than ever before.[2]

The imagined laborious nature of intersectionality has led feminist scholars and activists to view it as the remedy for simple theoretical frameworks which attend exclusively to gender. If it is challenging to study race/gender/sexuality, and even more challenging to study race/gender/sexuality/class, then the latter is presumed to be more fruitful and more inclusive, particularly if the goal is to disrupt simplistic, essentialized theorizing.

Feminist scholarship is now filled with calls for more intersectionality, for more complex analyses that address multiple structures of domination, particularly those often relegated to the periphery, like age and ability. Generally, this body of scholarship commences by describing intersectionality's "unrealized analytic bite"[3] or promising "prospects."[4] Oftentimes this scholarship addresses the importance of bringing intersectionality into the mainstream of a particular discipline. For example, Hae Yeon Choo and Myra Marx Ferree describe "the underutilized potential in the concept of intersectionality," and argue that a deepened engagement with intersectionality can enhance sociological work on "institutions, power relationships, culture, and interpersonal interaction."[5] Their plea for more intersectionality—a plea they share with many scholars—is underpinned by the idea that studying increased intersections will create a more nuanced body of scholarship, and will remedy the problems of exclusivity and essentialism that have haunted feminist theory and activism.

I read the trope of intersectionality's difficulty with great suspicion, and treat the call for "more" intersectionality with analytic skepticism. While the interdisciplinary push towards intersectionality has led to rich scholarship on identity and power, it has also produced an uncritical notion of intersectionality as a theoretical constant rather than as a dynamic theoretical innovation within a terrain of struggle. This call for more intersectionality elides how intersectionality, which began as a kind of radical outsider knowledge and was institutionalized in the late 1980s, has been transformed in its various transitions from activist practice to academic theoretical innovation. Scholars calling for more intersectionality all too rarely ask what kind of intersectionality they are promoting, and instead treat intersectionality as a uniform, uncontested practice.

More importantly, the fetishization of intersectionality's difficulty suggests that the labor of theorizing intersectionally will repair problems of feminist exclusivity. My objection to this logic is two-fold. First, one of feminism's fundamental challenges has been to organize across difference, a tension that will remain at the heart of feminism as it attempts to theorize equity, and to study how gender is necessarily bound up with other structures of domination. An attention to more intersections, and to new intersections, will not alleviate this "problem;" instead, feminism's renewed commitment to speaking about multiple structures of domination will mean that organizing across difference will likely always be foundational to feminist work.

Second, the fetishization of intersectionality suggests the existence of a kind of feminist theoretical utopia, a promised land where the "etc." that marks so much scholarly writing on identity ("race, gender, class, age, ethnicity, etc.") will be replaced by an attention to all difference. I am suspicious of the idea that an attention to all intersections—as though that could ever happen—would undo the problems of hegemony that have plagued feminist projects. The "etc." stands as an important marker of the rich complexity of identities, of the variety and heterogeneity that we always strive to capture but never quite do. Indeed, I think the "etc." is good for our work in that it calls attention to the limitless multiplicity of experience.

Yet the call for more intersectionality presumes that attention to additional intersections will get us to "etc.," allowing us to replace "etc." with an endless list of intersections (race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, ethnicity...). Ultimately, this plea for increased intersectionality suggests that "attending to" or naming difference will undo hegemony and exclusivity within our own ranks. While naming difference certainly allows feminists to bear witness to power's operations, it does little to analyze the mechanisms by which these systems of exclusion are replicated and re-created.

In place of reading intersectionality as the remedy for feminist exclusivity, I advocate treating intersectionality as a metaphor which strives to describe how identity and oppression work by conceptualizing race and gender as intersecting streets through which discrimination, like traffic, flows. In "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics," Kimberlé Crenshaw famously analogizes a traffic-clogged intersection to women of color's experiences of discrimination. She writes, "Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them."[6] Her intersection metaphor reveals that the injuries multiply marginalized subjects experience are neither exclusively the result of racism or sexism nor simply the aggregate of racism and sexism. Instead, multiple marginalized subjects experience oppression in the intersection where racism and sexism collide. More recent scholarship treats the intersection metaphor as an empirically supported articulation of how identity and oppression operate. In fact, intersectionality has come to be regarded as a kind of feminist truth, a proven account of how both identity and oppression are experienced.

I advocate restoring our understanding of intersectionality to a metaphor, and encourage treating intersectionality as one platform from which scholars can examine the interconnections of identity and oppression. By emphasizing intersectionality's status as one metaphor (rather than the metaphor) we can use to better understand identity and oppression, scholars can hold in mind that analytical frameworks capture and describe as much as they obscure and elide. Continued efforts to imagine identity in new ways are critical, not to displace intersectionality, but to encourage our transdisciplinary explorations of the messiness of subjectivity and domination. Finally, a recognition of intersectionality's status as one metaphor for understanding identity will disrupt the pervasive logic that more hard intersectional work will lead us to a feminist utopia, a promised land outside of hegemony and exclusivity.

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© 2010 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 8.3: Summer 2010 - Polyphonic Feminisms