Against Intersectionality – A Review
by Victoria Princewill
The key problem with Smith’s essay, Against Intersectionality, is that it is not actually about intersectionality. The declarative title informs the audience of its stance, but the bulk of the essay does not talk about it. I have come to this conclusion for two reasons. First, it talks, almost exclusively, about race. [Thus a more accurate title would have been Against Race or even Against Race as a Useful Barometer for Injustice.] Intersectionality, by the even the most literal definition, is not about a single issue. Intersectionality, as a term, evolves from the word “intersect”. Etymologically inter is a Latin preposition and adverb meaning ‘between, among, amid, in between, in the midst’, meanwhile –sect was the participial stem of secāre [to cut]. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means, ‘to cut or divide (into equal parts)’. In light of this understanding of intersectionality’s history, one can assume that it is not primarily focused on the singular. But let us assume that not everybody encountering the word ‘intersectionality’ is familiar with Latin or curious enough to research [it]. Let us look instead at how “intersection” is understood. Intersection is defined as ‘the place where two things intersect or cross.’ In North America, the noun ‘cross-road’ is a based on the understanding of the term intersection. Thus it is fair to assume that, at the very least, intersectionality is inherently and exclusively focused upon insights that can be drawn from analysing the place where two things meet. At the very least, in the absence of external features, like contemporary culture, this is what we can conclude about intersectionality as a term.
Smith’s piece, Against Intersectionality is wholly focused on the single area race. In light of what we have just discussed it is clear that his piece is not actually about intersectionality. Now, if we are to bring contemporary culture and common parlance back into the discussion, it would be fair to assume that intersectionality is about the intersection between racism and sexism and consequently the experiences a black woman may face, being discriminated upon on two fronts. . Smith proceeds without first defining intersectionality. In light of that one is tempted to assume he is engaging with the commonly held understanding of it. The absence of any commentary on sexism or the experiences of women would suggest, however, that he is not. Clearly sexism is not a salient feature of the intersectionality he seeks to engage with. Thus we can remove this from our consideration of the type of intersectionality Smith may be discussing. Smith refers to ‘intersectionality’ by name twice in the essay, in the penultimate and final paragraphs. He writes that it neglects the ‘full range of human difference’ and that it ‘barely scratches the surface’. At which point the audience is unclear as to whether this failing is about what he thinks intersectionality sets out to do, or what he thinks it should do.
Intersectionality can be defined as “the study of how different power structures interact in the lives of minorities”. As previously mentioned it is commonly discussed in a particular form. Kimberle Crenshaw introduced it ‘to capture the applicability of black feminism to anti-discrimination law’. Smith mentions Crenshaw as the originator of the term, arguing that her use of the ‘intersectional approach’ was ‘focused and non-global’ [her recent comments contradict this assumption]. He also states that it is our ‘responsibility’ to focus on ‘our own parochial context’. This comment is important, because later Smith chastises intersectionality for its perceived lack of interest in the ‘full range human difference.’ This contradiction, [to be visited later] is revelatory and at the heart of this essay’s critique. The three lines Smith devotes to explaining Crenshaw’s intersectional approach is the last mention of race in conjunction with another form of discrimination. The existence of these lines is arguably evidence of Smith’s understanding of the origins of the intersectional approach, and the use of the term in contemporary culture. Consequently, his decision to treat intersectionality as a synonym for race is confusing.
Smith argues extensively for the insignificance of race in understanding global patterns of injustice. He offers a historical narrative on the use of race, noting that we frame contemporary injustice in the language of race but considers this inaccurate. To think outside of local contexts in terms of ‘race’ does not wed one to the assumption that there is a ‘universal natural order’ from which these distinctions were born. Smith argues that the absence of localised focus presumes a natural one, but this is to affirm racial discrimination, a leap Smith inadvertently accuses us of making. One can argue for something’s prevalence, even for its international prevalence without making a claim that such prevalence is evidence of an evolutionary trait. The significance of ‘race’ is not the term itself – Smith is right to use the examples of the Muslim Chechen who is as ‘white’ as his American counterparts but unlikely to experience the same ‘white privilege’. The significance lies in the relation between race and hierarchy, which manifests itself differently in different regions. In Russia white Chechen migrants are discriminated against, with slurs reported such as ‘black ass’. What is the significance of a white individual being called a ‘black ass’? Well, as Smith notes, Chechen migrants are frequently subject to ‘contempt’ and ‘exclusion’. They are also insulted, if we accept the article’s assurance the comment was offensive. That ‘blackness’ is equated with denigration, that it is a symptom of the contempt and exclusion a Chechen migrant will suffer, is evidence that the hierarchical understanding of race that is present in America –which Smith deemed ‘severe parochialism’ – is actually universally present. The notion of ‘whiteness’ functioning as an aspirational category, in the States, as Smith describes it, is also applicable here, in the very example of the Chechen migrant he used to dismiss white privilege.
White privilege is thus significant and ever-present outside of the United States. It is worth noting that Smith has inadvertently drawn us to focus on an important facet of it, its applicability in other cultures. The words ‘white’ and ‘black’, when used to describe race, have become synonyms for the desirable and the undesirable. When a Chechen migrant is pejoratively called ‘black’ it is to reinforce his status as an undesirable human being, to reiterate his undesirable position in life. This is not to undermine the white and black people who experience corresponding privilege and bigotry. Rather it is to show how wedded blackness, in certain regions, has become to the reprehensible. The skin colour of an individual is not, in common parlance, emblematic of an inherent internal identity that confers greatness or unworthiness. However when ‘black’ as a slur is used upon people who are not black, it reveals a sense that whatever is hateful about blackness, and those who are black, goes deeper than their skin colour. Consequently to abuse another person by calling them black is to claim that they too share the inherent undesirability found in black people. Furthermore it argues for a universal hierarchy, one that is flexible enough to adapt to the plethora of existing regions whilst retaining the racial binary of ‘black’ and ‘white’ as immutable reflections of the undesirable and the desired.
Smith too believes that white can be considered synonymous with aspirational but he limits this to the Americas and has little interest and exploring the extent to which attaching positive attributes to certain races is carried out throughout the world. He notes that the way we use race is not different from the way ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’ were used in the 16th and 17th centuries. He also notes that in the binary of black and white, there is no term for the Native Americans in society, neither aspirational nor derogatory. Their existence is ignored, they are considered invisible. These two points are interesting. Both deserve better homes, in essays devoted to their cause. There is a brilliant essay, waiting to be written, perhaps by Justin E Smith himself, about the continued injustice against the indigenous people of America. But squeezing facts about their marginalisation into an essay on intersectionality does their plight no favours.
It is evidence of Smith’s US-centric outlook, with regards to critiquing intersectionality. The majority of this essay is made up of stressing that just as the intersectional approach of Crenshaw is apparently non-global, race is similarly non-global. Yet amongst Smith’s critiques of intersectionality, comes the fact that it is exclusively American [it actually isn’t]. Surely this should not be a critique, as it is in line with his view of race being an American problem [?] In addition, this is in line with Smith’s earlier comment, prior to introducing Crenshaw’s definition, that it was one’s responsibility to focus on one’s ‘parochial’ context. However, in intersectionality Smith considers US-centrism a critique. It is worth the audience noting that at this point, we are finally presented with some form of his definition. For Smith intersectionality is about ‘the various intersections between the various ways of being American’. Thus in addition to being exclusively American, Smith believes intersectionality to act as the term implies.
It is at this point, in these last two paragraphs in particular, that Smith’s paper begins to get interesting. The language and tone depart from the kind employed before. First, let us provide a summary of his critique entire critique: The injustice Native Americans experience, on account of their status as indigenous Americans, is more important than the various intersections of injustice than intersectionality wants to engage with. Victims of intersectionality are acknowledged as part of society whereas Native Americans are not. Consequently intersectionality is wrong for failing to concern itself with Native American injustice but also wrong for focusing exclusively on America. In addition it is wrong for using race as a measurement of injustice; race is a ‘historical artefact’. These are the bare bones of Smith’s argument, but when he invokes the plight of the Native Americans to delegitimise that of those facing intersectionality, he does so on a subtler, emotive basis.
It is interesting to note that Smith’s largely factual essay on race slips into emotive language whenever it finds itself engaging with the tenets of intersectionality. The contemporary analysis of ‘privilege’ – which charts how an imperialist legacy has left its ancestors on both sides disproportionately equipped for modern life – is granted the descriptor, ‘parochial’. In his concluding thoughts, where he positions intersectionality against Native American marginalisation, he opts for passively critical emotive language. After presenting the plights of people, in an arguably worse condition than those intersectionality appears to focus on, he writes that intersectionality, ‘does not concern itself’ with their experience. He goes on to say it is ‘not principally concerned with the full range of human difference.’ This is as useful a critique as one that chastises Shelter, a British charity that aids the homeless, for failing to target child abuse, or terminal illness. For Smith to negate intersectionality’s value because it does not look at plight of Native Americans, one that is borne of a single issue as opposed to the intersection of various issues, is to disregard to the meaning of the term.
Furthermore, in doing so, Smith establishes a hierarchy of importance in accounts of human suffering. If the contemporary suffering of individuals who face hardship for belonging to two minority groups is ‘ornamentation’ whereas the suffering of Native Americans carries the weight of the imperialist legacy then surely Smith has decided upon an order of importance. In declaring the irrelevancy of the intersectional experience, as anyone who describes something as ‘ornamentation’ does, Smith has denied the significance of the imperialist legacy to all but the Native Americans. Smith criticises ‘privilege’ narratives as being US-centric and intersectionality as American. When discussing privilege, US-centrism is intellectually unhelpful; Smith deems it parochial. He then spends the bulk of the essay seeking to prove the irrelevancy of race to injustice by looking at it in a global context. However he then encourages returning to the parochialism of US-centrism, so that we can look at a different group.
This alternate group, the Native American people, face injustice that carries with it the weight of the American imperialist legacy. For Justin E Smith, who continually conflates intersectionality and race, slavery in the United States and the consequent racial injustice does not carry with it the imperialist legacy. The enslavement of the ancestors of African-Americans, whose experiences form part of the intersectionality he seeks to discredit, is ‘ornamentation.’
It is hard not to be struck by the plethora of contradictions.
 This, alongside all future dictionary definitions is taken from http://www.oed.com
 All quotations citing the work of Justin E Smith are from his essay: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/intersectionality-is-an-ornamentation-of-the-present-order/
 In an interview in 2014 Crenshaw said the following: “Women of colour are invisible in plain sight. Within any power system, there is always a moment – and sometimes it lasts a century – of resistance to the implications of that.” http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could