The Places Words Go

What happens when language travels and expands?
August 8, 2016

Intersectionality, a concept that started in academia and became popular among grassroots activists, recently has exploded in broader culture. Today, there’s even a viral YouTube video that uses pizza to explain its meaning. So when Hillary Clinton, on March 6, 2016, tweeted that: “We face a complex, intersectional set of challenges…” it signaled intersectionality’s full entrance into the mainstream.

Yet, what does it mean for this discourse, which originated in black feminist circles, to now enjoy popularity in a variety of contexts and uses? What happens to language when it travels and is possibly expanded, radicalized, reshaped, de-radicalized, depoliticized, and even re-politicized?

Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw first brought attention to intersectionality in a 1989 article for The University of Chicago Legal Forum. She addressed the problematic consequences of treating race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis. Crenshaw exposed how various legal and political frameworks failed to address black women’s experiences, which were not reducible to just race or gender.

Black feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins built on Crenshaw’s thoughts to talk about race, gender, and class as interlocking systems of oppression. For activist bell hooks, intersectionality is about white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Eventually, intersectionality discourse would incorporate sexual orientation and attempt to hold all facets of identity together in explaining how oppression affects people.

Historically, intersectionality was not simply about “drawing connections” or about personal identities apart from oppressive systems. For example, the discrimination and wage disparities that black women experienced in the workplace could not be reduced simply to bias or racism—any explanation had to take into account the larger structure of capitalism. Nevertheless, popular uses of intersectionality today are much more slippery.

During February’s Democratic primary debate in Milwaukee, Clinton criticized Bernie Sanders for being a single-issue candidate overly consumed with Wall Street and big banks. She said she was in favor of breaking down all barriers for all people, including those “put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community.” Further developing the implicit language of intersectionality, Clinton’s campaign sent out two tweets on March 6 explicitly using the words “intersecting” and “intersectional.” Both tweets included picture diagrams displaying a complex web of problems (e.g. pollution, systemic racism) and solutions (e.g. environmental protection, investments in communities of color).

Clinton’s usage of intersectional language, while maybe well-intentioned, displays the slippage and de-radicalization that attends many popular uses. Intersectionality becomes a matter of drawing connections between multiple problems and multiple solutions. Losing sight of larger structural critiques of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, the problems become about discrimination and about a lack of opportunities or parity for various identities within our economic system. Instead of challenging neoliberal policies that prioritize privatization and investment, the market—by including everyone and improving the stakes of those already within it—becomes the foundation to break all barriers.

Authors can’t control what will become of the words and discourses that they introduce. Language travels. Through migratory patterns and displacements, they are sometimes expanded and sometimes repurposed. What a phrase might mean, even if started on a particular trajectory, is shaped by power, political contestation, and the winds of history.

Daniel José Camacho is a master’s of divinity student, pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).