Against Intersectionality



by Justin E. H. Smith

It is hard not be struck by the severe parochialism, and usually the US-centrism, of the now-popular approach to human diversity that calculates a person’s ‘privilege ranking’ by considering a few supposedly basic features of identity, particularly gender, religion, sexual identity, physical ability, and ‘race’.[1] The combinatorics involved do not diminish the essentialism of this approach, for there is a fairly short list of elements from which one may come up with the formula telling us who one really is. These are typically the elements that will be of interest to offices of equal employment opportunity in a particular developed western country, but they hardly help us to map the diversity of people beyond those who might be applying for jobs in that country—which is to say beyond those people who are already in fundamental respects acknowledged as members of one and the same society. This leaves out people who have radically different forms of social organization, food production, kinship, and literacy. It is of little use for coming to terms with the sort of difference manifested by peasants or hunter-gatherers.

Beyond these obvious, and sometimes excusable, forms of exclusion, there is a particular danger involved in passively accepting an approach to human diversity that sees the world through the distorting lens of American history, for this history is highly peculiar. The history of the United States has brought it about that in that country ethnic diversity is generally conceived in binary terms, with several residual classes that tend to be added on as afterthoughts. There are the people who descended from African slaves, and there are ‘white’ people. If this seems a bit reductive, it is important to understand that ‘white’ functions here almost entirely as an aspirational category, into which any ethnic group may eventually hope to blend through the proper displays of cultural affiliation– any ethnic group, that is, except for the descendants of African slaves. This latter group constitutes a structural underclass, which ensures that newly arrived immigrants from different ethnicities will never start out, as they do in Europe, at the lowest rung of the social ladder, and that wherever they start out on the ladder they may hope to climb from there. If they climb high enough, they will be ‘white’, and in this respect the principal function of the category of whiteness in American society is to preserve the black underclass: to preserve, in other words, the racial economic order, formerly called ‘slavery’, on which American society was built.[2]

It is in reference to this local history that we must understand the notion of white privilege,[3] and not in reference to some supposedly natural taxonomy of skin pigmentations or other physical features. Does a Muslim Chechen migrant laborer in a provincial Siberian city –a ‘Caucasian’ if anyone ever was– enjoy ‘white privilege’? It seems offensive to suggest that he does. Of course, there is some scenario on which his children could be taken to the US and raised by Americans, and if this were to happen they would have a set of privileges denied to African adoptees. But that scenario is so remote from the actual range of advantages of which this Chechen can avail himself as he navigates his own social reality that one may as well not mention it. In his context, though racially ‘white’ by American standards, he is the object of suspicion, contempt, and exclusion. The thought that he is ‘white’ has almost certainly never crossed his mind.

Now of course there is nothing wrong in principle with focusing on our own parochial context—indeed it is our responsibility to be concerned with it, and to strive to improve it. When Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the intersectional approach, she had just such a focused and non-global concern, namely, to analyze the actors’ categories that come into play in government responses to domestic violence against women in the United States. But one serious problem with staying faithful to actors’ categories and thinking of local contexts in terms of ‘race’, is that this seems to imply a universal natural order in which the locally salient distinctions between different types of people are grounded. And there simply is no such order. What we find when we move to the global context, and to the longue durée, rather, is that the focus on supposedly racial physical attributes is generally an a posteriori rationalization of a prior unequal system of interaction between members of different ethnic groups. The more aggravated this inequality, typically, the more racially different the people on different sides of the ethnic divide will appear to one another. We have seen this regularity played out in so many historical instances that there is no need to argue for it here.[4]

What is the sense of invoking the universal order of race to account for local systems of exclusion and discrimination? And why is it the sort of system that tends to prevail in the Atlantic world broadly speaking, including the Americas and Western Europe, that tends to be invoked as the one-size-fits-all schema for understanding human diversity throughout the world? An important part of the answer to these questions is the fact that the most ambitious attempts at a universal taxonomy of human racial types, the so-called ‘racial science’ that flourished from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries, was primarily interested in accounting for, and naturalizing, the social order that had emerged in the Atlantic world as a consequence of slavery. The racial science is posterior to the racism, and the racism is posterior to the economic order of the region, which was built on the labor of Africans not because these people had been seen at the outset as inferior and thus as suitable for enslavement, but mostly because shifting power dynamics in the Mediterranean region had greatly diminished the Ottoman slave trade by the 16th century and had sent European traders to West Africa for a more reliable supply.[5]

The Ottoman trade was significant, but took place at a much smaller scale than the trans-Atlantic system that would come after it. This latter stage of the world history of slavery, in fact, unfolded at such a large scale, and had such a profound impact on the global economy, that it was possible to take the categories of human being implicated in this system to be, so to speak, universally valid. It is not coincidental that the early modern period, which witnessed the explosion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, also witnessed the first post-classical large-scale projects for a universal taxonomy of natural kinds, most notably of plants and animals, culminating in particular in the universal ‘system of nature’ of Carl Linnaeus in the early 18th century.

‘Race’ is an historical artefact of these ambitious projects of the modern period, and a result of a simple failure to understand the nature of the object of study. Traits do cluster in populations, and this is a biological fact about the human species– one eminently worth studying. Yet the way these traits cluster almost never has anything interesting to do with the sort of questions people are talking about when they talk about ‘race’. What are people talking about, then? Considerable insight may be gained here by looking at the period of early modern globalization prior to the emergence of ‘racial science’, and prior to the casting of Africans as the ultimate other. We already noted above that in the US context there is a binary system of race, between ‘white’ (conceived as an aspirational category) and ‘black’. But this opposition leaves out an important tertium quid, namely, the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas.

For the first two centuries or so after the first contact with the New World, it was the origins and nature of the Native Americans that most preoccupied Europeans interested in the question of human diversity. If this third term is left out today, this is not because Native Americans have been made ‘white’, as, say, Irish people have been, but rather because genocide and ethnic cleansing have made Native Americans mostly marginal to political debate and to the efforts of Americans to define the present reality of their multicultural society. Yet much of the way we continue to think about human diversity, under the poor cover of ‘race’, in fact continues to look a good deal more like 16th- and early 17th-century conceptualization of human diversity, in which the key binary division was not based on some purportedly significant physical traits, but rather on the distinction between the civilized and the savage. This distinction is in turn rooted in a more fundamental opposition between the realms of the properly human on the one hand and the natural on the other. ‘Natives’, as the shared lexical root plainly attests, are those people who are thought to be grounded or ‘at home’ in nature in a way that others, the properly human, are not.

Today, in most theoretical reflection on human diversity in the developed world, there are, as we’ve already claimed, varieties of difference that seldom enter into consideration. Again, this exclusion is not inappropriate, if what we are doing is mapping or enumerating the forms of difference within our own society. But it is important not to forget that the reason why certain other forms of difference fall out of this sort of consideration is not because they are intrinsically of little interest, but because the people who embodied these forms have been decimated, exterminated, and marginalized. If it is a challenge for a disabled person to obtain full equality within our society, it is already a fait accompli that a forager or a practitioner of subsistence agriculture can have no place in our society at all. But intersectionality does not concern itself with such forms of life; it is not principally concerned with the full range of human difference, but only with the various intersections between the various ways of being American. The legacy of imperialist genocide has brought it about that hunting and gathering are not among these ways.

Intersectionality barely scratches the surface. It is an ornamentation of the present order, not  a radical questioning of it.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website


[1] For the locus classicus of this approach, see Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, 6 (1991): 1241-1299.

[2] For a particularly compelling account of the historical continuity between the era of slavery and the era of mass incarceration, see Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009; Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society 3, 1 (2001): 95-133.

[3] See in particular Peggy McIntosh, “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom (July-August 1989): 9-10.

[4] To cite just a few popular case studies, see See Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 1995; Karen Brodkin, How the Jews Became White Folks, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

[5] On the Western European turn away from the Eastern Mediterranean and towards West Africa as a principal source of slaves, see in particular John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.