- Intersectionality and Its Discontents
These are anxious times for intersectionality and its practitioners. For example, at the “Key This Keyword” panel at the 2014 American Studies Association conference—where scholars reflected on widely circulating keywords to determine whether they should be salvaged or banished from our collective lexicon—nothing generated more unease than intersectionality. The analytic was immediately declared dead. Moments after a collective performance of fatigue amplified through an exasperated sense that intersectionality had already delivered what it promised, scholars voiced discomfort with “killing” intersectionality because to do that would be to “kill” black feminism or perhaps even to “kill” black women as objects of study. The room grew quiet at the prospect of symbolically slayed black women. As intersectionality slipped into black feminism slipped into black women, the analytic moved from dangerous to desirable, from peril to promise, and the audience that had been quick to kill had been convinced to rescue. The “Kill This Keyword” episode reflects one moment in a much larger theoretical, pedagogical, political, and experiential archive where intersectionality generates unease even though it has become institutionalized, made into a defining analytic across the humanities and a core program-building initiative in women’s studies, even as it has become a theory, method, and analytic used across the humanities and social sciences, and the primary way that so-called difference is theorized and described.1
Feminist debates around intersectionality—which I term the intersectionality wars—have become particularly and peculiarly contentious.2 Nearly [End Page 117] everything about intersectionality is disputed: its histories and origins, its methodologies, its efficacy, its politics, its relationship to identity and identity politics, its central metaphor, its juridical orientations, its relationship to “black woman” and to black feminism.3 At the heart of these debates is an anxiety over feminist theory’s key symbol: black woman. Feminist theory has long imagined black woman as the quintessential location of complexity and marginality, a figure that disciplines the interdisciplinary project of feminist theory by demanding an account of gendered racism and racialized sexism, and by advocating a feminism that transcends a preoccupation exclusively with gender.4 Intersectionality is regularly envisioned as the paradigmatic analytic that stands for both black feminism and black women (indeed, the two are regularly collapsed and conflated), the theory that requires women’s studies to reckon with black woman and her imagined complexity. It is intersectionality’s ostensible capacity to remedy all that has ailed feminist theory, to provide “political completion,” that gives the analytic its analytical, political, theoretical, and even administrative-programmatic muscle.5
In the midst of the intersectionality wars, a proliferation of new scholarly work—including the three monographs under review—has emerged. If these texts reflect on intersectionality’s status as “buzzword,”6 as “citationally ubiquitous”7 and dominant in the field of women’s studies, they do so in the face of the significant intellectual challenges intersectionality faces, including work on postintersectionality and assemblage.8 Though my own work is deeply suspicious of the reduction of Jasbir Puar’s theorizing of assemblage to a critique of intersectionality (and sometimes the critique of intersectionality), her analysis of intersectionality’s use as a “tool of diversity management” and “mantra of liberal multiculturalism”9 reveals how intersectionality has been institutionalized in troubling ways, often made to operate as a kind of “racial alibi”10 either where the invocation of intersectionality is performed instead of actual intersectional labor or where intersectionality is called on to do precisely the kind of diversity work it critiques. Indeed, Puar offers a careful reading of how intersectionality has become dominant in women’s studies so that “an interest in exploring other frames, for example assemblage, gets rendered as problematic and even produces WOC [women of color] feminists invested in other genealogies as ‘race-traitors.’”11
The three monographs that are...