Cover photo for "Intersectionality Is Discrimination Redefined"
Culture and Society,  Long-form,  Politics,  Psychology

Intersectionality: Discrimination Redefined

Intersectionality is not the answer to discrimination; intersectionality is discrimination.

Intersectionality is a form of identity politics designed to identify and combat discrimination. It’s built on the idea that a person’s various group memberships – their race, gender, sexual preference, etc. – come with an inherent amount of privilege or oppression. This can be based on either institutional power, (the presence of systems which either oppress or advance a group), or historical power, (whether those systems were in place in the past). Understanding how these various oppressions/privileges combine, or intersect, allows for an understanding of the (dis)advantages a given person will have throughout their lifetime.

The idea is not without merit. It is important to understand that a person’s past life experiences will contribute to his or her worldview. Each person will face unique challenges throughout their lives. Their outlooks will change in kind.

The reason that intersectional thinking tends to crumble is it assumes all of those of a given skin color, gender, etc. will have had the same experiences. Every man will live an equally privileged life. Every woman will live a life equally less privileged than any given man.

By focusing on group memberships, intersectionality denies the uniqueness of the individual in a way that is, in itself, discrimination.

Trends Predict Groups, Not Individuals

There may be differences between groups, but these are dwarfed by the wildly unique people within groups.

Of course, there are trends which can be somewhat predicted by group memberships. For example, white Christians are more likely to vote Republican than black Christians. But there are exceptions to the rule. There are always exceptions to the rule.

Trends are fantastic ways of predicting what a group of people will do. They are not so useful in predicting the actions, or the perspectives, of individuals. There may be differences between groups, but these are dwarfed by the differences among the wildly unique people within them. This is why stereotyping is so dangerous.

Intersectionality, however, expects uniformity in trends. And any breaks from these trends are explained in the worst possible way. If a person doesn’t hold the opinion that is “expected” of their group, they are excommunicated from it. A black person who goes against the trend by voting Republican is deemed a race traitor or Uncle Tom, (among other things less fit to print). A woman who is uninterested in modern feminist movements is accused of having internalized misogyny and become a slave to the patriarchy.

Again, these labels are a denial of the individual. They are an outright rejection of the ability for humans of the same skin color or gender to have different and valid opinions. According to intersectionality, you are the sum of your groups and only the sum of your groups.

Intersectionality and Agency

The primary function of intersectionality is to place individuals on a hierarchy of privilege and victimhood based on their immutable characteristics. If you can change it, it’s not an intersectional category, (with religion arguably being the lone exception). This promotes what behavioral psychologists call an external locus of control.

Internal vs. external locus of control, "Intersectionality Is Discrimination Redefined"

The locus of control is a person’s perceived power over his or her life and actions. When a person has an internal locus of control, she feels as though her life is in her own hands. If she fails, it’s on her. If she succeeds, she made it happen. She is the agent of her own life and in control of her own destiny.

A person with an external locus of control does not accept responsibility in this way. This person does not feel in control of his or her own life. Life is something that happens to him. If he fails, he was doomed to fail. If he succeeds, it was luck. He is a victim of circumstance—devoid of blame, but powerless.

People with an internal locus of control – people who feel in control of their own lives – tend to be happier, healthier, and more successful. On the other hand, an external locus of control is a common symptom of both depression and anxiety.

Victimhood, Fear, and Depression

Your designated victimhood is a life sentence. No matter what you accomplish in your lifetime: If you are born a victim, you will die a victim.

The last several years have seen increasing rates of anxious and depressive disorders in young people, and there is reason to believe that the victimhood mentality which results from intersectional identity politics has played a role in this increase. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, researchers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt demonstrate that the rise of intersectionality has been concurrent with the rise of anxiety and depression among college-age students—the demographic most likely to subscribe to the tenants of intersectionality.

The victimhood mentality and external locus of control promoted by intersectionality don’t just mirror the mindsets of depression and anxiety; they may just cause depression and anxiety.

It is no coincidence that one of the cognitive behavioral therapist’s primary methods of combating these disorders is to instill in their patient a sense of control over their lives—to focus only on that which is in their power to change. The last thing they want is for their patients to adopt a mentality of victimhood.

But in intersectionality, your place on the hierarchy is determined by unchangeable characteristics like skin color and sexual preference, and so your designated victimhood is a life sentence. No matter what you accomplish in your lifetime: If you are born a victim, you will die a victim.

No Winners Here: The Paradoxical Hierarchy of Intersectionality

Yet as depressing as it is to be designated a victim for life, it is actually the most desirable label to be rewarded by intersectionality. Because while those with privilege are thought to hold power in some vague, historical sense akin to original sin, those with victimhood status have tangible social power.

As victimhood is determined by a person’s gender, race, etc. (and not by the person’s family structure, scholarly opportunity, etc.), the victim is considered to have a more diverse – and therefore, informed – perspective. The greater your victimhood status, the more topics you are allowed to discuss, and the more “expert” are your opinions on those topics. The greater your privilege, the less valuable are your opinions.

For example, according to intersectionality, a straight, white, Christian female is inherently more privileged than a gay, atheist, man of color. This is true even if the woman is born into a fractured and destitute home, and the man is born into a wealthy, well-adjusted family. Therefore, while the woman may educate the man on gender, her opinions on race, religion, and sexuality are all superseded by the man’s. Even if she holds a PhD in human sexuality, her beliefs on the subject are invariably less valid.

It is no wonder that as intersectionality has become more pervasive, people have begun falsely claiming to be victims of hate crimes, signaling their victimhood status to the world. The greatest victim sits highest on the intersectional hierarchy. Victimhood is power.

Grievance Studies

The proposed paper argued that white males should be forced to sit silently, in chains, on the floor of their classrooms as punishment for historical slavery.

In fact, intersectionality uses altered definitions of racism, sexism, and all other forms of discrimination which require that the perpetrator have more “power” – in the intersectional sense of privilege – than the victim. So, if a privileged person speaks on a topic that is unapproved based on their group memberships, their opinion is not just worthless; it is likely offensive. According to intersectionality, it is best that privileged people refrain from speaking at all.

This may seem absurd on its face, but a respected academic journal recently accepted a paper which proposed exactly that. In order to point out the insanity of intersectional academia – which they lovingly refer to as grievance studies – three academics submitted several papers to respected academic journals highlighting everything that’s wrong with the field. The ideas they proposed were intentionally absurd, and the research methods often even more so. But the response of the journals to their work was anything but chilly. On the contrary, until the facetious nature of their work was revealed, they were well on their way to being highly respected scholars in the various fields of intersectionality.

One of their proposed papers argued that white males should be forced to sit silently, in chains, on the floor of their classrooms as punishment for historical slavery. Less privileged students would be encouraged to talk over and deride any white male which dared to ask questions or otherwise speak in the class. The paper was accepted, and not a single reviewer took issue with making students wear chains based on their skin color. In fact, one reviewer confidently stated that the paper would “make a strong contribution to the growing literature on addressing epistemic injustice in the classroom.”

An Intersectional Manifesto

This was only one of the trio’s many papers that were either accepted or well on their way to being so. One argued that bodybuilding was offensive to those that are overweight. So, there needed to be an equivalent “fat bodybuilding” for those that would like to gain fat rather than muscle. One included copy-pasted excerpts from Mein Kampf with terms like “Jews,” “Germany,” “Nazis,” etc. replaced with feminist buzzwords. Another did something similar, taking snippets of Mein Kampf and replacing “Jews” with “white people” whenever there was a derogatory passage about Jews.

Finally, one of their articles argued that men should be trained like dogs in order to root out toxic masculinity. This paper was accepted, published, and recognized for excellence by Gender, Place, and Culture, who thought it worthy of being the featured piece in the seventh issue of their 25th anniversary series.

These hoax papers highlighted the absurdity of intersectional academia, lightheartedly poking fun at a field of study in need of pushback. The idea that anyone could believe truly believe these things is, indeed, amusing.

However, it is anything but amusing when seen in action.

The Evergreen Incident

In May of 2017, Evergreen State College in Washington state organized a “Day of Absence” in which no white students or faculty were to step foot on campus. Bret Weinstein, a professor of biology at the college, protested the idea. In his words: “On a college campus, one’s right to speak – or to be – must never be based on skin color.”

The result was chaos.

In response to Weinstein’s refusal to remain off campus on the Day of Absence, Evergreen students erupted into a frenzy. They surrounded the professor, hurling racist insults at him and demanded that the president fire him, along with several other professors. The college police told Weinstein that they could not guarantee his safety after George Bridges, Evergreen’s president, ordered them to stand down. In the end, the college was forced to shut down for the day due to the “threat to campus safety.”

The Religion of Intersectionality

The students in this case could hardly be blamed for their actions. For years, under the guidance of George Bridges, these students had been part of a culture built on a foundation of combating “problematic whiteness.” For years, they had been indoctrinated into what could only be described as a religion based on the “Core Tenets of Anti-Racist Scholarship-Activism,” which include axioms such as “Anything that maintains white comfort is suspect,” and “The question is not ‘Did racism take place?’ but rather ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’”

Students and faculty alike attended events lead by scholars of “whiteness studies”. Here, they were shown historical incidences of violent rebellions against oppression and told that these were examples to follow. They listened at meetings while speakers advocated for violence. They listened to those speakers laugh while recounting incidences of people throwing bottles and heavy weights at police officers.

The professors had fared no better. White faculty were forced to write yearly statements about their racism—not if they were racist, but how much. These forced statements gave the college the ability to fire faculty with cause on grounds of their “admitted racism.” They were, effectively, blackmail.

It is a small miracle that the “Day of Absence” ended in only the threat of violence.

Implicit Bias

Still, this is an extreme manifestation of intersectional thought. And while it is absurd to believe that all white people are racist whether they know it or not, implicit bias is a real and important concept. It is possible to hold stereotypical beliefs without being consciously aware of them.

It is also possible for these unconscious biases to affect a person’s behavior. We live in a complex world, and rather than attempt to consciously and continuously attend to every aspect of it, we have evolved mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions quickly and automatically. But these methods are imperfect and not without negative consequences—implicit bias being one.

However, the effects of implicit bias on actual behavior are not as strong as had been previously thought. More than that, the existence of racial implicit bias in some is not reason to assume it in everyone of a certain skin color. This is, in itself, racism.

Of course, an intersectionalist would disagree. Remember, according to intersectionality, discrimination requires that the perpetrator have more “institutional” or “historical” power than the victim. This is but one of intersectionality’s many redefined terms, an important aspect of their strategy.

Intersectionality: Discrimination Redefined

“A panel that is 100% black women is 100% diverse because it isn’t speaking from the ‘dominant’ perspective that’s assumed to pervade and underwrite all of society.” – James Lindsay

As laid out by James Lindsay, one of the authors of the Grievance Studies papers, intersectionality takes words that are ostensibly bad – like discrimination – or ostensibly good – like diversity – and redefines them to mean something else entirely. This allows intersectionalists to maintain the appearance of the moral high ground—and to make it appear that any argument against them must be racist, sexist, or otherwise evil. No decent person is against diversity, for example, and so many decent people will side with the intersectional cause, not knowing that what they mean by “diversity” has little to do with the dictionary definition of the term.

In intersectionality, a “diverse” viewpoint is any that doesn’t come from a “dominant” class. This is because intersectionality operates on Standpoint Theory, which suggests that a dominant class only knows the dominant perspective. On the flip side, an “oppressed” class knows both the oppressed perspective and the dominant perspective. They grew up in the dominant group’s world, after all. So, even if a group is composed entirely of one race and one gender, it is intersectionally diverse as long as that race is not Caucasian and that gender is not male. A panel composed only of black women is not, therefore, homogeneous; it is the pinnacle of diversity.

So, when that well-intentioned Samaritan steps in to defend diversity, having been drawn in by intersectionality’s apparent moral purity, they find themselves defending something that is anything but moral. Intersectional diversity is not about including all peoples. It is about excluding certain groups of people. Diversity in intersectionality is discrimination. Maybe they aren’t so morally superior as they claim.

Antisemitism in Intersectionality

Intersectionality’s redefinition of discrimination, in particular, leads intersectionalists to argue that “women can’t be sexist,” “black people can’t be racist,” etc. due to them lacking historical (unarguably true) or institutional (arguably false) power. In other words, they believe that a man cannot be a victim of sexism. A Caucasian cannot be the victim of discrimination.

Aside from the logical incongruity of these assertions, the problems with this attitude are many and obvious. First and foremost is that it has given excuse for the resurgence of hate towards arguably the most consistently and violently victimized group throughout recorded history.

Antisemitism has pervaded and perverted many of today’s most prominent intersectional movements under the presumption that Jews are “white, wealthy, powerful, and ‘privileged.’” The moment that the leaders of the Women’s March became concerned that the movement had become “overwhelmingly white” was also the moment that the movement became antisemitic.

Tweet by Women's March leader Linda Sarsour demonstrates link between intersectionality and antisemitic discrimination.
Linda Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March, says Nancy Pelosi is “upholding the patriarchy” by condemning Ilhan Omar’s many antisemitic remarks.

This is not a coincidence. This is the natural progression of intersectional ideas which foster anger and resentment by focusing on historical victimhood, then provide a target, saying “They did this to you. What are you going to do about it?”

The definitions of who is a victimized, and therefore protected group are often murky and muddled in practice. For example, there is no argument to be made at all that Jews have been the benefactors of historical privilege. But an antisemite who prescribes to intersectionality can still “justify” their discrimination against them by simply claiming that they have institutional privilege instead, playing off of one of the oldest and most pervasive Jewish stereotypes.

Definitions of Convenience

But the selective usage of “historical” vs. “institutional” privilege is far from the only inconsistency in the practice of intersectionality. The placement of Asians on the intersectional hierarchy, for example, is wildly inconsistent. When it was discovered that New York Times editor Sarah Jeong had posted hundreds of racist tweets over the course of more than five years, the lauded paper jumped to her defense by claiming that she was merely imitating racism, echoing the words of white people who had harassed her in the past. While an editor of the New York Times has more power than the average person in every traditional sense, the paper’s response suggested that she must be a member of a victimized class. Therefore, she is incapable of racism.

However, Harvard University doesn’t seem to agree with the New York Times’ placement of Asians on the intersectional hierarchy. As detailed in an ongoing lawsuit against the university, Harvard has been admitting Asian students at much lower rates than any other race, claiming that it is due to them having less attractive “personal qualities” than other races. This is not the kind of treatment you would expect for a victimized group.

The varying and convoluted definitions intersectionality uses for simple concepts such as power and discrimination allow for institutions such as Harvard and the NYT to engage in a post-hoc analysis of the situation. In other words, they choose which intersectional definition they will use based on which will provide their preferred outcome.

Well-intentioned, but Misguided

We are not the products of a simple equation, the sum of our groups. We are not defined by the color of our skin, by our sexual preference, or by the combinations thereof. They are part of us, but they are not all of us.

Some may try to argue that intentions don’t matter—that a person who accidentally offends someone should be treated as harshly as a person who purposefully bullies and exploits others. I don’t believe this.

And it’s because I don’t believe this that, despite the failings of intersectionality, I feel it is important to keep in mind that the people who practice it are largely well-intentioned. Intersectionality itself is so close to the mark on several important issues. It’s easy to see why good people would find it alluring.

It is important to understand that everyone comes from a different background, and it’s important to understand how those backgrounds influence the ways people see the world. This allows you not only to better understand others’ perspectives, but also to treat those with different opinions less harshly. You may think that a person’s beliefs are wrong, maybe even downright dangerous. But when you consider all of the things in their life that might have led them to thinking that way, you will inevitably adopt a much more compassionate and empathetic demeanor towards them.

However, to assume knowledge of that person’s background based only on group stereotypes – or even statistical trends – is discrimination.

It should also go without saying that the things you do can hurt people even if it isn’t your intent. As they say: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Implicit bias is real. Conscientiousness is a virtue.

But people can change, and good people will. This is why intent is important, and it’s why lifetime labels of either “oppressed” or “oppressor” miss the mark. Implicit bias and subconsciously held stereotypes are not as pervasive as some think, and so to conflate every microaggression or otherwise accidental offense with bias is, again, discrimination.

Why Intersectionality Misses the Mark

Intersectionality does not aim for equality, or the absence of discrimination between groups. It does not aim for equal opportunity.

Intersectionality aims for equity, or equal outcome for groups. This is, in fact, the opposite of equality. Equity, as defined by intersectionality, requires discrimination. It mandates that all groups be treated differently.

Differential treatment breeds division. Intersectionality – the differential treatment of groups – requires discriminating between, and eventually either for or against various groups.

Evergreen, Harvard, the Labour Party, Antifa, NYT, the Women’s March—every institution that has adopted the tenants of intersectionality has come under fire for discrimination or worse. It is the logical end of any movement which favors equity over equality, creates an oppressor/oppressed dichotomy, and paints over our unique experiences and individual differences with the broad brush of aggregate differences.

But we are not the products of a simple equation, the sum of our groups. We are not defined by the color of our skin, by our sexual preferences, or by the combinations thereof. They are part of us, but they are not all of us.

Intersectionality’s fatal flaw is its failure to acknowledge this, to account for the exceptions to the rule. It fails because it assumes knowledge of the individual based on knowledge of the group, conflating group identity with individual identity. It fails because it attempts to fight fire with fire. Intersectionality is not the answer to discrimination; intersectionality is discrimination.

Tyler Watkins graduated magna cum laude and with Honors with a BA in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has since worked in the fields of medical and psychological research at Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Iowa. Now pursuing a career as a writer, he's published in Quillette, Intellectual Conservative, and Areo Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @WatkinsDoOp

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