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The False Dichotomy in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Intersectionality

(Luke Kenneally)

Why is this important? Because grammar shows that Crenshaw’s distinction between identity politics and liberal universalism is artificial.”

In an excellent overview of the theory of intersectionality for Areo, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay recently drew attention to a famous declaration by the theory’s progenitor, Kimberlé Crenshaw:

“We all can recognize the distinction between the claims ‘I am Black’ and the claim ‘I am a person who happens to be Black.’ ‘I am Black’ takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. ‘I am Black’ becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist ‘Black is beautiful.’ ‘I am a person who happens to be Black,’ on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, ‘I am first a person’) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (‘Black’) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.”

As a quick grammar lesson shows, however, there is no “straining” for universality at all. In the first sentence, “I” is the subject; “am” is the (linking) verb; and “Black” is the predicate adjective. The subject is the person speaking. The predicate adjective modifies the subject and is connected to the subject via the verb “am.” The full sentence conveys that the person speaking is black.

The second sentence says exactly the same thing, with more grammatical baggage. “I” is the subject; “am” is the (linking) verb; “person” is the predicate nominative. The nominative renames the subject as a way of providing information about who or what the subject is; in this case, a person; “who happens to be Black” is an adjectival clause that modifies “person.” The clause has a subject (who), verb (happens), and an adverbial infinitive phrase (“to be Black”) modifying the verb “happens.” “Black” is the predicate adjective that follows “to be” in the infinitive phrase.

Meanwhile, “‘I am Black’ takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity.” 

In both cases, we are told the exact same thing. A person describes herself as black. Why is this important? Because grammar shows that Crenshaw’s distinction between identity politics and liberal universalism is artificial. Crenshaw describes “I am a person who happens to be Black” as trying to achieve “self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, ‘I am first a person’) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (‘Black’) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.” Meanwhile, “‘I am Black’ takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity.” 

As Pluckrose and Lindsay write, Crenshaw “provided the means, by openly advocating identity politics over liberal universalism, which sought to remove the social significance of identity categories and treat people equally regardless of identity.” Identity politics “restores the social significance of identity categories in order to valorize them as sources of empowerment and community.” As Crenshaw writes, “‘I am Black’ becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification.”

For Crenshaw, this offers a political path for “the descriptive project of postmodernism,” whereby “to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people—and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful—is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others.”

Intersectionality, write Pluckrose and Lindsay, thus “explicitly embraces the postmodern political principle and accepts a variant on the postmodern knowledge principle—one that sees knowledge as positional.” It “explicitly rejected universality in favor of group identity, at least in the political context in which [Crenshaw] wrote, and intersectional feminists and critical race Theorists have largely continued to do so ever since.”

One of the key methods by which critical theorists have come to examine this social constructivism of knowledge and power—and by which they aim to dismantle systems of oppression and marginalization—is discursive analysis. In other words, they seek to understand how we communicate—via a combination of language and performance known as speech acts—in ways that reinforce power disparities between groups. Discourse is a foundational pillar of postmodern (poststructuralist) approaches to the analysis of how knowledge is interconnected with the power of a group’s social position or, alternatively, the dialectic between domination and marginalization. 

Ironically, grammatical nuance unravels the discursive distinction Crenshaw wants to make. In both cases, the grammar tells us that we have a person who can be identified or described as “Black.” Certainly, we can appreciate the colloquial subtlety that “happens to be Black” implies that “Black” is incidental rather than essential, while “I am Black” implies that “Black’ is essential rather than incidental. This nuance, however, does not dissolve the underlying subject who stands at the head of the sentence. In either case, there is no predicate adjective (“Black”) or predicate nominative (“person”) if there is no subject (“I) to begin with. The subject “I” is the anchor of the sentence in both cases. The subject “I” is prior to either the predicate adjective or the predicate nominative. 

Grammatical nuance, then, illuminates the underlying liberal presumption that we must recognize the subject before we can recognize the characteristics which describe the subject. Moreover, in the sentences Crenshaw invokes to draw her distinctions, the characteristics which describe the subject distinguish the individual subject, not the groups to which the subject belong. Alternatively, the characteristics provide information on the groups to which the individual belongs. Thus, the person speaking is a member of the “black” social group. In this sense, grammar illuminates the idea behind intersectionality: that the individual’s characteristics (identified via the predicates) reveal information about the various social groups to which the individual belongs.

Nonetheless, it is the liberal subject that stands at the bottom of everything. It is certainly important to recognize that the subject is immersed in society and influenced by the interaction between overall society and the social groups to which the subject belongs, as I examined recently in two essays. However, there are no characteristics without the individual subjects to which we impute those characteristics—and no social groups without the individual subjects of which the social groups consist.

The distinction between “I am Black” and “I am a person who happens to be Black” is a distinction without a difference, obscuring the unique individual who, as the subject of the sentence, draws the distinction in the first place.

Grammatical nuance, then, illuminates that the distinction between identity politics and liberal universalism is artificial. Crenshaw draws her distinction to take a “socially imposed identity and empower it as an anchor of subjectivity.” But behind the distinction is a subject who draws the distinction in the first place, thus already empowering himself or herself as an anchor of subjectivity. The distinction between “I am Black” and “I am a person who happens to be Black” is a distinction without a difference, obscuring the unique individual who, as the subject of the sentence, draws the distinction in the first place. In her attempt to draw this distinction, Crenshaw dissolves it.

The upshot is that even if the “joke that the individual is the logical endpoint of an intersectional approach that divides people into smaller and smaller groups” misses the point that the intersectionally unique individual is, in the words of Pluckrose and Lindsay, “understood through each and all of those group identities, with the details to be filled in by Theory,” it is still the case that the foundational pillar on whom characteristics, identities, marginalization, and the interpretations of Theory fall is the grammatical, or liberal, subject. Even if we acknowledge that there are competing notions of the self, there is still a “self” that we seek to understand. Similarly, this self, or subject, is the anchor on which we proceed to study the nature and extent of that subject’s social marginalization (either “I am Black” or “I am a person who happens to be Black”). There is no escaping the foundational and universal importance of the underlying liberal subject.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

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Paul B.
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Paul B.

Brilliant and watertight. Thanks.