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Born Identity: How Intersectionality Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Beyond race and sex, the landscape of human power dynamics and inequity is limitless. Why not talk about all of it?

In certain circles, it has become fashionable of late to slip the words “intersectionality” and “intersectional” into sentences to diminish the nouns around them, as Andrew Sullivan does in a recent piece in New York Magazine, titled “A Glimpse at the Intersectional Left’s Political Endgame.”  

While this is understandable, it’s also a bit unfair, trivializing a theory that, at least initially, was both well reasoned and well intentioned. The term was first coined by lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to explain how various types of bigotry mix together, forming new kinds of bias. The quintessential example is sexism and racism. While mid-century misogyny kept white women in the home, she argued, it pushed black women into other people’s homes, working as domestics. In other words, black women faced not only a double burden but a unique burden—forced into the marketplace by the color of their skin but denied jobs outside the home because of their sex. Caught in the intersection of sexism and racism, they got hit by both simultaneously.

It’s an appealing concept, at least on paper—an attempt (to borrow a phrase from New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik) to create a unified field theory of human power relations, revealing how inequities combine and multiply. In the 30 years since Crenshaw first wrote about intersectionality, the theory has spread like kudzu across the Western world, sprouting up in discussions of politics, education, sports, healthcare, entertainment, and even climate change. The problem, as Gopnik points out, isn’t so much that intersectionality has gone too far but, rather, that it can never go far enough. Intersectional theorists spend an enormous amount of time studying the negative effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia on personal wellbeing, but what of alcoholism, drug addiction, physical abuse, sexual abuse, divorce, disablement, the death of loved ones, and the myriad forms of mental illness?  Our journeys through life are weighed down by all kinds of baggage, and the scourges of racial and sexual prejudice are just a few of them.

Take height: a minor factor, one might assume, in the lottery of life. Not so. According to a recent study in The Journal of Human Capital, every additional inch that a man stands above 5’4’’ correlates with an average income gain of $800 a year. In Europe and America, tall men earn fifteen percent more in annual earnings than their shorter counterparts. Other studies have shown that tall people have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and dementia, and much greater chances of becoming Fortune 500 CEOs, who are, on average, three inches taller than their less-successful counterparts. 

None of this, of course, refutes intersectional theory. Indeed, it reinforces it —albeit in a way that many intersectionalists would prefer not to acknowledge. The penalties of shortness fall disproportionately upon men, who lose more with each subtracted inch than women do. But that only proves Gopnik’s point: intersectionality is far too limited for its own good. We’ve all heard about white privilege, but when was the last time you heard someone discuss height privilege?

Even less examined by intersectionalists is the other side of the coin: the blessings of hardship. A couple years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about the subject called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, in which he discusses what he calls “desirable difficulties”—that is, disadvantages that turn out to come with silver linings. 

Among other things, he looks at dyslexia, a cognitive impairment that impedes suffers’ ability to read. No decent mother would ever, for a moment, wish dyslexia on her child. Their high school dropout rates are three to four times that of other students. They earn less than everyone else, are more likely to attempt suicide, and are incarcerated at a much higher percentage than non-sufferers. It is estimated that nearly half of all Texas inmates are dyslexic, though the disease afflicts only fifteen percent of the population at large.

Yet, as Gladwell observes, dyslexia can, at times, be a blessing in disguise. Forced to work around their handicap, sufferers develop alternative skills, doing what pedagogists call “compensation learning.”  Some hone their memories, others their spatial intelligence. Many build up their interpersonal skills. As a result, dyslexics do surprisingly well in business. According to one study, thirty-five percent of entrepreneurs in the U.S. are dyslexic. In his book, Gladwell interviews the movie producer Brian Grazer, who tells him how dyslexia sharpened his negotiating technique. “I challenged all my grades,” Grazer explains. “I would argue my D into a C and my C into a B. And almost every time – ninety percent of the time – I got my grade changed…I learned how to do everything possible to sell my point. It was really good training.”

Though Grazer may be unusually deft at bargaining, even for a dyslexic, his ability to turn a disadvantage on its head is not at all uncommon. In fact, it applies to groups as well as to individuals. I was reminded of this recently while re-reading Neal Gabler’s superb 1988 book, An Empire of Their Own, which tells the story of Jewish entrepreneurship in the early days of Hollywood. Of the eight major studios in the 1930s, six were headed by Jewish men—this despite the fact that anti-Semitism was rampant in Southern California at the time. Many hotels still excluded Jews. Louis B. Mayer—then the highest-paid man in America—had to send his daughters to public schools, because no private school in Los Angeles would allow them to enter. Yet, as Gabler makes clear, Jews in Hollywood thrived not in spite of anti-Semitism but because of it. Mayer only got into the movie industry in the first place after elites in the theater business made it clear he wasn’t welcome. Movies, as opposed to stage plays, were considered tawdry, poor-man’s entertainment, which is why hardly anyone (at least at first) minded when people with names like Thalberg, Schulberg, and Schenck began getting in on the action. The fact that the future moguls knew—as so many generations of Jews before them had known—that they couldn’t rely on gentiles for help only made them work harder and stick closer together.

Gladwell relates a similar story in his book Outliers, explaining why anti-Semitism inadvertently helped many Jewish lawyers in the 1970s and 80s. Excluded from top law firms for decades, Jews—even the brightest Jews from the best schools—-routinely ended up at second or third-tier law firms, handling the kinds of litigation that their white-shoe colleagues refused to touch. This included a lot of lawsuits and hostile takeovers, which were frowned upon in the legal profession at the time. “Litigation was for hams, not for serious people,” one lawyer remembers. “Corporations just didn’t sue each other in those days.”  Then, as Gladwell writes, came the 1970s: deregulation, leveraged buyouts, corporate lawsuits galore. The amount of money involved in mergers and acquisitions increased 2,000 percent from the mid-seventies to the late eighties, and lawyers who were expert in corporate takeovers suddenly became the most valuable players in the business, including quite a lot of Jews, many of whom never would have gotten into the field in the first place were it not for the descrimination they’d faced.

None of which, of course, makes up for the countless cruelties that anti-Semitism has wrought over the centuries: the pogroms, the deportations, the forced conversions, the ghettoizations, and the gas chambers. For a thorough accounting of these horrors, try reading Léon Poliakov’s magisterial multivolume series, The History of Anti-Semitism, if you can stomach it. As Poliakov shows, however, despite all the obstacles Jews faced as a group, many Jewish individuals flourished in Renaissance Europe, becoming merchants, moneylenders, manufacturers, and even advisers to monarchs. Samuel Oppenheimer, a seventeenth-century Jewish banker, became one of the most influential men in the Holy Roman Empire, so much so that when he died in 1703 the entire state banking system crashed.

And that, in a nutshell, is the trouble with intersectionality: it favors group identity over individual experience. In this way, it recalls the essentialist thinking of ages past —the kind of thinking that defines people, first and foremost, by their race, gender, and sexual orientation rather than by the qualities that make them unique individuals. Kimberlé Crenshaw seems to have anticipated this predicament when she first wrote about intersectionality in 1989, for she kept her ambit narrow, focusing specifically on the discrimination faced by black women in the workplace. Subsequent champions of the theory, though, haven’t always been so circumspect. “Our future is: Female[,] Intersectional [and] Powered by our belief in one another,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted during her recent presidential bid. 

Indeed, a mere two years after Crenshaw wrote her article, author M.J. Matsuda boasted, “When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’  When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where are the class interests in this?’”  But, as Adam Gopnik makes clear, that list of variables could go on forever. Why not add height, weight, age, health, baldness, breast size, place of birth, or any number of other intersectional crosscurrents that affect our voyages through life?  “There are countless nodes on the network of social categories,” Gopnik writes. “We call each one a person.”

Graham Daseler is a film editor, animator, and writer. His articles have appeared in The Times Literary SupplementThe Los Angeles Review of Books34th Parallel Magazine, and numerous film periodicals. 

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