The Meaning and Challenge of Intersectional Activism

by Michael Dorf

This week Prof. Colb and I are attending and speaking at Vegetarian Summerfest, an annual vegan conference with presentations focusing on multiple aspects of the vegan movement, especially nutrition, animal rights, and environmental issues. (It's called "vegetarian" for historical reasons, but the conference promotes and practices veganism.) Yesterday, we gave a joint talk titled "Animal Rights, Abortion, and Capital Punishment," which focused on issues raised in our book Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, while experimenting with some ideas for a potential new book about the regulation of capital punishment and the regulation of animal slaughter. Each of us is also giving two solo talks. My talk today is titled "Intersectional Veganism." Here is the description from the program:
Some social justice activists promote “intersectionality”—the idea that various forms of injustice are connected. Intersectionality presents the vegan movement with opportunities and challenges. By making common cause with those who favor civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and others, we broaden our base. Yet given political polarization, intersectionality can also alienate potential allies. Let’s discuss our experiences.
In this post, I want to preview some of the themes of the talk, which should apply broadly to a variety of social and political movements. I will begin by distinguishing between two different ways in which the term intersectionality has been used.

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw's work in the late 1980s and early 1990s introduced the term intersectionality into the lexicon of legal scholarship. For Crenshaw, intersectionality meant that the experience of a person who belongs to multiple identity groups cannot be captured simply by focusing on subordination based on one or the other identity, or even by adding them together. As she nicely put the point in a 1993 Stanford Law Review article, "experiences of women of color are frequently the product of intersecting patterns of racism and sexism, and . . . these experiences tend not to be represented within the discourses of either feminism or antiracism." To use one of Crenshaw's example, an immigrant woman whose legal status depends on her relationship to a battering husband does not simply experience anti-immigrant prejudice or sexist battering. Her statuses (as an immigrant and a woman) intersect to create a distinctive vulnerability.

Crenshaw's notion of intersectionality has been rightly recognized as an important insight. To some extent it has been incorporated into various justice movements. Because I am at a vegan conference, I can use veganism as an example. There is a widespread perception--and perhaps more than a kernel of truth to the claim--that veganism is a movement of upper-middle-class white people. Partly to broaden the movement's appeal, but also to build a more inclusive movement for its own sake, conferences and other gatherings have sought to highlight the important contributions to our movement of vegans of color. A nice example of the recognition of intersectionality in our movement comes from Dr. Milton Mills, who for many years has been noting that dairy is especially harmful to people of color, given the populations in which lactose tolerance did and did not evolve. Some vegans of color--like Dr. Amie "Breeze" Harper--make expressly intersectional arguments of the sort that Crenshaw did. Dr. Harper is one of the bloggers at the vegansofcolor site.

If you click on the vegansofcolor link, you'll note the following catchphrase at the top: "Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue." That's fair, but it's also crucially ambiguous. It turns out that the bloggers at vegansofcolor are not just intersectional in the Crenshaw sense; they're also intersectional in the now-more-colloquial sense. I.e., many of them argue that various forms of oppression are linked.

Crenshaw's notion of intersectionality means that an identity can be and often is formed by the intersection of various group memberships, to create a distinctive experience. Being a Black woman is not just like being a Black man when racial issues arise plus being just like a white woman when gender issues arise; the intersection is distinct.

By contrast, the colloquial sense of intersectionality--the one I used in the description for my talk today--means that various forms of oppression are linked, either as a matter of their actual practice or with respect to the justification for opposing them. To be intersectional in one's commitment to racial equality and gender equality in this sense of intersectionality is to see both racial and gender subordination as manifestations of an unjust white patriarchal power structure.

As should be apparent, both conceptions of intersectionality point to something real. There is no logical contradiction between the two conceptions of intersectionality. In many circumstances, identity intersectionality complements oppression intersectionality. However, these are really quite different ideas, and they can clash.

The expulsion of women from Chicago's Dyke March for displaying a rainbow flag with a star of David in the middle to symbolize their lesbian Jewish identity illustrates how the two conceptions of intersectionality can conflict. Writing in condemnation of the very idea of intersectionality in a NY Times op-ed, Bari Weis mistakenly associates Prof. Crenshaw's notion of intersectionality with what Weis takes to be the ideological rigidity of the parade organizers and thus sees one of the Jewish women who were subject to harassment as making a pathetic effort to grovel. Weis writes:
[Shoshany Anderson] tried to explain that the star is the “ubiquitous symbol of Judaism,” and that she simply wanted “to be Jewish in public.” Then, she “tried using their language,” explaining “this is my intersection. I’m supposed to be able to celebrate it here.” It didn’t work. Ms. Shoshany Anderson left sobbing. “I was thrown out of Dyke March for being Jewish,” she said. Just so.
Weis runs together the two conceptions of intersectionality and thus fails to see what was really going on. The marchers who wanted to display their rainbow flag with a star of David were celebrating their queer Jewish identity--Crenshaw's idea of intersectionality. But the parade organizers who appear to have mistakenly equated the Star of David with the Flag of Israel (which also has a Star of David at its center) were adhering to the view of intersectionality that treats all forms of oppression as linked. And because in their eyes the flag of Israel is a symbol of oppression of the Palestinian people, Anderson and the others marching as queer Jews were violating the principle of intersectionality. Identity intersectionality was in conflict with oppression intersectionality.

I don't want to get too deep into the weeds of the Dyke March incident. The organizers have released a statement saying that the march was intended to express anti-Zionist solidarity with the Palestinian cause, and that the women who were asked to leave were asked to do so precisely because they were attempting to disrupt that message, not because they wanted to march as Jewish lesbians. Not having been there nor having deposed the various parties, I don't know exactly what happened, but a sensible article in The Forward suggests that most of the key facts are not really in doubt.

If the Jewish marchers were asked to leave because of their Jewish identity, then the Dyke March incident looks disturbingly like what used to happen routinely to LGBT Americans and continues to occur in many parts of the country. In Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the organizers of Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade had a First Amendment right to prevent out members of the respondent group from marching behind a banner bearing the group's name. That was the First Amendment right of the parade organizers, but it was nonetheless despicable for them to say to LGBT Irish-Americans that they could march in a parade celebrating their Irish heritage but only if they closeted their LGBT identity. It would likewise be despicable for the organizers of the Chicago Dyke March to say to Jewish lesbians that they can participate in a Pride parade but only if they closet their Jewish identity (if that is what they said).

Suppose, however, that the organizers of the Dyke March had not been so ignorant of the history and meaning of the Star of David or that the organizers' account is accurate (as the Forward article suggests). Let's imagine a slightly different case. Suppose that a group of Israeli lesbians living in Chicago wished to march carrying a banner that read "Israeli Lesbians" or something like that. If the parade organizers were to tell this group not to march under their banner, we would still have a conflict between the two conceptions of intersectionality. Indeed, this is very similar to what the Dyke March organizers say actually happened.

It is hard to evaluate this clash independently of one's views of the Israel/Palestine conflict. If one thinks--as apparently the Dyke March organizers do--that identification with Israel is tantamount to support for Israeli policies with respect to the Occupied territories, and if one further thinks that support for those Israeli policies is support for a grave injustice, then it would not seem so unreasonable for the organizers to ask the marchers not to march behind their sign.

My views about the Israel/Palestine conflict differ from the views of the organizers of the Dyke March. Nonetheless, it is easy for me to imagine how the organizers of a march focused on one set of justice issues could sensibly conclude that some views on other, seemingly unrelated, issues are sufficiently repugnant as to warrant exclusion from the march of those who profess these other views, even if they want to lend support for the main cause. Suppose the organizers of a Black Lives Matter march want to prevent members of an expressly anti-gay church from marching behind a banner that identifies them with that church and its well-known anti-gay position. It would not be unreasonable for the BLM march organizers to be intersectional in the colloquial/linked-oppression sense to the extent that they regard anti-gay messages to be antithetical to their pro-racial justice message.

My point is that even if one thinks (as I do) that the organizers of the Dyke March went overboard in linking the right to participate in their march to a particular view about the Israel/Palestine conflict, it will often be reasonable for the organizers of an event for a justice movement to adhere to some minimal degree of intersectionality in the colloquial/linked-oppression sense. A justice movement can properly regard as oxymoronic (not to mention terrible PR), the public identification of "racists for women's rights," "homophobes for animal rights," and the like.

Intersectionality in this sense becomes problematic when it becomes too demanding, as I believe it did for the Dyke March, even if we fully accept the organizers' account of what happened. Even if we agree on what forms of oppression should be resisted, there will often be hard questions about whether a particular viewpoint counts as an instance of that form of oppression. What is the correct intersectional position for a vegan, LGBT, or BLM activist to take on the question whether deaf children should be given cochlear implants? On male circumcision? On the appropriate role, if any, of U.S. policy with respect to the Syrian civil war? Etc.

There are substantial benefits and very few risks that arise from a justice movement recognizing and promoting intersectionality in the Crenshaw/identity sense. By noting the distinctive ways in which multiple elements of a person's identity interact, we deepen our appreciation of one another's experience.

Intersectionality in the colloquial/linked-oppression sense also has benefits. I have already noted how a commitment to justice leads to at least a minimal conception of this form of intersectionality. Even a somewhat more robust version of this form of intersectionality has promise in some contexts. If a vegan can show that her opposition to speciesism is rooted in the same sorts of values that lead her to oppose racism, sexism, and homophobia, she can potentially win converts from among those who share those other commitments but do not yet share her opposition to speciesism.

But intersectionality in the colloquial/linked-oppression sense also has real risks. Given the tendency of this form of intersectionality to demand a kind of down-the-line ideological rigidity, it risks alienating potential converts. The Venn diagram that includes people who share commitments on multiple issues leads to a smaller and smaller region of overlap--a smaller intersection--as the number of such issues grows larger and larger.

These risks are especially serious for a small movement like veganism. I'm willing to forgo clearly racist, sexist, and homophobic vegans, but beyond that I don't think we can afford to be picky. Big-tent veganism as I would practice it thus welcomes pro-life vegans, atheist vegans, religious vegans, originalist vegans, and even Second Amendment vegans (except for the hunters, because hunting is, you know, not vegan, even though, from my vegan perspective, hunting is no worse than fishing, buying leather boots, or eating pizza made with dairy cheese).