Part 1 – Intersectionality, Critical Oppression Theory, and how Atlanta made the case for thinking bigger.
Decades ago, when I was an Evangelical college student, a small book crossed my required reading list: Your God is Too Small. The contents of the book have long since faded along with the remnants of my Evangelical worldview. But the phrase stuck—the idea that even our best efforts to generate Grand Explanatory Concepts fail to reflect the intricate fabric of reality—that perhaps the more grand the theory and the more all-encompassing we hope its explanatory power to be, the vaster the difference between our constructs and the reality we seek to explain.
That old book title came back to me as I watched media and social media and my inbox erupt in response to the mass murder in Atlanta that left three massage parlors littered with bodies. Claims erupted about the mind and motives of the killer. With few facts in hand and a strong desire to know, people drew on their pre-existing worldview and moral concerns to fill in the storyline. And then, as information emerged, they often doubled down on their original theories, if need be expanding the meanings of words or subtly shifting the nature of their claims to make them more defensible. As a former evangelical, the process seemed far too familiar. And all of the gods and creeds involved seemed far too small.
The Old Testament God of the fundamentalist Christian shooter is a shriveled mummy, ugly and mean—a god made in the image of our Iron Age ancestors. I know Him well; I used to worship Him. He is modeled on a wrathful warlord from the Ancient Near East, one who prefers some bloodlines over others, who torments His minions with desires He then forbids them to fulfill; who uses their self-loathing as a means to reinforce their desperate need for Him and to underscore His own supremacy—and who declares that the wages of sin is Death (or, more accurately, endless torment).
The Grand Theory embraced by many of those reacting to the carnage, at least around me, is different. It is newer and more secular, less obviously a product of finite primate brains struggling and failing to grasp the forces that buffet us, forces that we desperately want to control. And yet it too, ultimately, declares such events a matter of sin, both inborn (“the original sin of racism”) and universal (“yes all men”). As for the wages of sin, those, too, have changed little: annihilation and torment—the primary differences being that the mechanisms of retribution are social rather than supernatural, and we ourselves are the agents of justice.
What’s in a Name? Some call this Grand Theory Intersectionality, though that is far from the meaning the word held originally when it was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. What intersectionality meant back then was something quite intuitive to any social scientist or statistician but had often been overlooked in civil rights law and efforts to correct inequity. In an arena where multiple causal factors come into play, these factors can produce both main effects and interactions. (They can also produce something called simple effects, which I won’t get into.) Building a house to keep out cold and water poses two independent sets of challenges, two main effects. When these two combine to form snow loads on the roof or ice in the gutters, a whole additional set of challenges emerges, interaction effects. By analogy, being both Asian and female can create challenges that aren’t often experienced by either non-Asian women or Asian men. This notion of interaction effects is what Crenshaw called intersectionality, and it is a useful tool in understanding injustice and hardship—and the Atlanta shootings. But that frequently is not how the word is used.
In popular usage, Intersectionality has become shorthand for a social movement and ideology that classifies people into tribes of oppressed and oppressors and stack ranks them accordingly. It accords standing to individuals in inverse proportion to the average status for those tribes in traditional Western social hierarchies. The academic name for the theory underpinning this ideology (the name used by historians, and proponents, and critics) is not Intersectionality but Critical Theory—with the word race or gender or legal or social often inserted in the middle. (A third alternate term, Wokeism, is generally used as a slur.) No term perfectly captures the movement that is emerging, but for breadth and clarity, I will call it Critical (oppression) Theory, COT for short.
Most people who embrace COT have an earnest yearning for inclusive justice, and this has led to the spread of COT in academia and, more recently, in K-12 schools. But critics believe that there are better alternatives. Black Columbia linguist John McWhorter argues in a new book that COT is rapidly taking on the characteristics of a secular religion—a set of orthodoxies and rituals, special words that signal insider knowledge, authority figures who are not questioned, capture of moral instincts and emotions, and a sense of righteous superiority.
I agree with McWhorter. From where I sit in the political left, all of these elements are visible. And the dynamics they produce, coupled with the check-box structure that assigns status based on identity tribes, can corrupt and diminish the original idea of intersectionality—sometimes turning it into a tool for competition and cruelty rather than understanding, healing, growth, compassion, or genuine justice. The most devoted communities of believers sometimes replicate internally the very patterns they want to eliminate in society at large, namely hierarchies of recognition and opportunity that are based on accidents of birth.
Most Americans are familiar with the identity checkboxes that are centered and elevated by COT practitioners: race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, immigration status, class, religion. The simple—I believe simplistic—structure of these checkboxes derives from a set of legal protections for classes of people who we recognize as facing known patterns of bigotry and disadvantage. The boxes may reflect individual advantage or disadvantage poorly, but rules based on crude groupings and averages are often the best that institutions can do.
Why this version of Critical Oppression Theory is problematic. Our world at large doesn’t mirror the need of governments and institutions for simplified taxonomies with categories we can count on our fingers. It exists in a myriad of shapes and colors and varieties of lived experience. But Grand Theories are appealing precisely because they oversimplify that myriad, giving us an illusory sense of knowledge and control. So, over time the identity checkboxes have become ideological orthodoxies, shaping not merely legal and institutional programs but also our thinking and relationships with each other. Where adherents of Critical Oppression Theory have social or institutional power, white straight Christian men fall at the bottom of moral/social pecking orders regardless of their individual lived experience because white straight Christian men on average have had it too good for too long. That is to say that many have benefitted from not only from the kinds of privilege we all deserve (like enough food or respect in the workplace) but also from rules, structures and scripts that offer unfair advantage.
The COT system of stack ranking emerged as a corrective to a long history of injustice. But constructing a crosshatch of headings that can be counted on two hands (boxes that are laden with moral culpability or entitlement based on group averages), and then slotting individuals into this grid, is deeply limiting. It fails to bring out the best in those who absorb the mental matrix and instead often leaves them scrabbling—sometimes without even realizing it—to secure a position, any possible position, that is not at the bottom of the local pecking order. It stunts respect and compassion for those stuck at the bottom, as any tribal hierarchy does. And it leaves adherents handicapped when faced with causes and effects that don’t neatly fit the model. To the degree that effective solutions require accurate diagnoses, it reduces our ability to move toward better futures.
Atlanta. The digital and social media response to the mass murder in Atlanta painfully illustrates this pattern. Violence caused by racism neatly fits the checkboxes, and and with anguish and anxiety already running high following a series of attacks against Asian people, that is how the story broke—as a white supremacist attack attributed to anti-Asian racism. A commentator with a following at the New York Times and The Root described the perpetrator as “the white supremacist who walked into three Atlanta-area massage parlors yesterday.” From the vantage of some people, this description needs no defense. As Oakland Council member Carroll Fife, said in early March, “all violence comes from the same root causes: white supremacy and capitalism.”
But pronouncements that derive from Grand Theories offer simplicity at the expense of information. Over time the shooter’s confession and tortuous history emerged, centered not on racial hatred but on hatred of sexual temptation, and a secondary narrative around gender-based violence arose. Some analysts, fittingly, discussed the intersection of the two (and class) in sexual stereotypes of Asian women and how some end up as sex workers. And yet most stories failed to reflect a multitude of relevant factors that don’t neatly fit the COT checkboxes. Hasty reporting leaned heavily on the familiar oppression narratives and made it difficult at first to explore these other factors: Christianity’s toxic attitude toward sexuality, the self-loathing associated with compulsion and addictions, global inequities, financial desperation, the hidden and vulnerable lives of sex workers, class-based exploitation across and within racial boundaries, or our utter inability to address the prevalence of guns in our society.
These—and yes racism and yes sexism—are the kinds of factors that produce what Crenshaw herself called intersectionality. But scripts and taboos associated with COT made some people viscerally wary of even broaching these topics. In my social media feeds, some scorned any discussion that wasn’t about racism, saying that attempts to parse the shooter’s motives were by definition racist (since he was white and black perpetrators aren’t afforded the same humanity). Some told others to shut up about sex work (and potential human trafficking), calling this out as victim blaming. Some saw toxic religion, psychopathology and addiction as cover-ups for racism and sexism. Some dismissed multifaceted or critical discussion as mere partisanship or signs of moral indifference.
This pattern of defense and attack is how people behave when they are protecting sacred dogmas. It is the behavior not of information seekers but of true believers. For too many, the COT oppression grid has ceased to be a source of useful hypotheses and instead has become a creed to be defended against competing theories. If that is where you find yourself, your intersectionality is too small, because genuinely intersectional thinking is about seeing blind spots. The term intersectionality was coined in recognition that the traditional matrix of civil rights checkboxes fails to reflect the complexity of lived experience. It was Crenshaw’s attempt to go one better within the confines of the legal system. Outside that system, in the open air of social life and culture, our challenge is to think bigger still.
Continue to Part 2 here.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.