Racial capitalism: hierarchies of belonging

Critics of "identity politics" and intersectionality see the naming of hierarchized difference as an act of divisiveness. We must be cautious of superficial multiculturalism and neo-nationalist and neoliberalist strategies demonizing difference. Intersectional theory and practice must acknowledge privileges as well as differences and make use of them.

Intersectionality to me is the single most meaningful form of practical theory and theorizing practice. It is descriptive, in the sense that it helps make my own life experiences legible to me, and it is prescriptive, in giving me guidelines how to approach my academic work, my activism and my personal relationships. In all three areas, it boils down to approaching differences as a source of possibility rather than fear and as seeing coalitions as works in progress, as relationships that can be great, even transformative, but do not have to last forever.

Intersectionality to me also references the profound and necessary connection between movements and theorists. Intersectionality is a shorthand, a term developed and elaborated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in unique ways, but it is also the culmination of decades of Black women organizing against their own marginalization and for universal liberation, from Anna Julia Cooper to Frances Beal to the Combahee River Collective to Audre Lorde to the National Welfare Rights Organization. Intersectionality is a brilliant political theory that has spawned uncounted responses and additions, inspired new fields of inquiry like queer of color critique and has fundamentally changed academic disciplines. It has also been coopted by the neoliberal university, by a superficial multiculturalism that replaces a serious engagement with difference and the power imbalance it creates with shallow lip service to “diversity.”

Some think intersectionality is finally played out, thirty years after “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” was published. Others, including myself, believe that we still desperately need its insights. Especially now in the face of a successful alliance between neo-nationalism and neoliberalism that uses the same old divide and-conquer strategies through demonizing difference. Collective resistance to this global threat is mandatory but is often hindered by the demand to deny differences and to unite behind a common, single goal—any critique of which is characterized as harmful and egotistical “identity politics”—leading to the same divisions and exclusions that gave rise to intersectional activism by women of color in the first place. As Audre Lorde observed in 1982: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.“ She did this in a talk titled “Learning from the 60s” and I would suggest that this is an ongoing learning process.

The resistance to “identity politics” and intersectionality extends far into the (white) Left, which continues to characterize the naming of hierarchized difference and its consequences as an act of divisiveness, of “playing the race card,” playing the victim, denying that white men can be oppressed, too… If I identify as a Black lesbian migrant, I am doing neither of these things, I am merely claiming my positionality in a world in which race, gender, sexuality and nationality are used to produce hierarchies of belonging. Lesbians and trans*people of color in particular have to not only deal with structural racism, sexism, queer- and transphobia in society in general, but simultaneously with these issues within activist communities. They do not ever have the luxury to take it for granted that their voices will be heard and their interests included, the solidarity that they are asked to provide to feminist, LGBT, Black, Muslim communities is often not granted to them in return, because they remain deviant even in these communities. Nonetheless, lesbians and trans*people of color remain key to anti-racist, feminist and queer movements, often doing the least valued work while being faced with constant ignorance and aggression. This is no coincidence, neither is the origin of intersectionality in the activism of Black women who needed to take their liberation into their own hands.

Intersectionality also means however, the need to remain attentive to new constellations, shifts in interconnected power structures and in one’s own positionality vis-à-vis allies and antagonists. It demands honest assessments of diverging experiences (as Crenshaw wrote in Mapping the Margins: “The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference,… but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences… ignoring difference within groups contributes to tension among groups…”), but it does not allow for self-righteous victimhood. One of the most important insights intersectionality has to offer is the need to remain attentive to our own complex positionalities in the various networks we move in, to not only acknowledge when we have privilege but to use it towards the ultimate dismantling of the intersectional system of racial capitalism.