Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality By Jennifer Nash
Reviewed by Chelsea Johnson
Intersectionality is perhaps the most popularly embraced, discussed, and debated concept to emerge from black feminist thought. Like many ideas with broad explanatory power, intersectionality has inspired, expanded, traveled, and morphed. Many generations after intersectional thinking appears in women of color activism, and three decades after the term was coined in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s legal work, intersectionality has become a research method, an academic discipline, a call for representation, a diversity and inclusion initiative, a benchmark for feminist organizing—and it has become a target of virulent critique.
Two recent books, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality by Jennifer Nash and Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism by Barbara Tomlinson, grapple with the forces talking about intersectionality. In Undermining Intersectionality, Tomlinson writes as a self-identified white embodied feminist defending intersectionality against power-blind white feminism. In Black Feminism Reimagined, Nash writes as a self-identified black feminist asking black feminists to let go of their defensive hold on intersectionality as the exclusive property of black women. Both books tackle three interrelated, overarching questions: What does it mean for intersectionality to be institutionalized within women’s studies, when the university is precisely the type of neoliberal and hierarchical social system that black feminism critiques? What does it mean if popular applications of intersectionality separate the theory from black women, when their experiences and labor—intellectually and otherwise—have historically been exploited, misrepresented, and devalued? How should intersectional feminists feel about intersectionality becoming a target of academic politics and critique? Tomlinson’s and Nash’s answers to these questions are productively at odds.
First, a note on style: Nash and Tomlinson treat upper-case and lower-case Black vs. black differently and do so with implicit purpose that seems to align with their core world-views on race and theory. Nash uses lower case, while Tomlinson uses lower case to refer to black bodies but upper case to refer to Black feminism. Moving forward, I follow the authors’ leads when writing this review.
Given that black women scholars continue to be one of the most underrepresented and overworked groups in the academy, shouldn’t black feminist academics stake their claim to a concept and an emerging discipline that has become the standard of good feminism for women’s studies departments? In Black Feminism Reimagined, Jennifer Nash responds with a definitive no. Three decades after intersectionality took women’s studies by storm, Nash finds black feminism’s preoccupation with defending intersectionality to be exhausting and toxic.
Black Feminism Reimagined is Nash’s account of the state of black feminism within the discipline of women’s studies, based on discourse analysis of black feminists’ reflections about intersectionality and their own work. She observes that black feminists have assumed a disciplinary role within women’s studies, literally and symbolically showing white women the limits of their thinking in scholarship, organizing, and activism. Intersectionality’s analytical disruption of mainstream feminist assumptions about universal sisterhood has most visibly and effectively accomplished this disciplinary work. But as intersectionality took hold in the field, black feminists have largely responded in a protective way, fearing that their contributions might be undone or appropriated by institutionalization, varying interpretations, and use by non-black women. Nash speculates that black feminism’s current conceptual foci on death, representation, and care exacerbate and maintain a defensiveness of intersectionality, and that these strands of black feminism rationalize black feminists’ treatment of intersectionality as a property under threat, a disciplinary tool, and a love to be protected.
Black Feminism Reimagined concedes that misinterpretations of intersectionality are common. The university’s conflation of intersectionality with diversity and the politics of inclusion, for an example, has been a constant point of frustration for black feminists. In response, it has become conventional for black feminists to tell “origin stories” that remind others that true intersectionality is a product of black feminist social justice work, and that white feminists would know this if they only read the “right” readings. Such corrective discourses reduce intersectionality to an imagined single history and foreclose generative debate. From Nash’s point of view, treating intersectionality as if it is property that has been lost or stolen on account of idea migration, transformation, or critique wastes energy that black feminists might productively spend beyond the “intersectionality wars.” She implores black feminists to separate their care for black feminism from ownership over intersectionality, and to “let go” of their impulse to control what black feminist thought inspires in and from others. Nash points out that “[while] black feminist theory has brilliantly captured the ways in which the US academy has been a killing machine that cannibalizes black women, it has yet to fully capture the toxicity of defensiveness, and how exhausting— physically, spiritually, psychically—the defensive posture can be.”
The second half of Black Feminism Reimagined wonders what it would mean if black feminists told the story of intersectionality differently. What if black feminists included women’s studies’ turn to transnationalism in their reflections about intersectionality’s impact on the field in the 1990s? Nash argues that black feminists’ investment in keeping black women at the center of intersectional analyses prevents intimacy and solidarity with other women of color feminists, who likewise challenge feminism’s imagined hegemonic white Western middle-class feminist subject. Instead of feeling competitive or being isolated by the academy’s tokenization of women of color, Nash encourages black feminists to practice the politics of solidarity and community that are so central to black feminist thought. Doing so, she envisions a reimagined black feminism that pushes back against women’s studies departments’ narrow and tokenizing tendencies to associate intersectionality with black women’s bodies, and transnationalism with brown women’s bodies.
As someone who has fought for funding and recognition in the neoliberal academy and opted out from exhaustion, I understand the defensiveness Nash observes in and of black feminism. I’ve felt defensive for years. However, as a black feminist trained in sociology and not in women’s studies, as a scholar who has never been committed to the Ivory Tower, and as someone who finds black feminist thought more powerful in applied rather than academic settings, I find Nash’s descriptions of black feminists in Black Feminism Reimagined otherwise peculiar for a few reasons. First, most sociologists use intersectionality as an analytic to think about the relationship between interlocking social structures and lived experiences, without limiting analysis to black female subjectivity alone. Second, many black feminists do take up intersectionality in relationship to transnationalism and decolonialism, and in collaboration with differently racialized women of color, both within and beyond the United States. Moreover, many black feminists are not positioned within nor loyal to the academy, and are working for impact rather than intellectual ownership.
Though the black feminists and scholars of intersectionality in my world do not fit Nash’s descriptions, and even if I don’t always agree with her, what Nash does in Black Feminism Reimagined is new, brave, and important. For skeptical readers like myself, it will likely be the book’s last analytical chapter that inspires a change of heart. In “Love in the Time of Death,” Nash models the vulnerable love she preaches in her loving undoing and reinterpretation of black feminism’s relationship to the state. She draws upon June Jordan, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Patricia J. Williams to apply a black feminist politics of love to intersectionality and the law. Noting that the law produces black women’s invisibility, Nash considers what it would mean for black women, for all people, and for the earth if the law sought justice for injury rather than property loss. Here Nash shows readers how to “let go,” and how to reimagine black feminism in this contemporary moment.
In Undermining Intersectionality, Barbara Tomlinson does exactly what Black Feminism Reimagined begs black feminists to abandon doing—she lays down a forceful defense of intersectionality’s contribution to knowledge and of women of color’s ownership over “true” intersectional thought. Tomlinson meticulously analyzes popular feminist discussions about intersectionality and their discursive strategies, finding that the most vocal critics tend to neglect any meaningful engagement with intersectionality’s original texts, the racial studies literature, the history of European imperialism and slavery, or their own positionalities. Most criticisms, Tomlinson argues, are color-blind, contextblind, and power-blind, implicitly reinscribing white women as the central subject of and authority over mainstream feminism. For this reason, Tomlinson names intersectionality’s critics white feminists, a discursive move that makes visible what is too often invisible—the hierarchical racial power relations of neoliberal academia and mainstream feminism.
The first half of Undermining Intersectionality focuses on white feminists’ critiques of intersectionality, which tend to misinterpret intersectionality’s key texts and metaphors. For example, a popular criticism dismisses the theory’s use of social categories as outdated and rigid, when in actuality, the logic of binary either/or categorization is the product of white male elites via European imperialism, not Black feminism. Tomlinson points out that when Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality, she used the intersection as a metaphor to describe the contextually situated and mutually constitutive nature of social categories and systems of oppression in order to make black women’s unique experiences at the nexus of anti-black racism and patriarchy visible to the court of law. Undermining Intersectionality reminds readers that Crenshaw’s intersectionality was deeply shaped by her own training and method as a critical race legal scholar. Broader reading of critical race theory would likely clarify to white feminists that intersectionality views identity as fluid, and more importantly that it strategically takes up categories to understand them. Intersectionality subverts categories through a both/and logic in order to to free subjugated people from oppression. Much of Undermining Intersectionality is such a corrective, laying bare the misinterpretations, misquotes, misreadings, and mistakes that white feminism makes in impressive detail.
The second half of Undermining Intersectionality argues that the white feminist scholarly conversation about intersectionality amounts to what Tomlinson calls an epistemic machine, a system of training, description, argumentation, citation, and publication that devalues, condescends, excludes, and dismisses women of color ’s contributions to feminism. Tomlinson notes that when white feminists take up intersectionality, they tend to colonize it by neglecting to attribute the theory to the women of color from whom it originated, misrepresenting it so they can take credit for solving its imaginary defects, or emptying it of its anti-racist political imperatives. Feminists-in-training are expected to cite and build upon such white feminist discussions of intersectionality in order to be taken seriously as well-read in the field, and such “contemporary citational practices operate as a conservative force, so that contemporary critical discussion of intersectionality ultimately congeals around powerblind strategies deployed in the past to reinforce white women’s symbolic domination of feminist studies.”
Tomlinson includes Google Scholar citation metrics for many examples she presents, persuasively showing the reader that this white feminist version of intersectionality is dominant within women’s studies. For example, she notes that Leslie McCall’s article, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” is “one of the most widely cited feminist critiques of intersectionality (with nearly 4,500 citations in Google Scholar as of May 10, 2018),” but points out that McCall erases the racial specificity that is central to intersectionality’s original intervention. Likewise, the 2,000 citations and 870+ reprints of “Doing Difference” by Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker perpetuate out-ofcontext white feminist misreadings of Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought as essentialist. If we take the numbers in Undermining Intersectionality seriously, the intersectionality most people know bears little resemblance to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective. As a result of the epistemic machine, this next generation of graduate students is not only being trained to attack women of color ’s intellectual labor, but also to treat it as a flawed thing of the past.
Undermining Intersectionality begs readers to see that critical debates and discourses are not solely ideological; they are also material. Black women working in women’s studies contexts must participate in the neoliberal corporatized university and play by its rules to make a living. Scholarly citations have implications for tenure, the credibility of intersectional work by and about women of color, and effecting social justice. Tomlinson concludes by insisting that feminists turn off the epistemic machine, listing thirty comprehensive strategies for responsible scholarship and reading practices, such as not undermining the claims made by intersectional scholars of color in order to rescue the concept or elevate a new view, not misconstruing the nature of metaphor, not assuming white women are the normative subjects of feminism, and choosing to work in collaboration with scholars of color.M
If Black Feminism Reimagined implores readers to let go, Undermining Intersectionality fastens the reins and redirects the ship.
Chelsea M. E. Johnson, PhD, is the co-author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, a children’s book that offers intersectional feminist theory to people of all ages.