Jennifer C. Nash talks the institutionalization of intersectionality

Monday, September 21, 2015 - 1:06pm

Intersectionality is ubiquitous in contemporary women’s studies. However, its entry into discourse has a complicated history. This concept has roots in a rich history of Black feminist thought and practice that was formally articulated, but not originally developed, by legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”

The idea that people inhabit multiple social positions and identities (race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality, religion) that mutually and simultaneously

Jennifer C. Nash

North Quad 2435

September 24, 2015

4:10 pm


affect each other is one in U.S. Black feminist thought that long predates Crenshaw’s work in a specifically legal context. A central category for much of women’s studies scholarship, it is an analytical tool used now in many disciplines that seeks to describe the interaction of multiple oppression, discrimination and exploitation that affect people who occupy multiple identities.

For Jennifer C. Nash, professor of American Studies and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department at George Washington University, intersectionality emerged as a kind of “outsider knowledge.”

“By ‘outsider knowledge,’ I’m trying to think about the ways that intersectionality emerged from women of color who were trying to describe a particular set of experiences, some of which were being excluded from the legal system or having experiences of discrimination rendered invisible by law, some of which were being rendered invisible by feminist theory,” Nash said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

However, intersectionality has begun to appear into the language repertoire of university administrations in the past 20 years in ways that largely conflate it with diversity and minority enrollment. Nash devotes a great deal of energy in her career to describing and intervening in the place of Black feminism in the corporate university system, women’s studies departments and other disciplines. Her talk on Thursday, Sept. 24, will focus on how intersectionality has become institutionalized in the language of women’s studies departments and university administration that largely conflate it with inclusion, diversity and difference.

“My own interest in how intersectionality has been taken up, particularly in women’s studies as a field and discipline, is the way that intersectionality gets collapsed into diversity, particularly at universities,” Nash said. “So I’m interested in the way that, in women’s studies, it becomes almost a requirement that we describe our work and our teaching as intersectional.”

Intersectionality “gets deployed by universities (and women’s studies departments),” Nash wrote in the event description online, “to signal commitments to inclusion and difference.” She describes in her forthcoming book “Black Feminism Remixed” how Black women, through the language of intersectionality, are referenced only as “metaphor” in many academic settings.

“One of the things that is really interesting to me is how Black feminism, Black women and intersectionality get collapsed into each other,” Nash said. “So what I’m doing in the long article (“Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics, and Post-Intersectionality”) is trying to say, in part, Black feminists have this very long intellectual tradition that’s varied, and complex, and multiple, and in the last five to 10 years we’ve come to assume that what Black women produce is intersectional work, and that’s it.”

In her work, Nash opposes the reductive, identitarian version of intersectionality that you see in universities with a “politics of love” that she sees as critical in the history of Black feminist intellectual history. Nash’s talk will work to reorient other intellectual histories that now celebrate certain political forms, like a politics of love, that Black feminism laid the basis for in the 1970s.

Nash’s talk will be very important for many campus political and academic actors because it seeks to critique a vocabulary like “intersectionality” that so many take for granted. Such a critique is significant because it attempts to draw attention to how universities continually exclude certain Black women in spite of celebrating diversity and inclusion through intersectionality.

“What I’ve tried to develop is this idea that women’s studies has been obsessed with the figure or the metaphor of the Black woman and making Black women into metaphor or symbol, that is, Black women as never dealt with as a fleshy, material body,” Nash said. “When intersectionality moves into university discourses through the language of diversity, Black woman continues to operate as a symbol, whether it’s Black woman as the symbol of the most marginalized subject, or Black woman as the limits of agency.”