Who’s Afraid of Intersectionality?: A Brief Comparison Between American and French Perspectives on Intersectionality

In October 2020, a week after the murder of a history-geography teacher by an Islamist terrorist, Jean-Michel Blanquer, then the French Minister of National Education, called “to fight against an intellectual matrix coming from American universities and intersectional thesis, which seeks to essentialize communities and identities.” The words used throughout this interview also show the virulence of his critique: “fight,” “fragmentation,” “infection,” and even a mention of “Islamism.” Yet intersectionality is, at its core, a framework for interpreting the various systems of oppression and domination in our societies to help us understand inequalities so we can do something about them. How did we get to this very negative interpretation?

In 1989, law scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw introduced the concept of “intersectionality” to refer to the “complexity” of subordination due to multiple factors such as race, gender, age, sexuality, etc. In her seminal article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” she discusses three legal cases that dealt with the issues of both racial and sex discrimination to show the limits of “single issue analyses:” DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Moore v. Hughes Helicopter, Inc., and Payne v. Travenol. In none of these cases did courts allow Black women plaintiffs to allege discrimination based on both race and gender. For her, the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis is a grave mistake. Crenshaw shows that it is necessary to conceive the intersectionality of discrimination to understand and correct the particular situation of Black women. 

Intersectionality—the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups—refers to a reality analyzed before Crenshaw’s texts, in feminist movements and other works by sociologists. Like many other concepts in the social sciences, intersectionality is both a tool for understanding the world and a project for social justice. And this is where the idea begins to be challenged.

Since Crenshaw’s first formalization of the term, the concept of intersectionality has gradually spread beyond the field of law into the academic area in the U.S. It is, in fact, one of the common points of passage in gender studies courses. Over the years, this concept has also exported itself to other countries. In fact, German academic Gudrun-Axeli Knapp describes intersectionality as a “fast-traveling theory” when discussing the concept’s arrival in Germany. 

In France, it was imported in the 2000s and became particularly widespread in the 2010s, although it should be noted that several feminist studies predating Crenshaw’s definition were already using intersectional approaches. A significant proportion of French researchers defend this intellectual and theoretical framework. While the term is increasingly used in the academic field in France, it is often criticized by the political and media spheres, which associate it with “wokisme” and “Islamo-gauchisme”. These two neologisms, which are widely used by French politicians but have no fixed definition, refer respectively to a Woke-inspired ideology centered on questions of equality, justice, and the defense of minorities, sometimes perceived as detrimental to republican universalism, and the supposed proximity between left-wing ideologies, personalities or parties and Muslim or even Islamist circles. This conceptual vagueness, to which intersectionality has been added, is the prerogative of most conservatives in France and the United States.

It’s understandable why conservative politicians aren’t the first fans of gender studies or critical gender and race studies. For those whose political position is based on not changing society (or changing it very slowly), the existence of a field of study that points out all the inequalities undermines or discredits their stance.

It’s also true that most politicians who use the term don’t use it or don’t know what it means. Ben Shapiro, for example, a conservative American media personality, declared: “I would define intersectionality as, at least the way that I’ve seen it manifest on college campuses, and in a lot of the political left, as a hierarchy of victimhood in which people are considered members of a victim class by virtue of membership in a particular group, and at the intersection of various groups lies the ascent on the hierarchy.” A “hierarchy of victimhood” is a far cry from the “prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts” as outlined by Crenshaw. Moreover, when confronted with this difference in definition, Shapiro later admits that he has nothing to say about this work, but rather that her 1989 paper “seems relatively unobjectionable.” 

So, it’s clear that to be genuinely criticizable, intersectionality must be exaggerated and distorted. However, intersectionality is far more recognized and legitimized in the United States than in France, where even ministers and left members criticize the concept. Intersectionality needs help to carve out a place for itself in public debate. Some would like to reduce it to identity politics, while others see it as a principle of exclusion. In short, these blatant misunderstandings are far removed from the original meaning of intersectionality. But why? 

There are various explanations for this. Firstly, intersectionality is strongly criticized for threatening the ideal of republican universalism. Republican universalism is a principle inherited from the Enlightenment that the Republic and its values are universal. Established during the French Revolution, it is opposed to the particularisms and privileges of pre-revolutionary France. Initially, it referred to a political philosophy aiming to grant all citizens of the same nation standard rules, values, and principles without distinctions based on cultural, religious, or philosophical particularities. However, its meaning has evolved and is sometimes used to exclude certain sections of the population. Republican universalism often puts society ahead of the citizen, the collective ahead of the individual. As such, it isn’t easy to reconcile with the diversity of identities. For many defenders of republican universalism, expanding the horizon of the struggle for equality to include minorities of color, sexual orientation, or gender means losing sight of the specificity of an emancipation project of a republican nature, i.e., a project of collective and universal emancipation founded on the basis—and the only basis—of social equality.

The second partial explanation is the tension around race in France. In a country that bans racial and ethnic statistics, the use of the race-gender-class analytical triptych inevitably poses a problem. This choice of statistics is based on the conviction that the categories we use to describe reality, in turn, shape it. Since the beginning of the social sciences in France, the emphasis has always been on social classes rather than other markers. Not least because of the influence of republican universalism, specific characteristics such as race, gender, or religion are complex to take into account. The perception of race in France is supposed to be close to colorblindness. But something else is needed—just because we refuse to name a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This logic can be extended to intersectionality: the only way to remedy a situation is to identify, recognize, and name it. 

A third way of explaining this tension, which complements the previous ones, is the particular sensitivity surrounding Islam in France. This is a completely different subject that deserves to be dealt with correctly and in greater depth, but it’s worth mentioning all the same. However, several studies show that this religion and its symbols are under far more pressure in the name of secularism (“laïcité“) than any other at the moment, as shown by the recent example of the ban on wearing abayas in schools. 

Another peculiarity of France is that it is frowned upon for researchers to take political positions despite a specific porosity between the academic, political, and media fields (circulation of concepts, studies justifying policies, etc.). Yet many social science researchers, particularly in gender studies, feminist studies, or critical race studies, often double up as political and social activists. And using intersectionality as both an analytical framework and a social justice initiative undermines its credibility for many. This also raises the question of the researcher’s place (is he neutral, or is his point of view influenced by who he is, etc.). Scholars Éléonore Lépinard and Sarah Mazouz make this point when they declare that intersectionality also implies going through the “epistemology of point of view.”

Over and above these almost structural difficulties in implementing intersectionality in France, many researchers continue to argue in favor of this mode of analyzing and researching discrimination. For many, intersectionality is precisely a way of transforming republican universalism from an abstract to a concrete universalism. As researchers Claire Boine and Caroline Light point out, “the majority individual, the ideal French citizen, does not exist.” Republican universalism is supposed to benefit an abstract individual, but since such individuals don’t exist, who does the system serve? Those who are already privileged, in one way or another. Yet these are often the very same people who first stand up against this analytical tool for understanding how a person’s diverse identities are combined in experiences of discrimination and inequality—which answers the question: who’s afraid of intersectionality?

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This article was edited by Katherine Brennan.