Keisha Lindsay and the nuance of intersectionality

Symposium series continues with discussion on "God, Gays and Progressive Politics."

Daneet Steffens '82
February 17, 2021

The buildup to an April symposium headlined by renowned social activist Gloria Steinem resumes Sunday with a virtual visit from an expert on Black feminism.

Keisha Lindsay is an associate professor in the department of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Lindsay’s research and teaching interests include feminist political theory and gender-based politics in the African diaspora. She is the author of In a Classroom of their Own: The Intersection of Race and Feminist Politics in All-Black Male Schools (University of Illinois 2018).

Lindsay is the second guest in a series of online discussions being offered ahead of an Academy symposium, “From ‘Studying Her Absence’ to Finding Her Voice: 50 Years of Coeducation at Exeter.”  Lindsay’s reading and the subsequent discussion are scheduled for 4 p.m. ET, Sunday, Feb. 21.

Ahead of her visit, we caught up with the professor:


Q: The topic of your session, “God, Gays and Progressive Politics,” is also the title of your 2013 paper. How will the paper impact your discussion?

A: That piece is highly theoretical but also very much linked to everyday things going on in our lived reality. It’s about intersectionality, the idea that people experience life at the intersections of major systems of power — racialized systems of power, gendered systems of power — a concept traditionally used to articulate and explain the oppression that women experience, particularly women of color: while that all women experience patriarchy, how they experience patriarchy is influenced or informed by their race.

What I found interesting and what led me to write this article was that I was looking at how a range of other groups articulate their opinion, particularly around gay marriage and specifically at how some African-Americans think about gay marriage and gay rights. It struck me that the way in which some conservative African-American Christians think about gay marriage is very intersectional, and they critique it on the grounds that it is harmful to Black people. Black people have long used Christianity — think of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders — as a way of challenging their experience of racism: the Christian doctrine helps advance the fight against racism, and that Christian doctrine is also central to Black people’s sense of religious identity. I think these conservative African-American Christians are making an intersectional argument: they argue that the push for gay rights contravenes Christian teachings and, by extension, limits Black people’s ability to fight racism.

I think many people are now using intersectionality in this way: if you look at white men who are critical of affirmative action, and who have filed lawsuits in terms of college admissions, they argue that affirmative action hurts them, not only because they are men and women get preferential treatment under affirmative action, but also because they are white and people of color get preferential treatment. They make the argument that when you think about how affirmative action harms them, it’s not enough to say that the harm is racialized nor to is it enough to say that the harm is gendered: the harm exists at the intersection of their gendered and racial identities.

And, as queasy as this may make some feminists, especially feminists of color, this is something that needs to be addressed, this appropriation of the logic of intersectionality. It doesn’t mean that we should stop using the terminology — and by we, I mean feminists — but we shouldn’t be naïve. Part of my argument is that it can be embraced and used by others: if you look at the culture of grievance that surrounds a lot of Trumpism, these folks feel aggrieved not just because they are men, not just because they are white, but because they are both. They feel systematically devalued at the intersection of race and gender. It’s a controversial move to think about intersectionality as being used this way, but I do think it helps us understand what is actually happening in our political world.


Q: What drew you to this topic?

A: I was taking class with Cathy Cohen, a political scientist who focuses on race and politics and queer studies. I was learning about intersectionality, and something clicked and it occurred to me: is this only used by Black feminists? Don’t other people use this in their own lives or in their own politics? I may have been thinking about people in my extended family and their complicated politics — very progressive when it comes to challenging racism, but more conservative around queer issues. That’s what got me thinking about it initially.


Q: What do you hope audience takes away from this?

A: In a practical sense, I hope they think in a more nuanced way about our current political situation: how did we get here? how do we move on? I think unless we put this intersectional cap on, we’re not going to be able to understand our current political landscape. And I’m not just talking about recent elections: I would say, “Look at the past 25-30 years in American politics. Why have certain groups moved away from the Democratic party? Why has the Republican party been getting more of the Latinx vote?”

It’s very easy to say, “Oh, we just need more education,” — and I’m sure that’s part of it — but people exist at the crossroads of multiple identities and systems of power, and that animates how they vote. It doesn’t actually make them super-smart or super-stupid, but people make choices: sometimes they make choices to preserve their racial privilege, or to sustain their privileges as straight people. And these are quite rational choices in our society. I’m not sure it’s rational for anybody to give up privilege at this moment in time.

We should apply intersectionality to think about the current political system and how other groups are using intersectionality in ways that the concept’s Black feminist pioneers did not intend. We should think about how that means that we, as progressives, need to consider new ways of resisting oppression. 


Q: What does it mean to create an equitable environment for women and girls instead of just allowing women and girls to join a school community?

A: The first thing I would say is that we should move away from the notion that young women constitute a single category: it’s not just a case of “add and stir,” we’ll just bring young women into the community and they’ll just fit it. The girls and young women in question are not a homogenous group, right? What’s going to make Exeter a happy, productive place for a working-class young woman is going to be different for a woman who identifies as queer. We need to break away from the notion that there’s one set of plans or policies that we can put in place to help make Exeter a place where all of these women are comfortable and thriving. We’ve got to think about them as African-American young women, queer young women — and to realize that putting that into practice is the harder work. But the more abstract aspect is simply challenging the myth that these young women constitute a homogenous group. Even the notion that all men are privileged and all women are oppressed is over-simplistic: young upper-middle-class white women at Exeter may exercise privilege and power over Black males. Every institution has to address these nuances, these complexities, and that fact that these young people exist at these multiple intersections.


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