Book Chapter
A Love Letter from a Critic, or Notes on the Intersectionality Wars
What are the intellectual and political conditions that permitted me to understand the word “critic” as an allegation?
Book Title
Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality
Book Author(s)
Jennifer C. Nash
Press and Year
Duke University Press, 2019
Medium of Publication
Paperback / softback
Number of Pages


I discovered something about myself when reading a recently published edited volume: I am a “vocal critic of intersectionality.”[1] To be hailed as one of intersectionality’s critics is to inhabit deeply uncomfortable terrain. Jasbir Puar notes that the “claim to intersectionality as the dominant feminist method can be produced with such insistence that an interest in exploring other frames... gets rendered as problematic and even produces woc [women of color] feminists invested in other genealogies as ‘race-traitors.’”[2] Puar reveals that scholars who pose questions about intersectionality’s critical limits, or who “explore” other analytics, are often marked as traitorous. To have one’s work deemed criticism is to feel as though one has been removed—excommunicated, even—from the boundaries of black feminism precisely because one is imagined as inflicting harm on the very intellectual, political, ethical, and creative terrain that black women have labored to carve out. My impulse, then, was to understand “vocal critic” as much more than an intellectual critique: this was an allegation challenging my political commitments to the project of black feminism. My desire was to seek to defend myself from these charges, to insist that I admire intersectionality, that my work endeavors to be generative, not destructive.

This chapter aspires to suspend that critical desire, even as I am deeply intrigued by it. What are the intellectual and political conditions that permitted me to understand the word “critic” as an allegation? Why has the term “critic,” in the context of robust scholarly debate about intersectionality, taken on such a powerful charge? Rather than resist the term or refuse its interpellation, this chapter follows the word “critic” around the black feminist theoretical archive, endeavoring to carefully trace to whom it attaches, and what makes that attachment possible. My investment in tracking the meanings embedded in the term “critic” follows Claire Hemmings’s call to trace the “stories we tell.” In so doing, this chapter asserts that black feminist theorists emphatically retell a singular story about intersectionality: the analytic is the subject of vicious and inaccurate attacks, the victim of an intense “backlash” marked by “a remarkable degree of epistemic intolerance.”[3] In this account, one group of scholars supports intersectionality— black feminists—and another powerful chorus of scholars is opposed to the analytic: the critics. This is a deeply compelling narrative: it has a victim (intersectionality; or, perhaps more broadly, black feminism) and a villain (the ubiquitous critic). The story also has a moral imperative: intersectionality must be saved, and black feminists must defend intersectionality from these unwarranted and misguided attacks. This affectively saturated narrative has come to animate the intersectionality wars, the contentious battles that swirl around intersectionality and that garner their urgency and ethical legitimacy from attempts to protect intersectionality from the “loveless and world-ending” figure of the critic.[4]

Yet, as I argue in this chapter, this compelling narrative is the site of various projections and fantasies. A close engagement with black feminist citational practices reveals that intersectionality’s critic, always constructed by black feminism as outside black feminism’s critical and ethical reach, is actually imaginatively produced by black feminists as they are locked into practices of holding on. In treating the critic as an imaginative projection, I am careful not to argue that black feminists are engaged in dreaming up something that is not there; instead, I consider how women’s studies’ positioning of black feminists as disciplinarians who demand that the field offer an account of black women actually gets performed by black feminists as they contend with intersectionality’s movement to the field’s center by guarding intersectionality from the phantasm of the critic. In other words, black feminists are enlisted in becoming precisely what the field imagines them to be—relentless, demanding, policing disciplinarians—as they expose and condemn the critics who are imagined to fail to adequately and fairly account for intersectionality, for black feminist theory, for black women’s intellectual production. The constant invocation of the malicious critic as a pernicious outsider becomes a crucial rhetorical, theoretical, and ethical strategy through which black feminists reassert their territorial claim to intersectionality and perform their collective desire to shield intersectionality from violent criticism. Ultimately, this chapter shows what happens when black feminists—who have long been part of a movement against captivity in its myriad forms—hold captive intersectionality in the face of an imagined dangerous critic.

In the first section of the chapter, I engage the intersectionality wars, arguing that the prevailing story I have traced here is the centerpiece of those wars. In the second section, I aspire to determine how black feminists decide who—or what—constitutes traitorous critical labor. In so doing, I argue that the critic’s production supports black feminism’s defensive posture and suggest that the psychic life of black feminism is, once again, worthy of sustained attention. In place of entrenching black feminism’s territorial relationship with intersectionality, one that responds to the analytic’s centrality to women’s studies through asserting a proprietary claim to the analytic and guarding it from imagined outsiders, this chapter asks what would happen if we—black feminists—considered intersectionality’s critics as figures who lovingly address us, who generatively bring (rather than destructively take), and who offer their participation in black feminism’s long-standing world-making project. This chapter, then, is an attempt to interrupt the black feminist disavowal of intersectionality’s critics, figures who are the absent-presences that haunt black feminist engagement with intersectionality, and to instead argue that the spectral figure of the critic might provide an opportunity to embrace precisely the letting go the book celebrates.

The Intersectionality Wars

At the 2014 American Studies Association (ASA) conference, a panel entitled “Kill This Keyword” asked: “What kind of work do the commonplace keywords of current American studies endeavors do? (How) Can critical leverage, incisive edge, be returned to commonplace terms, or to the ideas to which they refer? What terms have fallen out of favor that might be reanimated in the face of the demise of another?”[5] Panel members were invited to reflect on widely circulating scholarly terms like “precarity,” “neoliberalism,” and “affect,” and to determine if these terms should be “killed”— banished from our scholarly lexicon—or “saved.” Nothing generated more anxiety than intersectionality, which was immediately declared dead. Moments after a collective performance of intersectional fatigue, a scholar voiced discomfort with “killing” intersectionality because to do that would be to “kill” black feminism, or perhaps even to “kill” black woman as object of study. The room grew quiet at the prospect of symbolically killed black women. As intersectionality slipped into black feminism slipped into black woman, the analytic moved from dangerous to desirable, from peril to promise, and the audience that had been quick to kill had been convinced to rescue.

The term “intersectionality wars” describes the discursive, political, and theoretical battles staged in this scene. Indeed, as this ASA encounter makes visible, debates about intersectionality all too quickly become referendums on whether scholars are “for” or “against” intersectionality (rather than attempts to refine, nuance, complicate, or even think through intersectionality’s contours and migrations). And debates about whether one is “for” or “against” intersectionality almost always seem to become referendums on whether one is “for” or “against” black feminism, and perhaps “for” or “against” black woman herself.[6] These slippages—between black woman and black feminism, between intersectionality and black woman, between intersectionality and black feminism—animate the intersectionality wars because they ensure that discussing intersectionality’s critical limits is always already to debate racial politics and allegiances. Undergirding the ASA scene, and the intersectionality wars more broadly, are the affective dimensions of the prevailing narrative I described earlier, one where intersectionality is under siege and must be saved, one where a group of critics who are characterized in various ways—ranging from misguided careerists to antiblack or anti-black feminist—have made it a mission to undermine black feminists’ intellectual contributions.

I am drawn to the term “intersectionality wars” because of its echo with feminism’s other wars, most particularly the sex wars. Waged in the 1980s, and reaching a feverish pitch around the time Barnard’s 1982 Scholar and Feminist Conference focused on “pleasure and danger,” the so-called sex wars seemed to be battles over pornography.[7] These “wars,” though, were about much more than pornography; the “sex wars” were bound up with accusations of policing sexual minorities and attempts at censorship, especially in light of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s attempt to pass antipornography legislation and the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce’s decision to file an amicus brief in American Booksellers v. Hudnut. Even the casting of widely circulating and complex debates about pornography as a “war” suggests that feminists defined themselves exclusively as “for” or “against” pornography, eliding myriad feminist work that sought to stake out a complex analysis of pornography’s meanings, pleasures, and cultural significance. Similarly, the intersectionality wars seem to be fights over intersectionality’s meanings, circulations, origins, “appropriation,” and “colonization,” but these fights are actually battles over the place of the discipline’s key sign—black woman—in the field imaginary. These wars are fights over questions like: Will black women “save” so-called white feminism with an insistence on intersectionality as the analytic that will free feminism from its exclusionary past and present? Will black women undo feminism with a demand for a complex account for difference? Will black women’s efforts to discipline the field finally—and even redemptively—exculpate the field from its racist past? What is intersectionality’s ultimate theoretical and political goal?

If the “sex wars” were rooted in the sexual culture—and sexual panics— of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the intersectionality wars that I trace in this book are relatively recent battles, rooted in intersectionality’s “citational ubiquity,” its movement across disciplinary borders, across administrative/intellectual boundaries, and across academic/popular boundaries.[8] I date the intersectionality wars to intersectionality’s institutionalization, to the rise of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s articles “Mapping the Margins” and “De-marginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” to near-canonical status, and the movement of intersectionality to the center of women’s studies. I also date it to intersectionality’s circulation in popular feminist conversations as a way of signaling a critical practice attentive to (certain forms of) difference, as away of disciplining so-called white feminism and white feminists, and as a strategy for naming ethical practices of feminism. As more scholars have laid claim to intersectionality, as more disciplines have come to value—at least rhetorically—intersectionality, the intersectionality wars have escalated, with black feminists increasingly stepping into the fray to defend the analytic from imagined misuse and abuse, from improper circulations and devaluations.

Like the sex wars, the intersectionality wars have been waged in contentious ways. The sex wars were played out through public confrontations—debates over Barnard’s “Pleasure and Danger” Diary, battles over the proposed antipornography legislation, civil rights hearings led by MacKinnon and Dworkin, and protests against antipornography legislation; the intersectionality wars have been played out in increasingly contentious scholarly battles waged at conferences, in journal articles, and at myriad symposiums celebrating intersectionality and its interdisciplinary cache. In describing these battles as contentious, I am particularly drawn to considering the tone of these scholarly debates as the location where the deep antagonisms of these battles are most visible. My turn to form—and to tone—is indebted to the work of Janet Halley, who argues that “political ideas have prose styles” and that “you can find out something about your political libido by feeling for whether you are turned on or off by a political idea's way of addressing itself to you.”[9] The intersectionality wars are produced through particular kinds of appeals that work on the reader’s “political libido” through language that underscores the violence inflicted on intersectionality by “critics.” In other words, these “wars” are waged through exposure: black feminists reveal the violence of critics’ work through language that is itself forceful. For example, Brittney Cooper describes Jasbir Puar’s work as an “indictment of intersectionality.”[10] Nikol Alexander-Floyd argues that Leslie McCall’s widely cited article “The Complexity of Intersectionality” “disappears black women and their scholarly contributions; more pointedly, her analysis does violence to the progenitors of intersectionality by subverting their aims and objectives.”[11] She also warns, “Barely a decade into the new millennium, a new wave of raced-gendered occultic commodification is afoot, one focusing not on black female subjectivity per se, but on the concept of intersectionality.”[12] Sirma Bilge writes, “Intersectionality, originally focused on transformative and counter-hegemonic knowledge production and radical politics of social justice, has been commodified and colonized for neoliberal regimes.”[13] The Crunk Feminist Collective notes, “Intersectionality without women of color is a train wreck. Call us parochial if you want to, but we should remember that in the case of both these theories, they grew out of the lived political realities of marginalized people.”[14]

I put these distinct quotes next to each other to call attention to something that permeates black feminist entanglement in the intersectionality wars: the language used to describe and capture the violence performed by intersectionality’s critics—disappearing, commodification, colonization, and “train wrecks”—suggests that criticism is a violent practice. The impulse undergirding these readings of intersectionality’s critics is prosecutorial: it exposes, indicts, and condemns. This reading practice works on readers’ “political libido” by representing an intersectionality under siege, rendered vulnerable by the labor of critics, and ultimately salvaged by the labor of black feminists themselves. The labor of black feminist scholarship, then, is to incite the reader to protect intersectionality from a set of forces—colonization, appropriation, gentrification—that are undeniably violent. It is intersectionality’s vulnerability that demands a protective response. In noting that this language works on the “libido,” my intention is not to suggest that it produces only political arousal—it might just as easily produce disgust, boredom, or unhappiness. Rather, my interest is in how these battles are waged in a language that reproduces intersectionality’s vulnerability in the service of enlisting readers in the battle to preserve and protect the analytic.

If the intersectionality wars are contentious, what precisely is being fought over? What are the battles that are unfolding under the sign of intersectionality?

Origin Stories

The intersectionality wars are often waged over competing origin stories that narrate the genesis of intersectionality. When I describe origin stories, I capture how black feminism often tethers intersectionality to a coherent, legible origin, describing a particular moment of intersectionality’s creation. Origin stories work by presuming that intersectionality emerged not through debate or collaboration but through a singular voice, historical moment, or foundational text. In this way, origin stories are distinct from intellectual genealogies that trace how concepts emerge from multiple traditions or that analyze how different theoretical traditions treat the same concept differently. Intersectionality’s origin stories circulate in (at least) two ways. First, they respond to women’s studies’ “whitening” of intersectionality by centering the analytic’s origin in black feminist studies.[15] They often insist on intersectionality’s presence in black feminist theory well before the term was coined or emphasize intersectionality’s long roots in black feminist scholarship and activism. In so doing, they underscore both the term’s historical underpinnings and its fundamental connection to black feminist scholarship. Second, origin stories function as debates internal to black feminism about who coined the term, who its inaugural scholar is, and whose terrain intersectionality “originally” was.

What origin stories share, despite their varied investments in intersectionality’s “original” location, is an insistence on intersectionality’s place in black feminist thought, thus correcting the widely circulating notion that intersectionality is the “product” or intellectual contribution of women’s studies. They directly counter the “whitening of intersectionality,” which, as Sirma Bilge notes, refers not “to the race of intersectionality practitioners, but to the ways of doing intersectionality that rearticulate it around Eurocentric epistemologies.”[16] One of the central ways this “whitening” unfolds, according to Bilge, is through the now commonplace claim that intersectionality was “in the air,” that it was nascent in women’s studies long before it was named.[17] This proprietary feminist claim to the analytic ignores “the historical fact that intersectionality was developed by black women activists and intellectuals against white-dominated feminism, as much as against the male-dominated black liberation movement, against capitalism and heterosexism.”[18] Anna Carastathis offers a similar critique of women’s studies’ historically inaccurate claims about intersectionality, noting that “the appropriation of intersectionality by women’s studies’ and ‘feminist theory’ (which remain white-dominated discourses) can serve to obscure its origins in Black feminist thought.”[19] The black feminist response to this “whitening” is to assert, as Jean Ait Belkhir does, that intersectionality is “one of the greatest gifts of black women’s studies to social theory as a whole.”[20] In Belkhir’s account, intersectionality is not only a product of black feminist theory but also an indication of black feminist generosity, since intersectionality is a crucially important “gift” bestowed upon women’s studies by black feminists. For my purposes, what is fascinating about the response to women’s studies’ proprietary claims to intersectionality is black feminist theory’s own proprietary claims to the analytic. The subject of debate, then, becomes who truly owns intersectionality, who gets to claim the term as their property.

The labor of reiterating and emphasizing intersectionality’s rootedness in black feminist thought is a critical response to women’s studies and its imagined “appropriation” (a term I will discuss later in this chapter) of black feminist scholarship. It is also a practice of black feminist holding on, a corrective claim that retells intersectionality’s history in an ostensibly accurate way, one that honors the analytic’s location in black feminism and its intimate connection to black women’s intellectual labor. It is through corrective labor that defensiveness garners its affective and political charge; it offers the promise of speaking on behalf of black women, black women’s intellectual production, and black feminism in the face of critical practice that is imagined to efface black women. Thus, black feminist origin stories counter a circulating (institutionalized) feminist origin story with a counter-origin story, one that emphasizes the analytic’s “subaltern and liminal origins.”[21]

While origin stories are a strategy for countering women’s studies’ narratives about the analytic, they often produce their own sets of debates and contests. Indeed, black feminists also consider intersectionality’s history among themselves, often posing the question: Who invented the term “intersectionality”? As I mentioned in the introduction, within black feminism, origin stories are often amplified in disciplinary-specific ways. Black feminist social scientists, for example, regularly perform intersectional origin stories through Patricia Hill Collins’s work on the “matrix of domination,” while black feminist humanists often perform these origin stories through Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality.[22] Still others perform their origin stories through engagement with the historical underpinnings of intersectionality, emphasizing earlier intersectional innovators like the Combahee River Collective, Deborah King, Frances Beal, and/or Anna Julia Cooper. Oftentimes these appeals to earlier black feminist scholarship seek to locate intersectionality’s arrival in a moment that long predated the arrival of anti-essentialist feminism or to complicate the narrative that anti-essentialist feminism only arrived in the 1970s. Importantly, all these origin stories perform political work—they take complicated intellectual genealogies and reduce them to a single story, engaging in corrective labor that rewrites circulating narratives about intersectionality. They emphasize that “intersectional ideas have repeatedly been misconstrued or treated reductively” and thus historicize the analytic while asking why “intersectionality concepts have had to be reiterated for well over a century.”[23]

Even as these debates unfold in disciplinarily specific ways, it is crucial to note that Crenshaw’s work has remained a touchstone. Some black feminist scholarly work describes her two articles as the site where intersectionality “was introduced and later elaborated.”[24] For example, Devon Carbado notes that Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing” article “introduced what would become an enormously influential theory—intersectionality,” Vrushali Patil describes intersectionality as “delineated by Kimberle Crenshaw and elaborated by subsequent authors,” and Barbara Tomlinson notes that the analytic was “emanating” from Crenshaw’s work.[25] In other words, a substantial part of the labor of black feminist origin stories is to center Crenshaw, to insist on her fundamental centrality to intersectionality’s intellectual genealogy, and to emphasize her role as creator of the analytic. According to this rich body of scholarship, Crenshaw’s articles are intersectionality’s urtexts, and Crenshaw is intersectionality’s creator.

Yet other black feminist work seeks to challenge and to correct the centrality of Crenshaw to intersectional histories. Collins, for example, upends the “stock” intersectional origin stories that emphasize Crenshaw because, in those accounts, “Crenshaw was Columbus. . . . She came back from the native lands from far, far away with the gift of intersectionality. Wow, she brought us a present!”[26] For Collins, prevailing narratives of intersectionality’s origins obscure the analytics true birthplace: social movements and activism. In their collaborative work on intersectionality, Collins and Bilge emphasize that intersectionality has undergirded black feminist practice for generations, including the work of Frances Beal, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Toni Cade Bambara, and the Combahee River Collective. According to this counter-origin story, one attentive to intersectionality’s long historical roots, intersectionality was always present in black feminist work, particularly black feminist activist work, even if was not named as such. This impulse toward historicizing intersectionality is not to capture the variety of kinds of intellectual and political labor black feminists have engaged in but instead to emphasize that black feminists have done intersectionality for decades. Yet this historical narrative—one that emphasizes intersectionality’s long presence—has another effect, which is to suggest that all black feminist intellectual and political work has always been intersectional.

My reading of these widely circulating, albeit disciplinary-specific, competing black feminist origin stories presents a different account of debates over intersectionality’s histories than Robyn Wiegman’s work, which argues that black feminist engagements with intersectionality’s genealogies break “with the general habits of feminist critical practice, which routinely confer on the namer much more than citational status and rarely posit a scholar’s articulation of a term in the lower register that 'coinage’ infers.”[27] Wiegman suggests that black feminist work on intersectionality “refuses the lure of the signature in favor of a history of collective critical and political endeavor.”[28] The insistence on citing scholars before Crenshaw is treated as indicative of a (radical?) refusal of the singular, a critical practice that relishes the collective and disrupts the logic of “coinage.” Yet, I argue that black feminist defensive work too rarely “refuses the lure of the signature,” even as black feminist scholarship is divided over whether the analytic originated with Crenshaw, Collins, Higginbotham, Combahee, or Cooper, and too often is seduced by the narrative of singularity. While some black feminist scholars locate intersectionality before Crenshaw, the preoccupation with locating intersectionality in a singular moment, and the ongoing battles over who coined it, reflect the profound “lure” of the origin narrative, particularly in the context of the intersectionality wars. Insisting on intersectionality’s “correct” origins and its long-standing practice is an effort to carefully guard the analytic from abuse.

Ultimately, if origin stories offer a single narrative that performs its own elisions, they also participate in—rather than critically disrupt—the intersectionality wars. In their insistence on correcting feminist narratives by insisting on intersectionality’s roots in the bodies of black women, they continue the battle over ownership and territoriality that plagues these wars, rather than critically interrogating how and why women’s studies has “laid claim” to intersectionality, and examining when, how, and why intersectionality has come to have value for women’s studies. These questions engender a critical shift within black feminist debates; rather than insisting on correct citational practices and “accurate” genealogies, they ask us to consider how and why citing intersectionality became the gold standard of feminist work, and even to consider what it is we mean when we talk about intersectionality and its value.


Undergirding the debate about the “whitening” of intersectionality is a broader claim: that intersectionality is terrain that has been taken over— colonized—by (white) women’s studies. Black feminist scholars regularly mobilize language like “gentrification,” “appropriation,” “commodificiation,” and “colonization” to describe how intersectionality “travels” in troubling ways. The intersectionality wars are often waged through attempts to highlight—and police—intersectionality’s “appropriations.” These scholars insist on reading the analytic’s movements across disciplinary borders, and its movement to the center of women’s studies, as evidence of misuse, wrongful circulation, and theft. If intersectionality has been taken—or, perhaps in the language of these scholars, stolen—then the task of black feminism is to expose the theft and to reclaim proper ownership of the analytic. The language of “appropriation” and “commodification” performs this exposure and reveals the necessity of a black feminist reclamation of the analytic. For example, Alexander-Floyd warns, “Barely a decade into the new millennium, a new wave of raced-gendered occultic commodification is afoot, one focusing not on black female subjectivity per se, but on the concept of intersectionality.”[29] Alexander-Floyd’s insights—linking intersectionality’s circulation to a form of “occultic commodification”—are a point of departure not simply for considering intersectionality’s current iterations in women’s studies but also for uncovering the feelings that intersectionality’s institutionalization engenders in black feminist theory and in black feminists. If intersectionality has been commodified, it is to suggest that the analytic, the result of intellectual labor, has been imbued with value, and that it has been rendered a product for sale (or for theft) in the marketplace of ideas. Here, intersectionality comes to stand in for black women—both of which are sites of magical value and incessantly devalued. It is this paradox, what Rachel Lee terms the space of “fetishized marginality,” that the language of appropriation underscores.[30]

Feminist scholarship pointing to problems of commodification often highlights how intersectionality’s circulation allows scholars to pretend to engage in intersectional labor. Rachel E. Luft and Jane Ward, for example, write: “When not joined to intersectional practice, intersectional intonations function as a kind of credentialing, an appropriation used to mask an anti-intersectional orientation. . . . [T]he language of intersectionality can serve to inoculate against charges of racism. It distracts from the speaker’s resistance to the struggle for racial justice, like other liberal and/or colorblind disclaimers. A generation and more ago, the primary intersectional error was omission. Today it is joined by appropriation, and the failure is one of justice, of commitment to feminist, racial, economic, and sexual social transformation.”[31] Like Bilge, Luft and Ward advance a historical argument: if, in feminism’s past, intersectionality emerged to remedy “omission,” an inattention to women of color, in feminism’s present, intersectionality has been “appropriated,” stripped of radical meaning and instead used to “credential” and to “mask an anti-intersectional orientation.” Similarly, Carastathis bemoans “the appropriation of intersectionality by 'women’s studies’ and ‘feminist theory’ (which remain white-dominated discourses),” arguing that the mobilization of the term “can serve to obscure its origins in Black feminist thought.”[32] In other words, intersectionality is used to disguise, to cover, and to “mask” “white-dominated discourses.” Intersectionality not only is severed from its “true” origins but also is used to undermine its very project.

While commodification is one rhetorical device through which defensiveness is ethically mobilized, colonization is another. The language of colonization, often paired with commodification, positions intersectionality as a territory that has been wrongfully, problematically, and even violently taken by outsiders. Bilge writes, “Intersectionality, originally focused on transformative and counter-hegemonic knowledge production and radical politics of social justice, has been commodified and colonized for neoliberal regimes.”[33] Here, Bilge is engaged in an origin story (intersectionality once was radical and “transformative” and has been stripped of its political edge) and a story about wrongful possession, but she is also engaged in a story about theft, about the reclamation of the analytic by outsiders. In this act of colonization, intersectionality paradoxically works to enable scholars who are not “actually” performing intersectional work to make intersectional claims, or to disguise their work in the guise of intersectionality, all the while maintaining the status quo. Colonization allows scholars to lay claim to intersectionality, and the idea of virtuous feminist labor that attaches to intersectionality, without actually performing the demanding work of intersectional work. The language of colonization also points to the necessary decolonial labor of black feminist theory. To return intersectionality to black feminists, and to black women, is to effectively undo long-standing practices of feminist colonialism. It is, then, a practice of justice.

Yet the language of appropriation leaves two central questions unanswered. First, it is unclear how “appropriation” is different than the “travel” or migration of theories. Intellectual ideas circulate; of course, their circulation is made possible by structures that confer value on certain concepts and devalue others, by the institutional and geographic contexts in which ideas emerge. But this work has yet to distinguish appropriation from the variety of uses to which any theory will be put by scholars of differing theoretical and political traditions. Second, where this scholarship succeeds is in its rigorous display that the capacity to call one’s work intersectional is a claim to value, hence the ways that scholars who perform a variety of forms of theorizing have attempted to make use of the term “intersectional” to describe their work. However, this body of scholarship has yet to clearly reveal—and then dismantle—the system of value that aligns “intersectional” with “good feminist work,” that presumes that intersectional scholarship is politically virtuous. Instead, it reinvests in intersectionality’s value by attempting to limit who can rightfully access the analytic.

I have carefully mapped the terrain of the intersectionality wars, revealing that while they seem to be waged over origin stories and accounts of appropriation, they are undergirded by a common and compelling narrative. This is a story of villains (critics) and saviors (black feminists). The intensity of the intersectionality wars is made possible because of the affective pitch of this story, and at stake in the intersectionality wars is black feminist labor to speak for black feminist theory, to speak for black women’s intellectual labor, to speak for black women. This “speaking for” takes the form of advocating for intersectionality in the face of myriad challenges levied at the analytic.

Intersectionality's Critics

The remainder of this chapter turns to the figure of the critic, who is represented as both ubiquitous and destructive, relentlessly attacking intersectionality in precisely the moment that the analytic has achieved “success” and interdisciplinary cache.[34] To be clear, my interest in carefully tracing how the term “critic” circulates in black feminist scholarship is not to imply that there are no criticisms of intersectionality. Indeed, there are a number of “critiques” of the analytic that have circulated in scholarly literature across the humanities and social sciences, ranging from a sense that the analytic is too focused on the race/gender intersection, to the notion that the analytic is tethered to fixity rather than motion, to the idea that it relies on precisely the categories it could—and should—disrupt.[35] The emergence of so-called post-intersectionality, especially in the context of the legal academy, suggests that a number of scholars have raised important questions about intersectionality and its applicability and have imagined refashioning intersectionality to unleash its utility and analytic power.[36]

I also read the black feminist preoccupation with the critic as apart from scholarly engagement with intersectionality’s institutionalization. For example, Maria Carbin and Sara Edenheim note that intersectionality “has moved from being a sign of threat and conflict to (white) feminism to a consensus-creating signifier that not only made the concept successful but also enabled an institutionalization of a liberal, ‘all-inclusive’ feminism based on a denial of power as constitutive for all subjects.”[37] Their insight centered on intersectionality’s “consensus-creating” status invites rigorous feminist engagement with how and why intersectionality has come to occupy the center of US women’s studies (and, according to them, European women’s studies as well). My interest is in something different: not in a set of critical queries posed about intersectionality and its “successes” but in how the critic has emerged as a singular figure who is imagined to be both outside of intersectionality and destructive to the analytic.

What marks the critic? What are her critical practices? The critic, according to black feminist scholarship, is marked by her “cavalier treatment” of intersectionality and by the production of work that is “damaging to feminist antisubordination scholarship and activism.”[38] The critic’s work is destructive precisely because it is “insipid, apolitical, one dimensional, anodyne.”[39] If the critic is engaged in a violent act, she is also involved in a trendy practice, since critique has become “all the rage.”[40] As May argues, “Intersectionality critiques have become something of their own genre—a form so flourishing, at times it seems critique has become a primary means of taking up the concept and its literatures.”[41] Critique thrives, then, because of institutional politics that value dissent more than generative critical practice; intersectionality’s critics, then, are careerist. As Tomlinson notes, “Rhetorical misrepresentations of intersectionality emerge in part from professional pressures, reward structures, and credentialing mechanisms. Scholars are eager to publish. Displacing and supplanting previous knowledge conforms to the structures of professional reward. Scholars may exaggerate criticisms to draw on the prestige of the appearance of novelty and innovation in ways that are destructive rather than constructive and competitive rather than contributive.”[42] Rather than posing important questions about intersectionality and its limits, the critic’s queries about intersectionality are motivated by an unrelenting willingness to yield to the demands of the corporate university. While the critic’s work is “produced under the dispassionate guise of theoretical disagreement,” it actually “broadsides against black feminist theorizing.”[43] Critique is not only oppositional to intersectionality but oppositional to the project of black feminism more broadly.

While black feminists have carefully pointed out the ubiquity of critiques, there has been considerably less care in naming the critics who supposedly proffer and circulate these critiques. For example, Tomlinson regularly names “the critic,” describing the myriad forms of violent work this subject performs:

Critics may argue, for example, that intersectionality should be set free from the identities of the marginalized women of color who originated it. Critics may claim that intersectionality has not yet revealed as much as it ought to about identities or has not examined the most important identities, one’s own identity, enough identities, too many identities, or identities in a complex enough way (Staunæs 2003; Prins 2006; Taylor, Hines, and Casey 2011). They may assume that intersectionality is legitimated by an individual’s conscious awareness and balancing of individual aspects of identity rather than revealing structures of power (Carastathis 2008; Weston 2011). In consequence, critics may assume, rather than argue, that eliminating subordination is no longer necessary or no longer a feminist goal (Hancock 2007a; Nash 2008), treating intersectionality’s originating interest in structural power as readily disposable and self-evidently no longer of concern. Critics may even argue as if intersectionality’s critique of structural power interferes with its more important use for developing general theories of identity (Prins 2006; Nash 2008).[44]

I linger in two moments in Tomlinson’s description of the critic’s varied and dangerous labor—first, the ubiquity of the term “critics.” Critics are presumed to be monolithic in their labor; all critics (who are named in clustered parenthetical citation to collapse any distinction or variation in their work and to shore up a vision of the monolithic and dangerous critic) perform the same intellectual and political work. Indeed, all critics seem to perform all of the labor that Tomlinson references: effectively undermining intersectionality’s antisubordination efforts and ensuring intersectionality’s vulnerability.

Second, though “critics” are mentioned in parenthetical citations, it is often unclear how they perform the labor they are alleged to engage in, and which critics engage in which problematic practices. Instead, the reader encounters a list of critics’ names that conjures the ubiquity of all of the problematic work critics perform. Take, for example, the contention that “critics may assume, rather than argue, that eliminating subordination is no longer necessary or no longer a feminist goal.” How do the critics parenthetically cited perform that work? Do we do it in the same way? Through what kind of work have we ventured that the task of antisubordination is over? How do critics “assume” rather than “argue” this claim? The practice of parenthetical citations, which clusters scholars whose work on intersectionality is actually quite complex and varied, secures the notion of an intersectionality under siege, vulnerable to the all-encompassing labor of critics.

While Tomlinson’s analysis produces the critic as ubiquitous through a citational practice that collapses differences among scholarly projects, May’s work presents the critic’s labor as so odious that any feminist scholar or activist would have to reject it. She notes that critique can “feel remedial in nature, even quasi-Eugenic.”[45] Indeed, she argues that many of the ways that intersectionality has been critiqued “evoke the hyper-surveillance and micro-aggressions faced by women of color in the culture at large but also in the academy.”[46] As is the case with Tomlinson’s account, absent from this analysis is precisely what these critiques are and who is proffering them. Yet the notion of critique as a practice that bolsters and enforces “hypersurveillance” and racist “micro-aggressions” necessarily requires the reader to reject critique and to align herself with black feminist attempts to safeguard the analytic. Similarly, May notes, “Intersectionality turns up regularly in the critical literatures as akin to a destructive, unruly Sapphire figure (who needs to be tamed/taken down); a theoretically unsophisticated concept (while, at the same time, often lauded as experience’s poster child); a dated idea in need of a makeover; or a deficient body of thought in need of a remedial/eugenic cure.”[47] In May’s account, critiques of intersectionality are deeply racist, transforming the analytic into an “unruly Sapphire figure” in need of disciplining. This account operates on the reader’s “political libido” by enlisting the reader to recognize the deeply racialized work of critiquing intersectionality.

Finally, some “pro-intersectionality” scholars insist that critiques of intersectionality are so commonplace, so “standard,” that they need not be cited at all. Devon Carbado, for example, examines “standard criticisms” of intersectionality that permeate feminist conversations about intersectionality. This list includes the following:

1 Intersectionality is only or largely about Black women, or only about race and gender.
2 Intersectionality is an identitarian framework.
3 Intersectionality is a static theory that does not capture the dynamic and contingent processes of identity formation.
4 Intersectionality is overly invested in subjects.
5 Intersectionality has traveled as far as it can go, or there is nothing more the theory can teach us.
6 Intersectionality should be replaced by or at least applied in conjunction with [fill in the blank].[48]

The only “critique” that warrants engagement with the work of a specific scholar is the sixth, about which Carbado notes:

This brings me to the final criticism, which is not a criticism at all but rather a suggestion (against the backdrop of the preceding criticisms) that scholars should replace intersectionality with, or at least apply the theory alongside, some alternative framework. Among the candidates that advocates of this view have marshaled to perform this work are “cosynthesis” (Kwan 1997); “inter-connectivity” (Valdes 1995, 26); “multidimensionality” (Valdes 1998; Hutchinson 1999, 9; Mutua 2006b, 370); and, most recently, “assemblages” (Puar 2007). Proponents of these theories implicitly and sometimes explicitly suggest that each has the inherent ability to do something—discursively and substantively—that intersectionality inherently cannot do or does considerably less well.[49]

Carbado’s approach to describing intersectionality’s critique—simply listing a set of widely circulating criticisms without reference to specific scholars— suggests that these criticisms are so familiar that they are simply truisms. If each “criticism” references a rich body of debate within the field of intersectionality studies, Carbado elides those debates, instead presenting each as a way in which intersectionality is undone by critics.

Though these scholars offer varied descriptions of critique, all have positioned their scholarship as a way of protecting intersectionality from the dangerous and destructive task of the critic, as a project of speaking on behalf of intersectionality. In other words, these texts perform the prevailing narrative that marks black feminist theoretical engagement, one marked by a problematic villain who systematically undoes intersectionality, often with questionable intellectual motives. In this account, the critic is ubiquitous, omnipresent, powerful, and dangerous, and the task of black feminist theory is to rescue (something I take up more in the next chapter).

Yet, despite the contention that the critic is ubiquitous, that intersectionality is quite literally under siege, the texts share a lack of specificity about the figure of the critic as each presumes the critics’ omnipresence yet refuses to name specific critics, or to attach particular critical labor to particular scholars. There is, though, one critic who is named repeatedly in black feminist scholarship that guards intersectionality: Jasbir Puar. Puar is often figured in both scholarly and popular work as the paradigmatic critic of intersectionality.[50] Carastathis, for example, treats Puar’s work as “the most influential critique of intersectionality,” and Patrick Grzanka calls Puar one of “intersectionality’s most committed critics.”[51] In his cogent analysis of intersectionality and black feminism, James Bliss describes Puar’s scholarly contributions as critiques:

Over the past decade, Jasbir Puar has offered a field-defining series of critiques of intersectionality through her explication of assemblage theory. . . . Puar critiques intersectionality as, first, anachronistically located in and of regimes of discipline; second, collusive with the post-9/11 national security state; and, finally, regressively attached to identity. . . . [M]y interest lies in what falls outside of Puar’s description of her critique of intersectionality: namely, an anxiety that manifests as hostility toward the project of a radical Black feminism. What critical readers of Puar have caught in her several interventions on intersectionality is a tendency to align Black feminism with state violence generally, and the post-9/11 US imperial project specifically, something far different from an anxiety about the political stakes of leaving intersectionality behind. . . . While not at all limited to Puar, it is this animating desire to displace Black women and Black feminist theorizing that troubles the turn to assemblage theory.[52]

Here, Puar’s engagement with assemblage as an alternative conception of theorizing relationality, subjectivity, and sensation is imagined less as a generative intervention and more as a practice of unsettling intersectionality. Indeed, in Bliss’s retelling of Puar’s contributions, Puar is figured as largely invested in dismantling intersectionality, a project that “manifests as hostility toward the project of a radical Black feminism.” Similarly, Tiffany Lethabo King reveals that Puar’s work is “one of the most well-circulated critiques in the humanities” and notes that “without trying to, Puar’s non-post-intersectional critique is immensely effective at encouraging people to consider transcending and moving past intersectionality.”[53] Puar is not only the analytic’s key critic but also foundational to a larger devaluation of intersectionality.

I attend to scholars’ preoccupation with Puar as critic not as part of a project of rescuing Puar from the title of “critic” but to interrogate both what it means that her work has come to stand for a set of practices that undermine intersectionality, that her name has come to signal myriad scholarly attempts to unsettle intersectionality, and what it means that the critic is imagined to be a ubiquitous figure, and yet the only critic regularly cited is Puar. While some insist that attention is given to Puar because she has offered, in Amy L. Brandzel’s words, “one of the most thorough critiques of intersectionality,” my provocations here are designed to ask about the institutional politics that have made it such that Puar’s work stands for a critique of intersectionality.[54] What is it about both Puar and black feminist theory that has enabled the notion of Puar as the critic to circulate and to flourish? What role does Puar—as paradigmatic critic—play in enabling the intersectionality wars to flourish?

Puar’s status in the literature on intersectionality as the critic is particularly surprising because of her own uneasiness surrounding intersectionality, and her desire to think anew about relationality in ways that intersectionality may not (or may!) be able to accommodate. Indeed, it is crucial to read Puar’s engagement with intersectionality twice—first in Terrorist Assemblages and then, later, in “’I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess.’” Terrorist Assemblages ends by setting assemblage, the analytic Puar champions, against intersectionality. Puar writes:

As opposed to an intersectional model of identity, which presumes that components—race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, age, religion— are separable analytics and can thus be disassembled, an assemblage is more attuned to interwoven forces that merge and dissipate time, space, and body against linearity, coherency, and permanency. . . .We can think of intersectionality as a hermeneutic of positionality that seeks to account for locality, specificity, placement, junctions. As a tool of diversity management and a mantra of liberal multiculturalism, intersectionality colludes with the disciplinary apparatus of the state—census, demography, racial profiling, surveillance—in that “difference” is encased within a structural container that simply wishes the messiness of identity into a formulaic grid.[55]

Here, Puar offers an account of intersectionality that underscores its collusion—or potential collusion—with the state, the fact that it is (or can be) enmeshed with logics of counting, numeracy, measurement, and fixity.

In “I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess,’” though, Puar carefully traces her ambivalence about how intersectionality has come to be deployed in the space of institutionalized women’s studies. She writes, “But what the method of intersectionality is most predominantly used to qualify is the specific ‘difference’ of ‘women of color,’ a category that has now become, I would argue, simultaneously emptied of specific meaning on the one hand and overdetermined in its deployment on the other. In this usage, intersectionality always produces an Other, and that Other is always a Woman Of Color (woc), who must invariably be shown to be resistant, subversive, or articulating a grievance.”[56] The critical questions she poses about intersectionality and its usages center on its dominance in women’s studies, its place as the field’s prevailing method, and the fact that questioning intersectionality results in precisely what has happened to Puar, the placement of the theorist (and her frameworks) as “traitorous.” Here, what Puar performs is less critique than a critical inquiry surrounding intersectionality’s circulation and institutionalization.

Why, then, are Puar’s ambivalent engagements with intersectionality’s racial and institutional politics forgotten in the service of representing her work exclusively as damning critique? How can we make sense of how a scholar’s ideas change, shift, transform, and are presented differently? In other words, how can we track the evolution or shift of Puar’s work on intersectionality from Terrorist Assemblages to “Cyborg” with a deep recognition of the fact that our collective scholarly endeavors are rooted in larger disciplinary conversations that might result in different presentations in our ideas or shifts in our thinking? While my endeavor here can only be speculative, it is worth noting that one of intersectionality’s only named critics—and the analytic’s imagined preeminent critic—is not black and is often positioned as either a nonblack feminist, an antiblack feminist, or a queer theorist (rather than a feminist). The practice of reinscribing Puar as intersectionality’s quintessential critic, then, has the potential effect of shoring up the notion that intersectionality and “black woman” are synonymous, and that intersectionality’s critics are outsiders both to the analytic and to black feminism. Here, I want to linger in a consideration of the fact that Puar’s status as critic—as the critic—is secured and sutured through both her body and her imagined identity. In so doing, I trace how a potent “critique” of intersectionality might be argued to flourish precisely because it was articulated by a nonblack woman of color feminist, and I ask how black feminists have constructed Puar as the paradigmatic critic because of her imagined status as an outsider to black feminism (a status that is conferred not simply because of her scholarship but because of certain readings of her imagined identity).

My consideration of Puar’s status as an outsider to black feminism unfolds alongside how my own work gets described as “critique.” Our respective “critical” projects are differently described, circulated, and received in the field. While some of my earlier work, particularly my article “Rethinking Intersectionality,” is described as a “critique” of intersectionality, it is largely understood as emerging in and through an affection for black feminism (and for black women’s intellectual production), a fact that might be tethered to my own scholarly work but also to the ongoing collapses between racially marked subjects’ bodies and their objects of study. When, for example, Brittney Cooper describes my work, she situates it as a black feminist critique of intersectionality, one that, then, emerges from “inside” the imagined location where intersectionality was born.[57] My location as a black feminist, and as a black woman (and, of course, these two identities are often collapsed), means that my critiques of intersectionality are imagined as practices of love and affection rather than hostility, and are thus treated with a kind of generosity.

I understand my own treatment—one marked by a sense that the work I do is animated by an investment in black feminism—as markedly different than how Puar’s ambivalent engagement with intersectionality is received. Indeed, the notion of Puar as an outsider to black feminism has been echoed by larger critiques of her work as antiblack; one critique of Terrorist Assemblages noted that the book has an “anxious intent to sidestep blackness,” positioning Puar as a stranger to the intellectual and political projects of black studies. Egbert Alejandro Martina notes, “For Puar, intersectionality is a stand-in for an unacceptable radical Black feminist politics. Beneath the terrorist is the queer, and beneath the queer is the Black, a mode of being too monstrous even for Puar to pretend to encounter in good faith,” and suggests that underpinning Puar’s questions about intersectionality is a larger “hostility” toward black feminism.[58] Puar’s status as nonblack feminist, as someone outside of the tradition from which intersectionality emerged, can deepen the conception of intersectionality’s critiques as particularly problematic because they are born beyond the critical practice of black feminism and are motivated by hostility and animus.

If Puar’s critiques are imagined to emerge from a nonlocation in black feminism, she is also often positioned as an outsider to the feminist project itself, with her roots in queer theory underscored. Lynne Huffer, for example, notes that Puar “shifts her focus away from intersectionality to queer assemblage... In doing so, she directly challenges the unquestioned stability of the subject implicit in feminist intersectionality theory.”[59] Rather than reify an imagined distinction between feminist theory and queer theory, I ask how Puar’s imagined location within queer theory, a tradition that is still often described as outside of feminist theory, amplifies the conception of her “critique” as formed by an outsider, and thus makes intersectionality particularly and problematically vulnerable. Puar is treated as not just a queer theorist but also a queer of color theorist, part of a vibrant cohort of interdisciplinary scholars who have considered “social formations as the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class, with particular interest in how those formations correspond with and diverge from nationalist ideals and practices.”[60] If black queer studies “throws shade on the meanings of queer,” queer of color studies, in Jafari Allen’s words, “takes seriously Third World or women of color feminist politics of, for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Chrystos, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Norma Alarcon, Chela Sandoval, and others who consistently made connections in their local scholarship, artistry, and activism, with state practices and sites within and beyond their own ethnic or racial borders.”[61] Indeed, queer of color critique has insisted on the centrality of woman of color feminisms—particularly black feminism—to queer theory, and thus emphatically placed scholars like Lorde, Anzaldúa, and Moraga in the queer canon. Roderick Ferguson and Grace Hong write: “Much of what we now call women of color feminism’ can be seen as queer of color critique, insofar as these texts consistently situate sexuality as constitutive of race and gender. . . . Women of color feminism and queer of color critique reveal the ways in which racialized communities are not homogeneous but instead have always policed and preserved the difference between those who are able to conform to categories of normativity, respectability, and value, and those who are forcibly excluded from such categories.”[62] For Ferguson and Hong, women of color feminists—including Lorde—are queer theorists whose work indexes a commitment to “set about creating something else to be,” and whose theoretical contributions examine the intimate relationship among race, gender, and sexuality.[63] Yet it is crucial to underscore that queer of color theory often claims its intimacy with black feminist theory through a retrospective gaze rather than through engagement with contemporary black feminist scholarship. Queer of color theory’s citational trajectory is primarily tethered to black feminist work from the 1970s and early 1980s, and it sutures the (queer of color) present to an earlier moment in black feminism’s past, not to black feminism’s unfolding present. Indeed, queer of color critique often moves sideways to intersectionality, insistently not engaging it and embracing seemingly anti-identitarian analytics generated by black feminists “earlier” than Crenshaw and intersectionality. By sideways, I refer to a citational practice that does not reject intersectionality or its “inaugural” scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, but instead adopts some of intersectionality’s core investments while disidentifying with intersectionality itself, and while situating other scholars—particularly Lorde—as intersectionality’s early (or perhaps earliest) practitioners. I term this “reading sideways” because I argue that this strategy produces a new genealogy that neither rejects nor accepts intersectionality but instead sidesteps it entirely. Reading sideways, then, is a performance of ambivalence made manifest through silence. Puar is located in a queer of color tradition that embraces black feminism, but only black feminist work from an earlier historical era than intersectionality. It is this location as a queer of color scholar, as part of a tradition that has sidestepped intersectionality, that also allows black feminists to position Puar as an outsider to intersectionality, a critic who might be easily represented as having an investment in rendering intersectionality vulnerable.

In revealing that the critic is rarely named—and, when she is, is so often Puar—I seek to suggest that black feminists produce the critic rather than expose the critic. Indeed, while the critic is regularly described by black feminists as an omnipresent threat, she is actually one scholar who is relentlessly cast as an outsider to intersectionality and to black feminist theory, a framing of her work that requires a refusal to engage her scholarship on intersectionality’s complex institutional locations and racial politics. The figure of the critic is, then, an imaginative projection of black feminist defensiveness, a figure that animates and justifies the defensive affect even as that figure is a fantasy, rather than an actual threat. The constant production of the threatening critic makes the labor—the moral thrust—of black feminism abundantly clear: to rescue black feminist territory, to protect it from these outsiders who neither understand nor value the intellectual and political labor of black feminism.

Love Letter from a Critic

This chapter began with my anxieties about being hailed as a critic. It has unfolded as a rumination on the figure of the critic, an imaginative villainous projection who I argue is central to the intersectionality wars, and thus animates the defensive territoriality that I term “holding on,” the structure of feeling that undergirds contemporary US black feminism. The critic is the outsider, the hostile stranger, who seeks to encroach on territory, on property, on hard-earned intellectual turf that is not hers. But why would the practice of constructing the critic be appealing to black feminists? Why repeatedly produce the figure of the critic, and why participate in the intersectionality wars?

Part of my contention is that the figure of critic locks black feminism into the logic of what Alison Peipmeier terms “besiegement.” She writes, “As WGS practitioners debate the focus of the field, recount its history, or plan for its future, they present themselves as fighters and the discipline of WGS as under fire—besieged.”[64] For Peipmeier, besiegement affects how women’s studies narrates itself, producing a story in which feminist scholars located in women’s studies are “academic outlaws, or at least outsiders.” Yet as Peipmeier begins to probe this narrative, she asks how much of an outsider women’s studies can be when its classes regularly fill, when it often has core and affiliated faculty, and when it hosts myriad events on campus. How can an institutionalized field retain its claim to outsiderness when it is so deeply embedded in the university? And why do scholars laboring in women’s studies retain a deep commitment to naming their marginalization when they have often secured institutional recognition, visibility, and resources? Indeed, Peipmeier reveals that the narrative of besiegement is necessary to women’s studies’ conception of itself even as that account no longer always captures women’s studies’ institutional situatedness. Following Peipmeier’s work, I ask how the figure of the critic, and the narratives of “besiegement” it can produce, is an alluring one for black feminism, particularly when the critic is imagined primarily as Puar, a figure represented as outside of the boundaries of black feminism and perhaps outside of the boundaries of feminism more broadly. The image of a vulnerable intersectionality, a literal space that needs to be protected from colonizers and gentrifiers, positions black feminism as not only an intellectual and political tradition but also an ethical intervention that speaks on behalf of black women, in the service of protecting their intellectual labor. There is nothing more virtuous, then, than protecting intersectionality from the critic. Yet this same alluring narrative locks black feminism into a problematic location in women’s studies, one that makes the theoretical tradition primarily oriented toward protecting its turf. Indeed, the kind of paranoid readings advanced by black feminist practitioners invested in exposing the critic play out in the context of a field that continues to offer black feminist theory an incredibly limited role in the intellectual and political project of the field—a corrective. If the tradition is designed merely to correct, rather than to exist as its own vibrant field of debate, then it is logical that black feminists find themselves mired in the impasse of the present, one marked by the intersectionality wars that again attempt to tether black feminism to one intellectual product—intersectionality—and to reduce and collapse “black woman,” “black feminism,” and “intersectionality.”

As I indicated in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, I enter this debate not merely as a scholar invested in a robust black feminist theory but also as a scholar whose name is often included in the list of “critics.” This chapter, then, has for me prompted a desire not to upend the category of the critic, but to spend time with the villain in black feminism’s prevailing narrative, to sit with the imagined colonizer, appropriator, gentrifier, and critic. Indeed, this chapter is a rumination on what black feminists can garner from sitting with, sitting beside, this disavowed figure. My investigation has prompted in me a desire to envision a black feminism that can love the critic and can interpret the critic as engaged in a loving practice rather than a malicious one, a generative act rather than a destructive one. Rather than attempting to rescue intersectionality from imagined outsiders who purport to damage and defang the analytic, I invite us to treat the critic as giving us an offering, a way of picturing black feminism’s relationship with intersectionality and with the field of women’s studies otherwise. The critic’s offering might even include compelling black feminist theory to come to terms with its own narrative about a dangerous outsider determined to undermine our theoretical innovations.

What is it that the critic might offer? And how might black feminists cultivate the critic, effectively seeing what she offers not as a threatening gesture, but as a kind of love letter, one that, in Lauren Berlant’s words, offers us a chance to imagine “becoming different”?[65] Part of the critic’s offering is a rigorous engagement with the psychic structure of our tradition, a structure that has empowered us to locate danger everywhere. The critic’s offering also includes compelling black feminist theory to come to terms with our prevailing story about a dangerous outsider determined to undermine our theoretical innovations, and our current preoccupation with narrativizing our field around a sense of our besiegement. The critic also offers us a chance to refuse the lure of territoriality, a form of imagined agency that always brings us to an impasse rather than liberating us from the destructive intersectionality wars. Instead, what might be possible if we began to imagine new forms of agency, and perhaps even embraced—rather than relentlessly rejecting—the vulnerability that intersectionality’s movements can make some of us feel. Part of this offering is also compelling a critical attention to how we, black feminists, construct who is “inside” and “outside” the boundaries of our own creative, political, and intellectual tradition, pushing us to interrogate how our anticaptivity project has become its own boundary-policing exercise. Ultimately, what the critic sends us is not a threatening world-ending message, but an invitation to embrace the possibility of other ways to be and feel black feminist.


[1] Patrick Grzanka, ed., Intersectionality: A Foundations and Frontiers Reader (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014), 301.

[2] Jasbir Puar, “‘I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics,” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics, http:// (accessed May 3, 2016).

[3] Vivian May, Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries (New York: Routledge, 2015), 6, 8.

[4] I am grateful to Sarah Jane Cervenak for this tremendously useful phrasing.

[5] See 2014 American Studies Association Conference Program. Though it is beyond the scope of this project, I do think it is worth at least posing the question of the place of feminism in American studies, and the relationship of women’s studies to American studies. In posing this question, I think alongside Samantha Pinto, James Bliss, Emily Owens, Mairead Sullivan, and Sara Matthiesen. Together, we were part of a panel at the 2017 American Studies Association conference, “Untimely Objects: Feminism and/in/ Eclipsed by the ASA.” The description (authored by Pinto) noted,

At first, it may sound ridiculous to bring up feminism in antagonism to the present day ASA. One might argue that nearly every member would identify themselves as feminist scholars, even, especially a series of the organization’s top officers— many of whom have positions in Women’s and Gender Studies departments. But is “feminism” claimed as a central intellectual and disciplinary project of the ASA? In particular, how might the ASA’S intellectual projects reproduce some of the object wars of women’s and gender studies of the past 25 years—conversations that frequently reproduce “women,” “lesbian,” and even “feminism” as passe subjects of study, ones that the most politically radical scholars are already “over” or “beyond.” Feminism may not be denied, so much as it appears always already eclipsed, and hence incorporated into the assumed history of the field but not prominent at its center as such, which focuses on theories of queer, post-humanist, transnational, and ethnic studies of the neoliberal state/order. In this roundtable panel, several scholars of feminist, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies reflect on the field’s engagement with ASA, as well as the differential development of the space of the annual conference in each field. What are the different protocols of these fields, and how do they (over)determine the intellectual and academic subjects that seem to define their discrete intellectual projects?

[6] Sharon Holland notes, “Intersectionality has become something that black feminists ‘do’ by default. For a time in the 1980s, it didn’t matter if you were working on ‘intersectionality’ directly or not; if you appeared to be a black feminist, you were assumed to be working on it. By the same token, a nod to intersectionality in any feminist conference paper was assumed to represent a whole host of theorists in exchange for actual engagement.” Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 123.

[7] See Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter, Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[8] Robyn Wiegman, Object Lessons (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 240.

[9] Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 192.

[10] Brittney Cooper, “Intersectionality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, ed. Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 395.

[11] Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd, “Disappearing Acts: Reclaiming Intersectionality in the Social Sciences in a Post-Black Feminist Era,” Feminist Formations 24.1 (2012): 11.

[12] Alexander-Floyd, “Disappearing Acts,” 2.

[13] Bilge, “Whitening Intersectionality: Evanescence of Race in Intersectionality Scholarship,” _of_Race_in_Intersectionality_Scholarship (accessed March 1, 2017) (emphasis added).

[14] Crunk Feminist Collective, “The R-Word: Why ‘Rigorous’ Is the New Black,” Crunk Feminist Collective, November 17, 2010, /2010/11/17/the-r-word-why-rigorous-is-the-new-black/.

[15] Bilge, “Whitening Intersectionality.”

[16] Bilge, “Whitening Intersectionality.”

[17] Bilge, “Whitening Intersectionality.”

[18] Bilge, “Whitening Intersectionality.”

[19] Anna Carastathis, “The Concept of Intersectionality in Feminist Theory,” Philosophy Compass 9.5 (2014): 304.

[20] Jean Ait Belkhir, “The ‘Johnny’s Story’: Founder of the Race, Gender, and Class Journal,” in The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, and Gender, ed. Michele Tracy Berger and Kathleen Guidroz (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 303.

[21] Rachel E. Luft and Jane Ward, “Toward an Intersectionality Just Out of Reach: Confronting Challenges to Intersectional Practice,” in Perceiving Gender Locally, Globally, and Intersectionally, ed. Vasilikie Demos and Marcia Texler Segal (Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2009), 12.

[22] See Ange-Marie Hancock, “Empirical Intersectionality: A Tale of Two Approaches,” UC Irvine Law Review 3.2 (2010): 259-96.

[23] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 11.

[24] Carastathis, “The Concept of Intersectionality in Feminist Theory,” 305.

[25] Devon Carbado, “Colorblind Intersectionality,” Signs 38.4 (2013): 811; Vrushali Patil, “From Patriarchy to Intersectionality: A Transnational Feminist Assessment of How Far We’ve Really Come,” Signs 38.4 (2013): 852; Barbara Tomlinson, “To Tell the Truth and Not Get Trapped: Desire, Distance, and Intersectionality at the Scene of Argument,” Signs 38.4 (2013): 993.

[26] Patricia Hill Collins, “Sharpening Intersectionality’s Critical Edge,” Social Theory Forum keynote address, (accessed June 24, 2015).

[27] Wiegman, Object Lessons, 244.

[28] Wiegman, Object Lessons, 244.

[29] Alexander-Floyd, “Disappearing Acts,” 2.

[30] Rachel Fee, “Notes from the (Non)Field: Teaching and Theorizing Women of Color,” Meridians 1.1 (2000): 91.

[31] Fuft and Ward, “Toward an Intersectionality Just Out of Reach,” 17.

[32] Carastathis, “The Concept of Intersectionality in Feminist Theory,” 304.

[33] Bilge, “Whitening Intersectionality” (emphasis added).

[34] On intersectionality’s “success,” Brittney Cooper notes, “As a conceptual and analytic tool for thinking about operations of power, intersectionality remains one of the most useful and expansive paradigms we have” (Cooper, “Intersectionality,” 405). Kathy Davis’s widely cited article “Intersectionality as Buzzword” also attempts to explore intersectionality’s “success.”

[35] See, for example, the “post-intersectionality” scholarship emerging out of the legal academy, including Robert S. Chang and Jerome McCristal Culp Jr., “After Intersectionality” UMKC Law Review 71.2 (2002): 485-91; Peter Kwan, “Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, Class, Gender and Sexual Orientation: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Cosynthesis of Categories,” Hastings Law Journal 48 (1997): 1257-92; Darren Lenard Hutchinson, “Out Yet Unseen: A Racial Critique of Gay and Lesbian Legal Theory and Political Discourse,” Connecticut Law Review 29 (1997): 561-645.

[36] Moreover, a number of scholars—including most notably Tiffany Lethabo King— have persuasively revealed the ways that intersectionality gets tethered to the past, so that to invest in the analytic is to invest in something seen as identitarian and thus as always already passe. King’s analysis of the way this circulates in an academic milieu that privileges and fetishizes the new suggests that critiques of intersectionality are fundamentally rooted in a university that privileges newness and that presumes that black female bodies are historical—or, perhaps more aptly, old-fashioned, and wedded to a concept of injury that always offers up black female flesh as evidence of a kind of wound.

[37] Maria Carbin and Sara Edenheim, “The Intersectional Turn: A Dream of a Common Language?,” European Journal of Womens Studies 20.3 (2013): 234.

[38] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 107; Tomlinson, “To Tell the Truth and Not Get Trapped,” 993.

[39] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 112.

[40] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 98.

[41] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 98.

[42] Tomlinson, “To Tell the Truth and Not Get Trapped,” 997.

[43] James Bliss, “Black Leminism Out of Place,” Signs 41.4 (2016): 731.

[44] Tomlinson, “To Tell the Truth and Not Get Trapped,” 999.

[45] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 101.

[46] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 103.

[47] May, Pursuing Intersectionality, 106.

[48] Carbado, “Colorblind Intersectionality,” 812.

[49] Carbado, “Colorblind Intersectionality,” 815.

[50] The notion of Jasbir Puar as intersectionality’s key critic is not only articulated in academic circles. A recent New Yorker article on the politics of campus life also treated Puar as critic. Nathan Heller writes, “The Rutgers scholar Jasbir K. Puar charges that intersectionality posits people whose attributes—race, class, gender, etc.—are ‘separable analytics,’ like Legos that can be snapped apart, when in truth most identities operate more like the night sky: we see meaningful shapes by picking out some stairs and ignoring others, and these imagined pictures can change all the time.” See Nathan Heller, “The Big Uneasy,” New Yorker, May 30, 2016.

[51] Carastathis, “The Concept of Intersectionality in Feminist Theory,” 149; Grzanka, Intersectionality, xvii.

[52] Bliss, “Black Feminism Out of Place,” 734.

[53] Tiffany Lethabo King, “Post-identitarian and Post-intersectional Anxiety in the Neoliberal Corporate University,” Feminist Formations 27.3 (2015): 119.

[54] Amy L. Brandzel, Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative (Urbana- Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 22.

[55] Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 212.

[56] Puar, “‘I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess.’”

[57] See Cooper, referring to my work, for example, as “the work of black feminist theorist Jennifer Nash” (emphasis added). Cooper, “Intersectionality,” 391.

[58] See Egbert Alejandro Martina, “More on Puar and Intersectionality,” Processed Lives, (accessed March 1, 2017).

[59] Lynn Huffer, Are the Lips a Grave? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 17

[60] Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 149.

[61] Jafari S. Allen, “Black/Queer/Diaspora at the Current Conjuncture,” GLQ 18.2-3 (2012): 230.

[62] Roderick Ferguson and Grace Hong, eds., Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.

[63] Ferguson, Aberrations in Black, 52.

[64] Alison Peipmeier, “Besiegement,” in Rethinking Womens and Gender Studies, ed. Catherine M. Orr and Ann Braithwaite (New York: Routledge, 2011), 119.

[65] Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt, “No One Is Sovereign in Love: A Conversation between Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt,” No More Potlucks, http://nomorepotlucks .org/site/no-one-is-sovereign-in-love-a-conversation-between-lauren-berlant-and-michael-hardt/ (accessed March 31, 2017).

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Arts + Justice

Approaching justice from the perspective of arts and culture enables us to attend to its affective, embodied, social, and political dimensions, thus bringing together a range of cross-disciplinary dialogues.


In this contemporary world of violent protests, internecine war, cries for food and peace, in which whole desert cities are thrown up to shelter the dispossessed, abandoned, terrified populations running for their lives and the breath of their children, what are we (the so-called civilized) to do?…This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art. (Toni Morrison, 2015)

Justice, a capacious conceptual category, impacts lives in quotidian and spectacular ways, influencing political institutions, impacting social relations, and inscribing bodies with deeply ingrained habits of thought. Approaching justice from the perspective of arts and culture enables us to attend to its affective, embodied, social, and political dimensions, thus bringing together a range of cross-disciplinary dialogues. While Arts and Justice began with a concentrated effort to coalesce around the particular crises of mass incarceration, privacy and surveillance, border politics, and aesthetics of protests that haunt a broken democracy, we already invite future conversations that exceed the police state, such as on climate justice, ecofeminism, and indigenous praxis. Out of these injustices, we hope to materialize a more just future. 

The Arts + Justice Colloquy explores the relationship between the arts and justice using the arts to understand the symbiotic cultural life of law: culture shapes law and laws determine cultural practices. The arts are frequently celebrated for their capacity to evoke empathy and activate ethical responsibility. While artists have turned to forms of cultural expression to express a sense of voicelessness, this colloquy cautions against romantic celebrations of arts as panacea for social suffering. Cultural productions not only function as an antidote to injustice but can entrench dominant ideologies. Conversely, we are critical of an almost reflexive suspicion of law, which excoriates law as an a priori terrain of injustice, perpetuating existing discriminations. Collectively, these offerings imagine the legal terrain as culturally constituted, suffused with its own practices, and as a powerful force shaping our subjectivity, social relations, and political institutions. Releasing law from text and realizing it in performance provides a kinetic, dynamic mode of thinking about legal scripts activated in embodied and aesthetic form. 

Scholarship on justice in the humanities has tended to cluster around "law and literature" formulations, which, while generative, are also limited in their purview. The focus on law-as-text underestimates the ways in which legal statutes determine and script live, embodied action; law awaits its full realization when it is released from text and realized in performance. To this end, performance provides a kinetic and dynamic mode of thinking about legal scripts that are activated in performance. These offerings expand beyond the frame to include exciting new work in performance studies, art history, music and sound studies, affect theory, critical race theory, new materialism, environmental humanities and queer theory.  

These offerings reflect the guiding thoughts of the Arts + Justice Research Workshop  as sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center from 2020 to 2022 and coordinated by Professor Jisha Menon and graduate student Anna Jayne Kimmel, alongside an infinite team of supporting students, faculty, staff and community members. The series has been co-sponsored by: the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, and the Stanford Arts Institute.

Morrison, Toni. "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear." The Nation. March 23, 2015. Web.

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