Intersectional thinking emerged as a provocation in contemporary feminist studies as a political and analytic concept, a sensibility or disposition, a heuristic for thinking in supple and strategic ways about social categories and relations of power in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or” (see Crenshaw 1989, 1991; Collins 1991). But in contemporary feminist critiques of intersectionality, it is frequently misrepresented, portrayed as fixed when it is fluid and flexible, and accused of creating the very categories and social relations it exposes and challenges. Few theories are as consistently misrepresented. The compelling conception of intersectionality proposed by Black feminists and other feminist scholars of color has a long—often ignored—history in scholarship and activism. In the 1970s and 1980s it represented a dramatic challenge to a white feminism that framed gender as the primary axis of oppression and white women as the primary representatives of feminism. Rather than welcoming this critique as a necessary tool for crafting a more capacious feminist practice, many white feminists perceived the emergence of intersectionality as a loss of power and prestige for themselves. This shock—seeming to lose control of a previously undifferentiated yet implicitly white feminism—continued to echo in the 1990s as white feminist scholars engaged in a series of interventions to counter and appropriate intersectionality. These interventions have become part of a chain of misrepresentations that continue to reverberate today through their citation, reiteration, and imitation (see Tomlinson 2013a, 2018).
In practice, intersectionality informs, guides, and shapes advanced research in substantive and generative ways. But the relentless citational attack on intersectionality has made the term itself seem like damaged goods, often disavowed. These practices attempt to both diminish the luster of intersectionality and co-opt its prestige in the service of a revanchist white feminism. Such efforts are not the product of individual choices and errors but rather a shared social discourse pervading feminist scholarship, a discourse that is caught in continual reinscriptions of these arguments rather than reflecting on, reformulating, and moving beyond them. As a result, the valuable feminist tool of intersectional inquiry experiences a kind of stasis that needs to be overcome by transforming feminist tools of reading and writing. Critical feminist studies cannot allow arguments about multidimensionality and race to congeal around strategies that reinforce white women's symbolic domination of the field. In this article I examine two attempts to distort intersectionality through the trope of the vise of geometry.