Hill Collins, P., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Malden: Polity Press ISBN 978-0-7456-8448-2.

Hill Collins, P., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Malden: Polity Press ISBN 978-0-7456-8448-2.

Reviewed by Chelsea Jones

Ryerson University

Chelsea [dot] jones [at] ryerson.ca

Ready or not: intersectionality is sweeping across classrooms in largely student-led strokes. Luckily, Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, women who’ve penned texts to the tune of critical inquiry and praxis for years, remind us what intersectionality means and how it emerges in their latest collaboration, Intersectionality. Their book highlights concerns with intersectionality’s institutionalization while simultaneously arguing that many colleges and universities have missed opportunities to connect with the ways students live intersectionally (through jobs, sports, care-roles, and so on) (47). Urging readers away from insincere “diversity” and “cultural competence” claims, they explain that readers with vested interested in education work in contexts where “some forms of diversity remain more desirable than others” and that taking intersectionality seriously means engaging in critical, collaborative, coalition-building work “with people who really are different” (174, 169).

Hill Collins and Bilge make their case for relationality and relational thinking by beginning in the Global South, citing Latinidades as a complex social movement that frames systems as constructing the multi-dimensional aspects of Afro-Brazilian women’s lives (19-25), and later through the anti-sweatshop activism propelled by the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh (142-148). The authors chronicle several iterations of intersectionality as it emerges outside academia: what it has been, what it is, and what it can be. They call on scholars to do more than teach intersectionality as a term “coined” by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, arguing for a history of intersectionality that has a much longer, more intricate reach. “These practices not only routinely neglect the writings and activities of many people who came before Crenshaw, but they also misread the full extent of Crenshaw’s arguments,” the authors explain (83).

Hill Collins and Bilge argue that intersectionality adds layers of complexity to various themes of social inequality, power, relationality, and social justice—which they name as intersectionality’s most contentious arena. “Working for social justice is not a requirement for intersectionality,” they write, “Yet people who are engaged in using intersectionality as an analytic tool and people who see social justice as central rather than as peripheral to their lives are often one in the same” (30). One of the primary goals of their second chapter, “Intersectionality as Critical Inquiry and Praxis,” is to reject the “scholar-activist divide” that has scholars sidelining politics and activists rejecting social theory (32). Their key questions—which envelop capitalism, social protest, and the carceral state among other topics—ask what the inclusion of intersectionality means within the neoliberal university, and if its inclusion suggests that intersectionality has been absorbed without its social justice roots. “Or,” Hill Collins and Bilge ask, “does it reflect the strategic choices of social justice-oriented knowledge projects that have found new ways to survive within an increasingly conservative academy?” (87). One of many possible answers surfaces in a later chapter called “Intersectionality and Identity” where hip-hop becomes a pivotal part of intersectional conversations as the authors assert that intersectionality has to work at “getting the question of identity right” (123). Both higher education and hip-hop are inseparable; both “[face] the same pressures to turn intersectionality into a hot commodity for...consumption” (121).

Hill Collins and Bilge also recall those activists whose work outside social institutions (like business, schools, and governments) represent excluded people inside the same institutions (77). For instance, they argue that if social movements had not fought for inclusion of women and people of colour in higher education, conceptions of intersectionality were unlikely to have emerged in colleges and universities (78). Looking beyond waves of feminism, the authors chronicle intersectionality as a once unnamed phenomenon that acquired its label largely through institutional incorporation in the 1980s and 90s (76-77). In the chapter “Intersectionality’s Global Dispersion,” Hill Collins and Bilge argue that intersectionality expands beyond human rights to encompass civil rights. In a world where human rights violations tend to be categorized as single-issue problems, the authors offer glimpses into UN meeting rooms where intersectionality is gaining ground as a transforming and travelling phenomenon.

Though the book is built on vibrant examples, few are specifically disability related. Of course, that’s the point—thinking intersectionally does not involve reducing conversations to single-issue topics, but instead involves looking at “relationships among seemingly different phenomena” (195). Yet, if it’s mentioned at all, disability often seems the caboose in the oft-repeated list of social divisions at play in any example: race, gender, age, citizenship status, and “others.” Yet, the absence of disability here is not too discouraging. Scholars such as Nirmala Erevelles and Liat Ben-Moshe make appearances in the discussions of interdiscipliniarity, and the authors name disability as a cornerstone for relationality and wider examinations of race, gender, and sexuality (102). As readers we have a choice here to become preoccupied with disability’s low rank on a list of social divisions, or to take up the authors’ task of thinking through identity as transformative coalition work and answering questions of exactly which identities have been central to intersectionality in the past, and which are central now (126). Arguably the text is useful in thinking through how to organize activism, scholarship, and pedagogy in ways that shed light on how dis/ableism, for example, touches us (50).

What becomes clear as Hill Collins and Bilge point toward vulnerabilities and groups they have overlooked is that disability studies is not the only discipline grappling with how and where to position its intersectional analyses both as methodology (as in: how do students, faculty, and scholars build intersectional intentions into their methods?) and identity (as in: where and when did intersectionality hit the field, and how is it reshaping the field?). Tucked into early pages is an explanation on how intersectionality complicates things for those who “are looking for a neat tool to apply; a tidy methodology for intersectional research” (29). Pointing to scholars, practitioners, and activists, the authors seem to understand the desire for a “crisp instructional manual for applying intersectionality” to any field (29). Yet, the inevitability and complexity of intersectionality are precisely the characteristics that must be desired and collaboratively thought through (29).

Where we, as people invested in disability studies, might direct our energies is toward the authors’ concern that intersectionality is becoming detached from social movements and being co-opted by academic politics. Their critique is that contemporary recollections of intersectionality’s history,

...confine themselves to locating a point of origin in the early 1900s within the academy, …and then constructing a straight-line narrative from that point of origin. Intersectionality seemingly didn’t exist until it was discovered by academics and named and legitimated within the academy. Via institutional amnesia that rewrites history, entire categories of people who were central to intersectionality’s inception become erased from the intersectional canon. (85)

So, we might ask: where has disability been erased in intersectionality’s larger narrative(s)? In situating intersectionality amid a broad, active history of social justice, Intersectionality reflects disability studies’ vital exchanges between knowing and doing (191). Launching from Hill Collins and Bilge’s arguments, we can contend that disability studies has long been engaged in the work of writing itself into intersectional histories, and Intersectionality is one tool to provide some context for a wide and complicated vision of the field.

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