The concept of intersectionality is a recent and important contribution to the societal conversation on race and racial reconciliation. Join Sean and Scott as they talk with Baylor University professor, Dr. Elizabeth Corey, for her assessment of the intersectionality movement that is sweeping university campuses across the US.




Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics and dean of the faculty at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.

Sean McDowell: I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell, professional of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here today with Dr. Elizabeth Corey, who is a professor in the honors college at Baylor University. In fact, she directs the honors program within the honors college there at Baylor University. I met Elizabeth in the summer of 2018 at the Acton University and heard a lecture of hers on race and intersectionality. And at almost the moment after you finished, Elizabeth, I thought, "We have got to get you on the podcast to talk about this." We're really delighted to have you with us. And so thanks so much for coming on with us.

Elizabeth Corey: Well, thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.

Scott Rae: You've written a lot about diversity and race. And intersectionality is sort of the newest trend in the discussion on race and diversity on college campuses. But before we get to intersectionality, let's go back just a little bit more to the 30,000 foot level. You write in several places about two competing frameworks in which the discussion on race and diversity is viewed in the university across the country today. What are those two frameworks? And how are they different?

Elizabeth Corey: That's a good question to start with. I am actually borrowing from moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, or Height, there's some dispute about how to say his name, who has written a lot about these issues. And he has proposed a dichotomy between two ideal kinds of universities, two ideal types, really. And he calls these two truth diversity and ... Sorry. Truth university and social justice university. And truth university is the more or less the traditional understanding of a university. It finds its roots in [inaudible 00:02:15] defensive viewpoint diversity and on liberty, which I will come back to probably as we talk. While social justice university originates in a more Marxist understanding about power and oppression.

Elizabeth Corey: Truth university depends on a vigorous and unfettered exchange of ideas. The university that is called social justice university by contrast, aims primarily at protecting and eventually, if we're lucky, liberating victims. So diversity means something very different at each university. Truth university, I'm going to just draw out a few points of comparison. Truth university assumes primarily that the activity of scholarship is open to anybody who wants to engage in it, regardless of whether that person is a man or woman, black, white, gay straight, regardless of any of those considerations. And it also assumes that the outcome of such scholarship could be verifiable by anyone, regardless of where that person stands in terms of these categories.

Elizabeth Corey: By contrast, social justice university understands diversity is not so much different viewpoints. You'll hear this discussed as viewpoints, or not as viewpoint diversity in a social justice university. Diversity and social justice university consists of an equitable representation of different groups of people, for instance, women, African Americans, Hispanic, and any other designated group that an institution wants to name. So the aim is not ... You're not necessarily replicating the proportions of women and minorities in the population, but it is to cultivate a critical mass of people whose race and sex distinguish them from the white male majority. The diversity there is much more a kind of ... I won't say it's a quota system because diversity advocates and social justice university say it's not a quota system. But it is to increase radically the number of traditionally underrepresented groups in the academy, both in terms of students and in terms of faculty.

Scott Rae: I suspect some of our listeners might be wondering. Why can't or why shouldn't a university be committed to both truth and social justice at the same time? Seemed to me that that scriptures actually call us to be committed to both of those things.

Elizabeth Corey: Right. I think that would be right that we are called to be observant of both those goods. I mean, truth is not something we want to throw over, nor is social justice. But when I'm using social justice and following Jonathan Haidt here, it depends on a certain understanding of social justice. And the understanding that he's building on is what I would say is the common secular understanding of social justice as based in categories of oppression and power. For instance, if social justice is the notion that oppression structures nearly all aspects of our lives, and we have to address it and correct it first and foremost, then disinterested study, or truth, just can't exist because the old fashioned pursuit of truth is just power masquerading as disinterest.

Elizabeth Corey: We may talk about critical race theory over the course of this interview. But if we don't, that's something that critical race theory assumes as a kind of starting point, that social justice consists in righting past wrongs, and it has to do with these categories of power and oppression. Let me just move from there to say, in the extreme social justice understanding, all academic subjects have to be understood as existing in the service of eliminating inequality, not just racial, legal, moral, but gender based, sexual orientation based and so on. And you can see this going on in all kinds of academic inquiry, not just sociology or political science, but also history, medieval studies, other things of that sort.

Elizabeth Corey: All these subjects come to be in a structure by questions that deal with power and oppression. Now if by contrast we said, "Okay. Social justice is understood in the traditional Christian notion that we ought to treat all people with equal respect as moral beings," then of course it can and always has existed in truth university. But I'm trying to make a distinction that the modern understanding of social justice is not exactly the one that perhaps we as Christians have always understood as social justice.

Scott Rae: I think that's a particularly helpful distinction to make there. You make a plea in a number of things that you've written for which you call a more moderate diversity. What would that look like?

Elizabeth Corey: I think it would fundamentally avoid the extremes of either the ideal type of social justice university, where everything is about power and oppression. Or on the other hand, truth university, where we are all at all times disinterested. Now as I'm saying, those are ideal types. And we all know that they don't exist in pure form in the world. But there is a sense in which a kind of moderate diversity might be able to bridge the gap between these two understandings. Let me say really more what I mean about that. Here in my work at Baylor, I've observed that there's a very large and quiet, generally, group of moderates among my colleagues, people who are more or less in possession of a common sense view of diversity, where you could imagine, okay, in a seminar room you don't necessarily want everyone to hold the same view.

Elizabeth Corey: I teach American constitutional law very often. And if I have a class where everyone has the same political view, the conversation is rather boring. So this kind of diversity, especially a viewpoint, but sometimes also a race and gender, can yield a much more fruitful conversation than a conversation where everyone has already arrived at a kind of orthodoxy. For example, women will contribute goods and ideas that an all male conversation might not produce. And it's often the interaction between the men and women that produce it.

Elizabeth Corey: Just to give you one other example from my own personal experience, I teach a class in great texts to engineers. And it often happens that the classes are 90% male. The dynamic in that class is sometimes not as good as the dynamic of the class where the sexes are more evenly distributed. I'm not quite sure why that is, but it is the case that there's a kind of understanding of diversity of men and women, race, and a viewpoint that combines to make certainly a classroom a better place. This is not to say we need to have a black professor, a woman professor, in every department in a certain number. But it is to say that these different viewpoints may actually contribute some goods to the intellectual experience of students and faculty alike.

Sean McDowell: You're kind of leading us naturally to the topic of intersectionality, which has become such an important term I want you to define for us. But first, let me throw a question out there. Of all the topics you could speak and write on, why this one? Aren't you kind of stepping on a hornet's nest, so to speak?

Elizabeth Corey: Absolutely. I was not planning to get into this in any way. It arose out of an experience I had at Baylor. About two years ago we had a provost who came to Baylor and decided that we were insufficiently diverse at the university. So he began to have a series of town hall meetings. Well, I didn't know the first thing about diversity. And I had heard the term intellectual diversity, so I thought he was talking about the kind of diversity that would come with, say, a mode of reading a certain subject. For instance, in political science you often have a [inaudible 00:10:49] in reading of certain core political texts. And I thought diversity would be a good, so that we don't all go down the same route in terms of the way we read text. And I thought that's what these town halls were going to be about.

Elizabeth Corey: Well, it turned out I was completely wrong and hadn't understood this at all. It was very much about pursuing the kind of social justice diversity model that I've been talking about here. We don't have enough women. We don't have enough African Americans. We don't have enough Hispanics. And we need to bring those people into the conversation. And we actually need to privilege them over the people who have traditionally been in the academy, like white men especially, white women to some extent, but certainly white men. And so it was a town hall meeting at Baylor that got me into this. And I began to try to think it through and realize what a contentious issue it is.

Sean McDowell: Will you define for us what's meant by intersectionality and how it's connected to the cultural discussions going on right now about race?

Elizabeth Corey: Sure. I think the best way to describe it is to just talk about where it originated. It is a relatively recent creation. It's created in 1989 by a black feminist scholar, a woman by the name of Kimberlé Crenshaw. And she wrote an article, a seminal article that everyone now quotes that makes a case for treating race and gender not as separate legal categories, but as engendering a new combined category.

Elizabeth Corey: For example, while a woman might claim discrimination on the basis of sex, and a black man might claim it on the basis of race, neither sex nor race alone can capture the discrimination endured by a black woman, which seems intuitively correct. And she illustrates this by means of a couple legal cases. One of them, the easiest to understand I think, is this one called Degraffenreid versus General Motors. And in this case, a group of five black women sued General Motors for discrimination. And here are the circumstances. GM had not hired black women prior to 1964. And then it dismissed all its black female employees after 1970 on the basis of seniority. And so the group of black women, that plaintiffs, claimed that the harm they suffered couldn't be captured by suing only as women because GM could point out that it had hired women, white women, prior to 1964, and that it retained them after 1970.

Elizabeth Corey: And then the plaintiffs also turned around and said, "Well, we're willing to sue on the basis of race alone," because their discrimination was not merely racial, but was a result of their being both disadvantaged as women and as African Americans. And the court would have none of it, and they rejected the claim. The court rejected the claim and said, "This would be a very dangerous precedent to set." I'll read you a quote from the court. It said, "The creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora's box." In other words, they said, "If we allow these kind of combined identities to be a legal category, then we are potentially raising an infinite number of claims against an infinite number of companies."

Elizabeth Corey: But Crenshaw, I do think there's something. There's quite a lot to this. Crenshaw points out that the black women couldn't really sue on the basis of either of these characteristics alone because they did constitute a class who were disadvantaged by two different situations. And so this is the origin of the metaphor of intersectionality. Maybe the easiest way to explain intersectionality is to use a metaphor that she uses, which is ... That Crenshaw uses, she analogizes intersectionality to traffic in an intersection. And she says that discrimination, like traffic in an intersection, can flow in any direction. And so if an accident were to happen, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions, and sometimes from all of them, or any combination of them. So she says if a black woman is harmed because she's in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. That's the basic idea of intersectionality.

Scott Rae: It sounds like it's almost like double dipping in terms of discrimination.

Elizabeth Corey: It is. It is. But here's the thing. It's not simply that you're disadvantaged in a certain way, and then on top of that you're disadvantaged in another way. Intersectionality posits that the combination of those two forms of discrimination can sort of combine to form yet a new kind of discrimination. So there has been 30 years of work, and I am not an expert in this work. But I've become aware of it, where people are using intersectionality as a way of really getting at all sorts of aspects of identity and all sorts of aspects of discrimination. And Crenshaw's talking about gender, or sex, and race. But now it's expanded infinitely to include all sorts of gender identity, class, a number of other characteristics that are now included in the intersectional conversation.

Scott Rae: It's not hard to see how the number of categories here could increase exponentially.

Elizabeth Corey: And that is what is happening.

Scott Rae: Well, but are there some positive aspects of intersectionality that as a culture we need to hear about?

Elizabeth Corey: Yeah. Well, I think the one really positive thing is that intersectionality does recognize if we don't take it to sort of an ideological extreme, it does recognize that the experiences that conditions a person's life are uniquely combine-able, so that where we used to talk about people in terms of, all women think X, or all African Americans think X. Intersectionality says, "Well, it is a different thing to be an African American man, than it is to be an African American woman," and here's how gender or sex makes that difference between the two classes. There's clearly something right about that. And it also is a way of considering if you're in conversation with someone, and you're trying to be charitable and a good listener, and you can realize, okay, the things that are motivating them are not a simple question of one disadvantage. But this person is disadvantaged in this way and perhaps also disadvantaged in another way. And these things combine to form a combination of disadvantages.

Elizabeth Corey: Now I guess the danger there, though, is that it can be taken to an extreme that is very much politically divisive. It tends to separate, so I'm actually not answering your question about the positive aspect. I'm turning a little bit again to the negative.

Scott Rae: That was my next question.

Elizabeth Corey: That's your next question.

Scott Rae: That's a nice transition.

Elizabeth Corey: It does tend to separate us into more discreet groups with more and more discreet and sometimes opposing interest. And in this adversarial way, it allows for the silencing of groups that are not privileged. Now ironically, the not privileged groups these days tend to be above all, white men. And I was at a meeting recently where I heard someone say, "Well, white men have had their say for all these years. It is time for them to shut up and listen to other people." Well, okay, that may be the case for some white men, but to make these kinds of blanket statements is in a way to engage in the same kind of behavior that got us into this position in the first place, to say that all white men, because of their privilege, are incapable of speaking into the conversation. Seems to me to be a real danger.

Elizabeth Corey: The other thing I would emphasize here is that intersectionality tends to accord thoughts and positions to people by virtue of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. And these may or may not be thoughts or positions those people actually hold. There's a kind of, I would almost say a determinism in being identified as a member of a class. I don't mean economic class. I mean group identity. I would object, and I know many people who would also object to the notion that they hold their views, or they are who they are because of their membership in a class. As a woman, or as a black man, you must hold this view. And they'll say, "No. I really don't." And that kind of determinism to me is a real danger. And it's something I would want to fight against.

Sean McDowell: Elizabeth, you describe intersectionality as, "A quasi religious gnostic movement." Now I had to stop and pause in my mind and read that a few times. But then you said something that really was interesting to me. You said it has the same appeal as all religions do. What do you mean by that description? And how does intersectionality have the same appeal as say, a more traditional religion?

Elizabeth Corey: Well, I said that in an article that was published in the magazine First Things, called First Church of Intersectionality. And I was describing it in the terms of a political philosopher from the 20th century by the name of Eric Voegelin. Some of your listeners may know him. And he had the idea that gnostic movements were, in a certain sense, an attempt to save people from the discomfort they felt, really at being human, things that couldn't be taken away from ... Let's say this way, things that are uncomfortable about a human condition that cannot be eliminated, and nevertheless will endure. And so Voegelin, and I'll just tell you a little bit about what he thought, he thought that people were inclined toward gnosticism and that the gnostics had a certain number of characteristics.

Elizabeth Corey: A gnostic is dissatisfied with the situation, believes the world is not well organized, thinks that salvation from the evils of the world is possible, and thinks that, and this could have some overlap with modern progressivism, that the order of being will be changed in a historical process, which comes about through human effort. And the gnostic looks for a prophet who shares saving knowledge about how to make a transformation happen. Those are those characteristics that Voegelin describes.

Elizabeth Corey: In a certain sense, I called it a religious movement because I saw at a conference at Notre Dame, these exact patterns happening. It was actually a conference on intersectionality, and the people at the conference were very dissatisfied with their positions in society. And they hoped for change through a kind of transformation of the historical process and upending of all traditional ways of organizing and of being, an upending of the university. And they were looking for someone to lead them through this. The movement as a whole is very much not an academic movement in any real way. It was a kind of activist movement that required a certain amount of sort of religious investment. In that sense, I saw the parallels between, perhaps not the most positive understanding of religion, but a kind of religious, almost a mania that we've got to change things. And we've got to do it now. One of the speakers who spoke at this conference was going to lead us through this. Those are the ways in which I saw it as a quasi religious movement.

Sean McDowell: Can you give me some perspective on how to make sense of this tension? I was having coffee not long ago with a gay black man. And I just asked him. I said, "I've asked people who are gay about their experience, people who are black about their experience. But what does it mean in your experience to see the world through these two lenses?" And I was genuinely interested, and we had a great conversation. But then I look at the larger level and cultural question. You've described how at the heart of this social justice movement is kind of this Marxist approach that just says, "It's through revolution. It's through power. It's through silencing people to get these ideas across." Is the solution both bottom up and top down? Or how do we make sense of this personal listening, building relationship with these larger cultural tensions that are taking place where they say, "I'm not willing to listen. You don't get a voice. I want to silence you in a sense."

Elizabeth Corey: Yeah. That is the question. And I don't have a good answer for it. I mean, in my own life, thinking through it, obviously like you, I actually am very interested in hearing from people about their experiences from their particular perspective. So I would've been definitely sort of a fly on the wall if I could've been at your conversation. How does this man view the world? It sounds to me like he also listened to you. There was not an adversarial relationship. It appears to me this is a problem with a kind of macro view of politics, though, that things lose their personal character and become ideological movements, so that even as I can recognize, and you can recognize that intersectionality, there's definitely something right about it, and that it's describing individual human experiences in ways that are unique to that individual.

Elizabeth Corey: When it's taken up as a political weapon, then it's more destructive than it is constructive. The other thing I think that's a danger here is that it's one of these things that once you kind of sign on or become part of this world, it's never again questioned. The people who have embraced intersectionality as the way they view the world can't understand that there are other ways of looking at the world. For example, in the university, I have often made a case that we ought to try to understand the old idea of disinterest. What does it mean to be a disinterested scholar? The intersectionality folks would say, "You cannot be disinterested. Everything about you is interest, and is political, and is at heart political. And the notion that you could be disinterested is just an illusion."

Elizabeth Corey: Once you've become a true believer in say, intersectionality, you're unable to imagine that there are alternative ways of viewing the world. And I think that's a real danger in the academy, especially in certain fields that have fully embraced this.

Scott Rae: To call intersectionality a world view is actually accurate, you would say.

Elizabeth Corey: I do think it is because, again, it structures itself in terms of oppression, levels of oppression, and levels of power. And the whole world is then seen through that lens. Everything becomes about relative social privilege, and disadvantage.

Scott Rae: Now let me see if I can summarize this. But there's just so much to think about here. We really appreciate you being so clear about this. But I think for our listeners, let me just see if I can summarize this. On the surface, the idea of intersectionality seems to make some sense. Like Sean had mentioned the experience of a gay man and a black man would both be different than the experience of a gay black man. There's something to the idea. But it's the intersectionality movement that smuggles in a world view that may have elements to it that we would find troubling or problematic.

Elizabeth Corey: I think that's right. Let me give a parallel example. It'll get me in just as much trouble as probably talking about the diversity and intersectionality. It's the idea of the me too movement. I guess you're getting the sense that I have a problem with any movement that is so broad and all encompassing, because in the me too movement, like intersectionality, there's a very good insight that women ought to be treated well, and men ought not to be predators and evil. No one would disagree with that. But in the making of this insight into a movement, what it's doing is making every man into a predator in a way that I think is absolutely ridiculous and unrealistic.

Elizabeth Corey: Now people will argue with the way I'm characterizing the me too movement. But there is something about anything that takes a really good and true insight, and then wants to make it into the way one views the world that is dangerous. I see that happening in both those movements.

Scott Rae: I wonder if it might also be parallel to the black lives matter movement.

Elizabeth Corey: Absolutely.

Scott Rae: There's something to the idea that black lives matter. But they're distinguished between the affirmation and the movement, so maybe to distinguish between the intersectionality phenomena and the intersectionality movement might be one way of making that distinction and to be careful about what the movement actually smuggles in, in terms of ... Well, maybe not even smuggles in. Maybe it's openly brought in, in terms of a world view.

Elizabeth Corey: Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. I don't really have anything to add to that. I think you've summarized it. I think you've summarized it well.

Scott Rae: Well, Elizabeth, there is so much more to talk about here. If we could have the luxury of having you on again, we would sure appreciate it.

Elizabeth Corey: I'd be happy to do that.

Scott Rae: Sean and I both appreciate how clear and just how articulate you've been in describing what I think may be a somewhat new phenomena to many of our listeners. I think you've done us a great service here, and we're very appreciative of it.

Elizabeth Corey: Well, thank you so much.

Scott Rae: We'd be delighted to have you on again in the future.

Elizabeth Corey: Wonderful. Thanks for having me.

Scott Rae: You bet. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Elizabeth Corey, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's stimulating conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much.

View Episode Transcript