The Routledge Companion to Intersectionalities

The Routledge Companion to Intersectionalities


The cover for 'The Routledge Companion to Intersectionalities'.

A lot of people who have seen me read this book have asked me what intersectionality is. The following quote is from Wikipedia:

Intersectionality is a sociological analytical framework for understanding how groups’ and individuals’ social and political identities result in unique combinations of discrimination and privilege. Examples of these factors include gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, height, age, weight and physical appearance. These intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and oppressing.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, known for introducing intersectional theory, stated that seeing things from an intersectional perspective ‘will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender as exclusive or separable.’

This book consists of many different essays from different authors from different parts of the world.

So, what can I, a middle-aged white dude from Sweden learn from this? Well, pretty much everything, as expected: I’ve no real scholarly background and I know I’ve received supposed privilege from having a penis appended to my body.

It took me roughly a year to read this book. It’s big, the information is vast, but don’t let that scare you off. I needed my time to check background information and understand some of the writing.

First, digging into intersectionality requires digging into the fact that first- and second-wave feminism in the Western worlds was construed by mainly white women. Much like myself reading this book, that fact means that some first-hand information simply wasn’t available to ground-breaking women when they started describing ‘women’, in an extremely broad-strokes sense of the word: what Gloria Steinem didn’t know about the problems that Dalit women or even Asian women faced, they simply excluded. This reminds me of Simone Weil who worked in an industry factory for a year so that she could better understand the working class. In this book, a part from Rachel Corbman’s essay, A history of the 1979 Second Sex conference and the afterlives of Audre Lorde, says much:

On September 27, 1979, reporters from numerous feminist newspapers-including Sojourner in Cambridge, New Directions for Women in New Jersey, off our backs in Washington DC, and The Lesbian Tide in Los Angeles-descended on New York University to cover the Second Sex conference. From the beginning, Barbara Macdonald and Cynthia Rich wrote for Sojourner, “it was evident that the conference was in trouble” as they mingled among a crowd of “mostly middle class white women” with their eyes trained on a “panel of seven white women” on the stage.

The book doesn’t focus on a singular orientation in trying to define intersectionality and takes it beyond academic constraints. Some chapters read like speeches by Angela Davis. I’m glad that some authors have tinged their texts with both verve and panache.

As Patricia J. Williams says in the book, after an argument with her sister about the color of the road during a family trip:

The lesson I learned from listening to her wild perceptions is that it really is possible to see things-even the most concrete things simultaneously yet differently; and that seeing simultaneously yet differently is more easily done by two people than one, but that one person can get the hang of it with time and effort.

Jennifer C. Nash and Samantha Pinto, the editors of this book, wrote about individual-cum-collective complexities in the introduction to the book:

In 1982, June Jordan published her searing, self-critical essay “Report from the Bahamas.” Like other women of color’s first-person writing of the time, it emphasizes not just personal experiences of injury at the intersection built by whiteness, but the ways that layered identities create complex, incommensurable experiences and politics of the self as a feminist across time, geography, embodiment, and other crucial axes. Jordan’s “intersectionality”-a term that didn’t exist when Jordan wrote her piece-is unceasing, difficult, and unresolved, as she narrates an imagined conversation between herself and the domestic worker assigned to clean her hotel room:

“Olive” is the name of the Black woman who cleans my hotel room. On my way to the beach I am wondering what “Olive” would say if I told her why I chose The Sheraton British Colonial; if I told her I wanted to swim. I wanted to sleep. I did not want to be harassed by the middle aged waiter, or his nephew; I did not want to be raped by anybody (white or Black) at all and I calculated that my safety as a Black woman alone would best be assured by a multinational hotel corporation. In my experience, the big guys take customer complaints more seriously than the little ones. … I’m pretty sure “Olive” would look at me as though I came from someplace as far away as Brooklyn. Then she’d probably allow herself one indignant query before righteously removing her vacuum cleaner from my room: “and why in the first place you come down you without your husband?” I cannot imagine how I would begin to answer her.

My “rights” and my “freedom” and my “desire” and a slew of other New World values; what would they sound like to this Black woman described on the card atop my hotel bureau as “Olive the Maid.”? … Whose rights? Whose freedom? Whose desire? And why should she give a shit about mine unless I do something, for real, about hers? Jordan speaks from and at the intersection, not as a definitive space of right feeling or fact, but as a calculus that can just as often occlude, can leave out the “problem” of orientations and experiences of the intersection that one cannot see, can choose not to see. She imagines intersectionality, at the moment of her articulation of the situation at hand, to be inadequate as an explanation and yet invaluable in the “different formulation” of the problem of antiracist feminism. She dares, as a Black feminist subject, to come up short, to fail, and to find in that revelation a way to reframe intersectionality’s generative power-as a mode of description not for individual identity but for relation. It won’t save our or her feminism, but it will keep posing the problem of living and being in the world as a feminist who cannot and will not-and a feminism that can never and will never get it right, completely, no matter the analytical and object-oriented promises it desires.

One of the best things about the book is the contention: actions; failures; hopes; revision; critique; and belief that we can, collectively, do better.

I adore some critique against the original, Crenshawian views of intersectionality, which is something that Crenshaw envisioned would happen (any thinking person would expect their ideas to be criticised and, hopefully, improved); the following quote is from Lisa Bowleg’s Beyond intersectional identities: Ten intersectional structural competencies for critical health equity research:

It’s been more than two decades since Crenshaw (1991) explained: “Intersectionality is not being offered here as some new, totalizing theory of identity” (1244). Yet, identity, or in the intersectional formulation, “multiple identities,” remains the identity-based conceptual rut that hobbles many intersectional health equity research projects. As a trained social psychologist, I recognize well that there are many research topics for which an intersectional identity-oriented approach is appropriate. This is not, however, the case with most intersectionality health equity research. Indeed, there are more problems than solutions with framing intersectionality exclusively through the prism of identity or even multiple identities.


Finally, a fourth and more consequential problem with identity-based intersectionality is that it implicitly locates the problem of health inequities within “identities” rather than intersecting oppressive structures and social processes based on those identities. The remedy for racialized health inequities is not to change the “race” of people oppressed by structural racism, it is to dismantle structural racism. Intersectionality quantitative researcher Greta Bauer’s (2014) observation about what’s at stake when health equity researchers prioritize intersectional identities over modifiable social-structural factors is deft: “Without an emphasis on intervenable processes or policies, a quantitative intersectionality [approach] focused purely on intersecting identities or positions would run the risk of continuing to reinforce the intractability of inequity, albeit in a more detailed or nuanced way”.

Speaking of health, I enjoyed reading Kayonne Christy, Dominique Adams-Santos, and Celeste Watkins-Hayes’s Narratives in context: Locating racism and sexism in Black women’s health experiences:

Zuri, a 32-year-old Black Canadian woman, recalled her frustration when her midwife assumed that she was a single Black mother. Nevertheless, she was hesitant to attribute the microaggression to racism: “I don’t know if… I don’t think she was racist. I’m not sure if it was a race comment.” Instead, Zuri speculated that it could be due to differences in upbringing: “I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I said, ‘maybe that’s just how she grew up … maybe she’s just that way.’ I don’t know.”While it is indeed likely that an innocuous assumption shaped Zuri’s interactions with her provider, it is also arguable that race shaped those interactions. That Zuri insisted on an “upbringing” explanation rather than racism, sexism, or the intersection of both, suggests that even when medical racism is present, some Black women may not see it or be reluctant to name it. Indeed, startling Black maternal health outcomes suggest a disconnect between the larger trends and the interpretations of events experienced by Black women like Zuri.

Rita Kaur Dhamoon’s Journeys of intersectionality: Contingency and collision combines the caste system and intersectionality:

Caste is an exclusionary system of ranking people into groups based on spiritual and cultural purity. It is an apartheid system created in Hindu scripture in which Brahmins are at the top of the caste system and have benefit from subjugating those placed at the bottom of the hierarchy, namely Dalits, who are branded “untouchable,” polluted, and impure and segregated in neighborhoods, places of worship, and schools (Soundararajan 2020, n.p.). As a system, caste determines ritualized ideas of labor, intelligence, marriage, and religion. Caste is often (wrongly) taken to be a problem just in South Asia, specifically India where Brahmanism is structured into institutions of rule and control, but it affects more than 260 million people worldwide and travels wherever the Indian diaspora travels, including Western contexts (Soundararajan 2020, n.p.).

When journeying across heterogeneous non-Western contexts, intersectionality literacy and work are consistent with anti-casteist work that focuses on under-examined aspects of intermeshed structural oppression. Some Dalit feminists, such as Kiruba Munusamy (2018), have applied intersectionality thinking to challenge the intermeshed ways that queer Dalit women and Dalit trans people are discriminated against, sexually assaulted, raped, beaten, and brutally murdered because of casteism in present-day India. Munusamy illustrates the interactions between lived experiences of gender, gender identity, caste, colorism, class, religion, and geography in the context of gender and trans violence in India to argue that gender is caste and caste is gender.

Meena Gopal and Sangita Thosar goes further in their analysis of Indian feminisms in their Exploring connections between the street and the classroom in moving through feminist impasses:

One of the many contentious issues that Indian feminists have had to confront and account for has been that of sexual labor. The constant recurrence of this debate with newer entrants engaging with the issue has been a source of unease but also considerable illumination of the lives of women at the margins, while also rendering hope for a politics of solidarity. We elucidate below one such instance in recent times with which both of us authors have engaged, participated in the discussions, understood the several positions of feminists, learned from one another, and continue to do so.

In March 2005, the government of the state of Maharashtra announced a ban on women performing in dance bars,² at first in the entire state and subsequently extended to the bars in the city of Mumbai. The government, through its Home Minister who was also the Deputy Chief Minister, cited the morally corrupting influence of the dance bars as the reason for the ban (Times of India 2005). Overnight, nearly 75,000 women who worked in the bars lost their self-sought livelihoods, and another major consequence was the dissonance among feminists and women’s rights activists along the fault-lines of support for the government’s ban for the reason that the women faced exploitation in the bars at the hands of the owners and clients and opposition to the ban arguing that elimination of these livelihoods was counter-productive and what was needed was protection from exploitation by improvement in the conditions of work along similar jobs within the larger informal economy.³ Complicating the intersections of sexuality and labor, the voices of Dalit-Bahujan feminists who expressed anger and hurt at the support offered to the bar dancers by a section of the women’s movement pointed out that the gesture, even if for protecting livelihoods, was a reinforcement of caste-based occupations through which continued the exploitation of women of lower castes.

This is yet another instance of the discord over sexuality and labor, as Rajeswari Sunder Rajan has noted within the women’s movement in India. Despite numerous voices evident within the spectrum of sexual labor, the bar dancers being one of the most recent, the Indian women’s movement continues to view sexual labor in terms of prostitution, and in terms of the sexual exploitation of women. The entry of these numerous voices over the years has contributed to the prostitution question, that is, “the contemporary debates around women in prostitution, is fraught today because of the acute divide it has created among feminists and between feminists and sex workers, not to mention among others in the field, in India and elsewhere” (Sunder Rajan 2003, 117).

One part of the book is about trans intersectionalities; I like how ‘trans’ is asterisked by the editors:

We include an asterisk after trans to indicate its capacious, flexible, and alternative uses in this volume as a modifier for gender, sexual, geographic, and racial intersections that are difficult to fix in place.

Jules Gill-Peterson, in their Trans of color liberation: An unauthorized history of the future, elegantly paints a picture of how trans people are broad-strokes described in media:

After North Carolina passed HB2 in 2016, the “bathroom bill” that initiated an ongoing and expanding anti-trans legislative assault in the United States, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies published Volume 22, Issue 3 with cover art by Micah Bazant depicting Micky Bradford, a Black trans femme organizer. The back of the issue explains that cover “represents Bradford’s brave and stunning vogue performance on the night of the passage of HB2 in Raleigh.” In the illustration, Bradford poses defiantly before raised Black fists, surrounded by washed out white police figures, over which is written “Southern Trans Resistance is Beautiful.” The choice of this cover image for GLQ, published by Duke University Press out of North Carolina, reads as an avowed political response to HB2: an endorsement of “Southern Trans Resistance” through an iconic moment of Black trans femme publicity confronting the state.

Curiously, however, the cover is also dissociated from the issue, which contains no articles or features about Bradford, or HB2. Bradford’s iconicity and her Black publicity are rendered superficial in the sense that they are reductively literal, stamped on the cover of the issue rather than an aesthetic prompt for the content of its pages.³ The Black trans femme is the symbol of a politics fit for the flagship journal of queer studies without elaboration, apparently not requiring analysis or her own voice beyond one slogan. What the specificities of Black trans femininity, Southern resistance, or Bradford’s political program have to say about HB2 beyond opposition are left to be guessed at.

This allegorical role for the Black trans woman, where she signifies something political and intellectual that she herself is not, is hardly the invention of GLQ.’ The ubiquity of such figural gestures would be macabre to count, though not difficult. The Black trans woman is nearly always in the foreground of left queer and trans thought or cultural production today, yet paradoxically she is also their background. She is hypervisible in the founding texts of queer of color critique, on one end, certifying a radical political imaginary; and she is commodified by the most laughably conservative, assimilationist LGBT Pride platforms every June in corporate hagiographies of Marsha P. Johnson, on the other.” The Black trans woman has been the signal figure of the so-called “trans tipping point,” with actress Laverne Cox’s image serving as an entire culture’s barometer of progress-or its ideological ruse, depending on whom you ask. She is increasingly everywhere, this Black trans woman, and yet her omnipresence seems to be exactly that which forbids her humanity, or forbids her life. “Don’t exist” is the injunction leveled at the Black trans woman, writes Eva Hayward.’ This is the situation of the “trap door” described by Tourmaline, Eric Stanley, and Johanna Burton: racialized trans femininity is overexposed to the inverse extent that its material footholds in the world are effectively shrunk. The two phenomena are indissociable, can be read as While it may be unsurprising that scholars reproduce the broader dynamics of the social world in which they live, that hardly softens the blow considering the claims made by queer and trans studies in the name of Black trans women and trans women of color. How is it that queer and trans studies have sustained the necropolitical fiction that the Black trans woman and trans woman of color are central to their political and intellectual missions despite little proof?”

Put differently, why does the trans woman of color appear as the preface to such intersectional scholarship, rather than its actual content, or author? My contention is that the trans woman of color-so often a synecdochal phrase for a specifically Black trans woman queer and trans studies’ intersectionality, or more precisely as its stand-in. The reasons why, and the many problems this figural substitution generates, concern a grammar forged in the 1970s and the resulting historical imaginary of a representational sphere dominated by American post-Stonewall narratives of emancipation. This chapter critically reads the idealization of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and asks how the project of making them signify queer trans intersectionality might be dismantled in favor of taking seriously trans women of color as authors and practitioners of political, historical, and aesthetic projects in which they are more than iconic cover images.

Anna Mollow’s simply and effectively told Why is “I can’t breathe” disbelieved?: George Floyd, Barbara Dawson, and the intersecting roots of anti-Black violence paints a very clear picture of how Black disabled people are murdered by police. Mollow places puzzle pieces for an audience like myself, one that gasps and says ‘my god’ as we consider how often non-white peoples are systematically slaughtered while they try to cross the street, as we click home something trivial from Amazon: things couldn’t be better for the white oppressor, it really couldn’t.

These essays are, mostly, not here to fuck around. It’s real life, statistics told in taut rhythm, reality; this is not true crime via dipping one’s feet into a murderous spree that happened once; these are stories from today, from events that are explained, detailed, and affected generations and continents of people. Let’s hear a quote from Mollow’s essay:

The criminalization of Black people—that is, the spreading of the lie that Black people are innately predisposed to commit crimes-has long been used to legitimize white supremacy. And this history is inseparable from an interlocking history of ableist oppression. For example, during the heyday of eugenics, it was believed that “criminality” was an inherited trait, most common among people of color and disabled people. Ableism is an ideology based on the assumption that people can and should be sorted into categories of superior and inferior according to their mental and physical abilities; ableism also assumes that, once this sorting has taken place, it is appropriate to reward those who are positioned at the top of ability hierarchies and to punish those presumed to reside at the bottom (Baynton 2001). Thus, a whole range of widely circulated falsehoods about Black peoplefor example, the myths that, as compared to white people, Black people are less “intelligent,” are more prone to developing mental illnesses, and are more likely to experience addictionneed to be understood as inseparably racist and ableist (Bailey and Mobley 2019). The myths are racist because they are routinely invoked as evidence of Black people’s supposed inferiorityand they are ableist because they assume that disabled people are inferior to nondisabled people. After all, why should people (of any race) with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, and addiction be punished with poverty, imprisonment, social stigma, and police violence?

Sarah Banet-Weiser and Zoe Glatt’s Stop treating BLM like Coachella: The branding of intersectionality looks at intersectionality being treated by companies just the same way that Shell and Exxon-Mobil use greenwashing to seem environmentally friendly.

Much as hip-hop has remained subversive in posture while its political core has shriveled, like rotting fruit, into a soundtrack for the crudest mainstream capitalist values, the mainstream iteration of Black identity has, likewise, become something to fill display windows-the artificially ripped and acid-washed trappings thrown on a faceless mannequin. The superficial markers of Black culture have been so successfully co-opted by mainstream culture that our very notion of Black identity has become flattened where it was once double-edged. There’s a sterility where once there was subversiveness; a goal to flatter the white audience where once there was the aim to provoke it.

That’s what I’m talking about: content and style, steeped in anger yet beautiful in its sparsity. There’s a raised fist that makes other people raise their fists. A single voice that engages with humans, one that makes us pay attention and stand up for each other.

This paragraph, from the same authors, is also beautiful and angering:

This is also a moment in which white nationalism has gained a massive and visible following. Indeed, the presence (often mandated) of institutional and corporate “diversity training” has increased exponentially since 2005. In part, this shift in awareness has to do with the hard work that many communities of color have carried out in order to call attention to institutionalized racism, the widening income gaps between white employees and employees of color, and the casually racist environments of most workplaces. But this shift is also, we argue, part of the logic of neoliberalism, a logic that privileges capitalist marketing—including the marketing of diversity—over social justice movements and practice. This capitalist logic is adept at transforming other forms of progressive politics into a marketable commodity as well, and does this by erasing structure and selling self-empowerment.

I need to quote more from their essay as it’s just so fucking good:

Advertising and marketing campaigns that capitalize on these “symbolic structures of diversity” have increasing visibility in the 21st century. Francesca Sobande has coined the term “wokewashing” to describe the various marketing campaigns that draw on feminism, anti-racism, and social justice to market and sell products and brands as “woke.” As Sobande argues, brands make use of [Black social justice activism and intersectional feminism] in the content of marketing that predominantly upholds the neoliberal idea that achievement, social change and overcoming inequality requires individual ambition and consumption, rather than structural shifts and resistance.

Anjali Vats wrote a very illuminating essay on ownership in relation to Taylor Swift: Owning your masters (Taylor’s version): Postfeminist tactical copyright and the erasure of Black intellectual labor, where they argue that while it’s good for an individual to take charge of their work and earn more money than if the master recordings are owned by another person or a company, the whole pop-music machinery and American copyright laws are written from a very racist perspective:

Postfeminism is a term that race and media scholars have taken up in great depth, particularly in the context of celebrity. In its broadest sense, as Sarah Banet-Weiser, Catherine Rottenberg, and Rosalind Gill write, it can be understood as a feminist sensibility advanced through neoliberal capitalism and popular culture. The term sensibility highlights that postfeminism operates as an evolving set of “ideas, images, and meanings,” including “affect, public mood, atmosphere, or structure of feeling.” Postfeminism is about selling more, not less, and treating those sales as the path to attaining power as a woman. Julietta Hua echoes this, noting that “post-feminism lauded the difference of the female sex and advocated female (hetero)sexual difference as a source of women’s power over men.” Yet she cautions that “the articulation of post-feminism offered by Naomi Wolf, Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Summers, and others relies on national and racial politics that remind us that feminisms are not, by virtue of being ‘feminist,’ supportive of oppositional politics.” This is because embrace of the post-feminist frequently also entails the embrace of “colorblindness” and “multiculturalism,” in order to consolidate commodity value. Postfeminism centers the (white) “feminine” at the expense of other markers of identity, e.g., race, class, and disability, as a means of creating broadly marketable human products. Erasing one’s identity - or at least rendering it innocuous - is one way to achieve, as Ralina Joseph writes, the postfeminist goal to become “every woman who embodies a universal appeal because of her positioning as a liberal, democratic, colorblind subject.” In this neoliberal feminist context, Robin James persuasively contends, even resilience can be commodified. The refusal to be broken is a marketable consumptive object in itself.

In late 2020, Braun flipped Swift’s masters portfolio, along with other Big Machine holdings, selling them to private equity company, Shamrock Holdings, for $300 million. This move is part of a long history of buying and selling the rights in sound recordings and musical compositions, the politics of which first became the subject of intense public debate in the US when Michael Jackson bought a 50 percent share of the ATV music catalog in 1985. Unlike Swift, who is seeking return of rights in her sound recordings because she already holds coauthorship rights in the musical compositions, Jackson purchased rights to the musical compositions that had been assigned to ATV. He thus gained control of the lucrative publishing rights attached to the catalog, which allowed him to control when and how the underlying compositions he owned were used, i.e., manufactured, performed, streamed, downloaded, and so on, as well as the royalties that flowed from those uses. At the time, ATV owned the publishing rights to 251 Beatles’ songs, which Jackson acquired for a mere $47.5 million after Paul McCartney encouraged him to invest in other musicians’ catalogs during their 1983 “Say Say Say” recording session. The royalties that Jackson earned from the purchase allowed him to remain solvent during the 1990s and 2000s, when he was spending money at a staggering rate. In 1995, a cashstrapped Jackson entered a deal with Sony to jointly manage the publishing rights. Sony finally purchased Jackson’s share in 2016 for a then incredible $750 million. The publishing rights in the 251 Beatles songs in the ATV catalog are now worth in excess of $1B, a number that will likely grow rapidly over the next decades.

Some contrast:

The Kingsmen, who performed the stratospherically popular 1964 version of “Louie, Louie,” also sued Gusto Records to recover their masters-and 30 years of back royalties that were never paid to them in violation of their original contract. While they accomplished a difficult feat in securing ownership and royalties, Richard Berry, the Black R&B artist who wrote the underlying musical composition, was not so lucky, as had sold the rights to Flip Records in 1957 for a mere $750 to finance his wedding. Eventually Berry, who was not able to benefit from the Kingsmen’s impressive success, was able to recover partial ownership of his musical composition with the help of the Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation in 1986, no doubt because of the triumphs of those who came before him. Chuck Rubin then helped him sell rights to the song to Windswept Pacific in 1992, for an amount that he claims is only exceeded by “Happy Birthday,” which sold for $25 million. Berry received his first long overdue royalty check for $2 million in 1992, five years before he passed away from heart failure.

Vats provides clear-headed and insightful paragraphs on Swift’s postfeminist liberal world:

The narrative that Taylor Swift is a larger-than-life talent who prevailed over her sexually harassing, music-stealing bully of an employer is undoubtedly compelling. Yet, it is also frequently communicated in a way that is deeply white, postfeminist, and ahistoric. I consider three ways that Swift’s invisible intersectional subject position, i.e., her whiteness, middle classness, and femininity, contribute to her image as a singularity, is divorced from the racial struggles that preceded her. First, Swift’s white femininity gives her easier access to narratives of victimhood than her Black counterparts, thus allowing her to center her experiences of sexual harassment in ways that Black women are culturally prohibited from doing. Second, Swift’s race, class, and gender makes her claims to (intellectual) property ownership appear natural and expected in a nation built on the (intellectual) propertization of people of color, as opposed to exceptional and extraordinary. Finally, Swift’s white femininity allows her to produce the historical fiction that she is a one-of-a-kind trailblazer with an extraordinary capacity for resilience, pushing those radical Black musicians who came before her further to the margins. In this context, my historicization of Black artists and entrepreneurs who opened record companies and owned sound recording masters, albeit limited, is a methodological corrective to this historical amnesia that places Swift outside the long line of Black “bodies-in-dissent”98 whose interventions preceded her. More such correctives are needed.

First, from her subject position as a white woman who started her career young, with the privileges of wealth, Swift can easily mobilize narratives of victimhood as well as calls for retribution in her allegations of record industry wrongdoing. Unlike many of her Black peers who are objects of victim-blaming and punitive remedies, she has access to ingrained national myths about the need to protect white women from predatory behavior.” Swift’s self-styling has made these claims appear more natural, even expected. For instance, in anticipation of her pop music debut at the 2009 Video Music Awards, Swift transformed herself into a “virtuous fairy princess,” 100 complete with a Cinderella-style carriage. In a now infamous moment, after a then 19-year-old Swift was awarded Best Video for a Female Awarded, West rushed the stage and shouted: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”101 This incident laid the groundwork for an ongoing cultural conversation about Swift as the quintessential innocent white woman victim-and demonstrated that Twitter would be an important site for the adjudication of such topics, especially where racial justice and social movements are concerned. The incident ended with Swift backstage in tears, alongside a distraught Beyonce. When Beyonce later won Video of the Year at the end of the ceremony, she ceded her speech time to Swift, ostensibly at the urging of one of the show’s producers. One interpretation of this turn is that Beyonce paid the price for West’s outburst at a white woman while Swift coopted her limelight Even then President Barack Obama called West a “jackass,” seemingly siding with Swift-or at least against West. Given West’s recent behavior, this epithet now reads as measured. Twitter was harsher, calling for punishments that reeked of carceral feminism and racial discipline.

Swift’s victimhood narrative has persisted, despite a number of racially divisive incidents or perhaps because of them. She consistently embodies the flawed yet resilient postfeminist (white) woman, a figure that “recycles damage into more resources.?” For instance, Swift clashed with Nicki Minaj on Twitter after Minaj was snubbed for a Video of the Year nomination for “Anaconda” at the VMAs. Over the course of a day, Minaj tweeted about racism in the music industry, eventually noting that “other’ girls” with “very slim bodies” were more frequently celebrated for their musical contributions. Swift, who received a nomination for “Bad Blood,” responded defensively to Minaj’s video while Minaj denied that she had subtweeted Swift. In this way, Swift “effectively [positioned] herself as the innocent victim who [deserved] to be pitied and Minaj as the ‘angry black woman.” The Twitter War escalated for 48 hours, with Minaj critiquing “White media and their tactics” and Bruno Mars jumping in, before Swift apologized and Minaj accepted, but not before Black Twitter had its say.


Second, Swift’s claims to (intellectual) property ownership, which are intertwined with her neoliberal white feminism, are treated as natural and normal, contra the history of Black (intellectual) property ownership. Harris observes in the canonical “Whiteness as Property” that whiteness itself is a valuable commodity, a “status property” through which claims to real property are made and upheld. Deidré Keller and I have extended that argument to intellectual property, writing:

whiteness brings with it a set of privileges and presumptions in the context of intellectual property law: whites have historically constructed information regimes in ways [that] devalue the knowledge and practices of non-whites; whites have historically held the power and authority to determine the legal structures which govern intellectual property rights; whites have historically crafted legal doctrines which avoid the protection of Western understandings of creativity; and whites largely continue to manage domestic and international intellectual property rights regimes.

Against this cultural backdrop, Swift’s claims are easily amplified in public cultural contexts and afforded an implied veracity that those of her Black peers are not. Swift wrote on Twitter in 2019: “Now Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy. Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.” Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover and article amplifying Swift’s claims by proclaiming that “Taylor Swift Is the Music Industry.” Inc. seized on all too often racialized themes of justice, property, and labor that “Swift’s situation doesn’t seem fair. They’re her songs. Her performances. Her blood, her sweat, her tears. Paul Théberge writes that “Swift is regarded as … an emblematic figure whose very success validates the potential of old-industry structures to both challenge and adapt to the demands of a new economic environment.” The repeated associations of Swift with narratives of injustice and exceptionalism belie those that frequently surrounded Black musicians creating blues, jazz, and rock. As Josh Kun puts it:

The history of enslavement has always haunted the music industry and always structured it … If you go back to the first Black artists to ever make a commercial musical recording in the [1890s]-George W. Johnson, was a former slave who began his life not owning his own body, being owned by a master, then [went on] to record a master that he did not own. This also gets at the long-standing belief and conviction of so many Black artists… that they have been treated like slaves by the masters who they signed contracts with. That has been true since the early 1900s, and it is certainly true now.

Swift’s political awakening, which began roughly in late 2019, has received mixed reviews, with some critiquing her performative embrace of neoliberal equality and her slowness in distancing herself from white supremacy. In a September 2019 Rolling Stone interview, Swift declared that there’s “literally nothing worse than white supremacy” and finally condemned the “Taydolf Swiftler” meme. Brian Hiatt, who interviewed her, later noted: “[y]ou’ve been masterminding your business since you were a teenager, thereby reinforcing the familiar narrative of her as all-knowing. Swift continued to condemn white supremacy, calling for racial justice after George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery were killed by police and denouncing Donald Trump’s openly racist screeds. She also advocated for removing Confederate monuments in the South and making Juneteenth a national holiday. Her support for racial justice was certainly appropriate, even necessary-but it collapsed into largely uncritical journalistic praise for (white) postfemininity. The archive that I considered overwhelmingly conveyed the message that Swift is now an antiracist hero, destined for greatness. Kornhaber ends his essay by asking “Was Swift prescient about the ties she’d eventually have to cut?” He continues: “The folklore song ‘Cardigan’ already answered that question with this refrain: I knew everything when I was young. She really did.” In one fell swoop, Kornhaber dismisses Swift’s racial missteps by romanticizing the art of her teen years while also failing to name the longstanding struggles in which she is implicated in her adult years. He places her out of time by flatting her age and existence, situating her as an always already all-knowing being. Swift is not, I would argue, prescient. She is a savvy businesswoman-and perhaps also an excellent student of history-with the ability to deploy the ownership strategies that worked for those came before, while centering her own empowered victimhood. She deserves credit for her success. But she is not a one and only, now or historically, who deserves to be set apart from those who came before.

Though none of the three issues that I have raised in this section refute Swift’s talent, popularity, or success, they highlight important questions about the ethical obligations that come with occupying a white and feminine body with extraordinary power and visibility, especially vis-à-vis racial struggle. I maintain that Swift could and should do more.

This book contains much from which we can, and should, learn. History is bound to repeat itself without consequential action, without changing ourselves based on how others see us, how piercingly and deeply critically see ourselves and take action.

I highly recommend this book to spur action, to challenge ourselves, to see reality in new ways, and make actual change away from intellectual exercise.