When I came home the summer after my freshman year from college, fresh off a spring semester intro to women’s studies class, I was brimming with a completely new vocabulary. I apprised my friends of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality, pointed out when my coworkers made sexist jokes, lamented the perils of internalized misogyny.
This CIA ad sounds a little like me, at 19, if I had been roughly 100 times cornier and was also using feminist ideology not as a lens to understand the world and my position in it, but as window dressing for state-sanctioned violence:
In the video, part of a series called “Humans of CIA,” a Latina woman walks down the hall of a government building, quoting Zora Neale Hurston. “Nothing about me is or was ‘tragic,’” the woman says, referencing the writer’s famous line about not being “tragically colored.” “I’m a woman of color, I am a mom, I am a cisgender millennial who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder,” the woman in the ad continues. “I am intersectional.”
It is difficult to say anything earnest about the ad, except to acknowledge that it’s ridiculous, an obvious co-option of the rhetoric of social justice for insidious ends. (And this is probably the only correct response aside from “lol.”)
And yet a certain segment of the left is using the ad as reason to argue against not just the language, but the politics that underly it. To be clear, both can be flawed: Certain terms have been reduced to buzzwords by those who use them imprecisely. And of course, the ad itself is an unwitting argument against an extreme version of liberal identity politics, where a woman of color, for example, might be celebrated for her accomplishments with little regard to who she is or what she’s actually accomplished. In this case, it’s joining the CIA, an almost literal version of the “hire more women guards” meme.
The lesson in the ad, I humbly suggest, is not that “wokeness”—whatever that is!—is bad, but that the CIA is bad. Which we already knew.
We can strive to make the content of our politics immune to appropriation, but tragically the language we use to talk about those politics isn’t incorruptible. Even the words we use to talk about some of our most radical visions, like defunding the police, can easily be rearranged and redefined to mean something else entirely—often to mean the exact opposite.
Sometimes there are better words and phrases, and sometimes there aren’t. Usually there’s just the long hard work of organizing for a better world, with the imperfect language we have available to us.