Professor Crenshaw coined the term and co-founded the African American Policy Forum. Before AAPF's 20th anniversary, Crenshaw is reflecting on where intersectionality is going.
28 years ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in a piece of paper as a way to explain the oppression of African American women. Crenshaw's then more academic term is now at the forefront of national discussions on racial justice, identity politics, and policing - and has shaped legal discussions over the years. Crenshaw is a leading thinker and scholar in the field of Critical Race Theory, professor at Columbia Law School, directs the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy and is a co-founder of the co African American Policy Forum , a think tank, both on campus.
On June 10th, AAPF celebrates its 20th anniversary with a gala in honor of US Representative Keith Ellison, MSNBC journalist Joy-Ann Reid, performance artist Eve Ensler and researcher Barbara Smith. A few days before the event, Crenshaw spoke about where she is seeing intersectionality research and her ongoing work as a scholar and advocate.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and space.
Q: You originally coined the term intersectionality to describe prejudice and violence against black women, but it is being used more and more, including for LGBTQ issues. Is that a misunderstanding of intersectionality?
Crenshaw : Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes from and collides, where it meshes and intersects. It's not just that there's a racial problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Often times, this framework erases what happens to people who are exposed to all of these things.
Some people consider intersectionality to be a grand theory of everything, but that's not my intention. If someone tries to explain to the courts why they shouldn't dismiss a case of black women just because the employer hired blacks who were men and women who were white, well, that's what the tool was designed for doing. If it works, great. If it doesn't work, then you don't need to use this concept.
The other problem is that intersectionality can be used as a generic term to mean that it is complicated. Sometimes it's complicated to have an excuse not to do anything. At AAPF and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy, we want to go beyond that.
We try to take ideas and turn them into practical tools that advocates and communities can use. Part of that is public education. We use art and other projects to show how people experience intersectional harm, like mothers of women killed by police or young girls expelled from school. We work directly with lawyers and communities to develop ways they can better identify these issues and better advocate.
You said that there is intersectional obliteration in the Trump era. Can you explain?
Most problematic about contemporary conversation is the utter insignificance of women of color. People talk about how their constituencies, especially white working class men, saw a terrible deterioration in their prospects, and they were angry and wanted to vote for someone who was not part of the establishment.
Looking at women of color, particularly blacks and Latinas, their economic well-being has been most negatively affected by deindustrialization and the public sector deficiency. So if any group had any reason to respond to scapegoat politics, one might think that it is the workers who have faced both racial downward pressure and gender downward pressure. Least of all, however, did they choose someone who was not part of the establishment.
Why don't we talk about it? Why does our analysis drive the intersection of masculinity and whiteness and not the intersection of women and people of color? What's going on that these women of color didn't respond to xenophobia and racism? What made you say that we are better and want more for our country?
One of the initiatives of the AAPF is #SayHerName that sheds light on black women who have been subjected to police violence. What did the movement do?
The impact can first be measured by how seldom a woman was mentioned as a victim of police violence two years ago, and now we often hear from men and women killed by the police, or from African Americans instead of African Americans. Sandra Bland is the most commonly mentioned, and many are familiar with the name Rekia Boyd. But too few know Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hal, l or India Kager. Feeling that this is a problem in itself is a new finding, one that gives voice to activists, elected officials, and even families.
The most significant change, however, has been seen in the consciousness of mothers who have lost their daughters to police violence. We brought them together several times. They have said that their determination and ability to fight is based on their awareness that they are not alone; that there are other mothers who also fight in secret; that they are a student union that no one wants to join; and that now that they have met they can receive and give support and even permission to find joy in life after such an unspeakable loss.
Published June 8, 2017
About this story
- Kimberle W. Crenshaw
- Faculty Scholarship and Ideas
- Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy
- Social justice
- Black History Month
- 08. June 2017