When Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw was studying at Harvard Law School, one of her friends became the first African-American to be admitted to a prestigious club. It was the kind of place, explained Crenshaw, where portraits of dead presidents adorned the walls, alongside the trophied heads of dead animals – “a man's man's place – a white man's man's place.”
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in conversation with Hannah Azieb Pool at WOW, March 2016. Photo: Ché Ramsden
Crenshaw and another (male) friend were invited
to be the first African-American guests at this 'white man's man's'
institution. She told her audience at Southbank Centre's 6th WOW –
Women of the World Festival that she and her friend, her fellow guest, made a pact in advance. “We
agreed we had each other's backs. We would not take any –” she paused and
gestured outward, laying an invisible expletive in front of her audience, “fill
On arrival, their friend met them quickly and sheepishly on the doorstep. The guests’ immediate conjecture was that black people were not allowed to enter through the front door and, together, they assumed the defensive. Their friend explained that it wasn’t anything “like that” – black people could use the front door, but women had to enter through the back. Crenshaw turned to her fellow guest, with whom she had made the pact, with whom she was in coalition, thinking that “we had already covered this.” To her surprise, her friend didn’t think twice before abandoning her with, “ok, Kim, see you inside.”
This recollection was part of Crenshaw's answer to a teenager in the audience who asked for advice on how, as a young black woman, she might navigate our racist, sexist world. Crenshaw used her experience to illustrate a piece of advice as practical as it is wise: “when you are in coalition with someone, always decide how far you are willing to go together, because when you're in the middle of the struggle, that's the last time you want to find out.” This she offered after pointing out that “awareness of the fact you have something to navigate has you well ahead of the game.”
Crenshaw was at WOW to deliver a keynote on intersectionality. It is a term she coined in 1989 and which has, over the past couple of years in particular, (re)entered mainstream feminism. Even Hilary Clinton is using the term in her appeal to younger women who are rejecting her (and identity politics) in favour of Bernie Sanders' vision for America.
WOW, too, has embraced intersectionality; there were no prominent all-white panels this year and, in addition to Crenshaw’s keynote, several events were dedicated to intersectionality (the stomach-churning moment when a “white, straightish woman” derailed the Challenging Racism in the LGBTQ Community panel with accusations that she was marginalised in this discussion – while speaking over the queer Black panellists – was a reminder of why intersectionality must remain front-and-centre).
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw delivers her keynote at WOW, March 2016. Photo: Ché Ramsden
Crenshaw began her keynote with ‘Intersectionality 101’, charting the origin of the term from her analysis of employment law as applied in DeGraffenreid v. G.M, a 1976 case which failed to recognise the discrimination faced by black women at General Motors. In a workforce segregated by both race and gender, “black women didn’t fit the kind of woman or the kind of black looked for by the employer” – that is, General Motors employed only white women and only male black people. The case failed because the court would not allow black women to combine a race and gender discrimination claim. In other words, the law allowed white women to represent all women and black men to represent all black people.
“The law trades itself on neat, constrained analysis of discrete kind of problems,” explained Crenshaw, and the court believed “black women would open a Pandora’s Box” were the DeGraffenreid case recognised. The invisibility of black women was not only a problem in the field of Law. Crenshaw pointed to early suffragists like Susan B. Anthony who argued for white women’s suffrage on the basis of their racial affinity with white men. She also pointed to narratives of Black male patriarchy (such as those of Minister Louis Farrakhan) which reinforces the marginalisation of women: “When feminism doesn’t contest the logics of racism, when anti-racism doesn’t contest the logics of patriarchy, they end up reinforcing them.”
Intersectionality is not about mapping
identities, explained Crenshaw, but about “how structures make identities the
vehicle for vulnerabilities.” As a tool, intersectionality allows for a more
comprehensive understanding of institutional structures and therefore allows us
to “rethink how you go about structuring a problem without having one
particular signifier.” In a feminist context, intersectionality is crucial;
patriarchy will not be dismantled if only white women, or rich women, or
heterosexual women, or cis-women, or women with citizenship rights are
liberated. To dismantle patriarchy successfully, we must first understand the
ways it oppresses everyone, including through its interactions with other
Activism in coalition
There are two types of complaint from within the feminist movement against intersectionality. The first is that it is a 'fad', fads being the fleeting prerogative of the young and immature. The second, that it is 'nothing new', the implication being that it is unspecial or perhaps unimportant. While they are opposite claims, both seek to subtly undermine intersectionality’s usefulness.
“It’s hard to think of something that’s been around for nearly thirty years as a fad,” responded Crenshaw to the first, and reminded us that, as an approach, intersectionality of course existed long before she coined the term (“[that would be like] the idea that Marxism sprung free form from Karl!”). To the second challenge, specifically asking whether intersectionality was the newer term for the concept of multiple oppressions, she said that she didn't see much analysis of race when it came to discussions of multiple oppressions in the 1970s.
Indeed, it is often “intersectional failures from yesterday” which led to the battles we face today. Currently the African-American Policy Forum (AAPF), which Crenshaw founded in 1996, is pushing for recognition of the experiences of Black girls in education to counteract a ‘knowledge desert’. The AAPF found that while Black boys in New York and Boston public schools were 3 times as likely as their white counterparts to be suspended, Black girls were 6 times more likely than white girls to face suspension and 53 times more likely to be expelled. Yet ‘the risks that Black and other girls of color confront rarely receive the full attention of researchers, advocates, policy makers and funders.’
“Intersectional failure often means no one shows up for you,” Crenshaw told WOW. Citing Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City police officer who was on trial in late 2015 for the rape of 13 Black women while on duty over the course of a year, Crenshaw pointed out that “virtually no one turned up for those 13 women” during the trial. There was deafening silence from mainstream media and women’s organisations. It also highlighted a failure of the anti-racist movement, Crenshaw said, to take into account that the second most-common complaint against the police is sexual assault.
The #SayHerName initiative is a way of ‘showing up’ for Black women who are systematically killed, raped and assaulted by the police, but whose experiences are sidelined by feminist and anti-racist movements alike. At the end of Crenshaw’s keynote, she played a video which showed the brutal assaults and deaths of Black women at the hands of the police. The audience were asked to stand and say their names, including, from 2015 alone: Natasha McKenna, Yuvette Henderson, Mya Hall, Alexia Christian, Meagan Hockaday, Monique Deckard, Janisha Fonville, Sandra Bland.
#SayHerName is important for a London feminist audience not only because we must be in global solidarity with struggles for justice, but because Black women are subject to institutional violence on our shores, too. Only in 2014 did the Met Police apologise for shooting and paralysing Cherry Groce in 1985, who died in 2011 of kidney failure related to the injuries she sustained at the hands of Inspector Douglas Lovelock, who was acquitted of inflicting grievous bodily harm. Two months ago, on 11 January 2016, Sarah Reed was found dead in HMP Holloway, where she was being held for assault – according to her family, she was charged for defending herself from attempted rape whilst on a secure ward in Maudsley Hospital. Sarah Reed had been a victim of police violence in 2012, when she was assaulted by PC James Kiddle; the attack was captured on CCTV and Kiddle was convicted of common assault.
At WOW, Crenshaw insisted that coalitions were crucial to ensure that those who are marginalised by ‘intersectional failures’ are represented. This means feminists standing alongside allies in anti-racist and class-based movements, for example, to fight oppressive systems together. It means “we are constantly moving, constantly evolving,” she said of acting in coalitions. “We are entitled to solidarity from those in coalition with us,” which means that we should always have others showing up for us – and we must always show up for our allies.
A starting point for showing solidarity, as offered by Crenshaw, is to refuse to be complicit in the silencing and erasure of Black women. In the face of the intersectional failure highlighted by #SayHerName, recognising that the woman existed is the first step in affirming that her life and her death mattered. Thus, simply saying her name is a radical and urgent act.