Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

Keynote at Women of the World 2016 – March 12, 2016

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
March 12, 2016— London, United Kingdom
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Good afternoon! Wow!

Well, first I wanted to say how honored I am to be here. This is a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. I want to thank my new friend for providing this exciting opportunity for us to share some of our aspirations for a truly global, intersectional movement.

I wear a lot of hats, and today I'm going to wear two. One is my hat as a feminist critical race theorist. In that hat, I want to talk to you about intersectionality. Over the last couple days, so many people have come to our little table to ask us, "So what exactly is intersectionality?" So I'm going to try to talk about the basic idea behind what some people see as a fancy name.

For some of you, this might feel like Intersectionality 101, so I hope you bear with us because beyond that I want to draw attention to an intersectional crises unfolding today, particularly how many of the battles that we're fighting today are problems that grow out of intersectional failures from yesterday.

So my hope – I believe a collective hope among those who consider themselves to be intersectional feminists – is that this concept can help us provide a prism to find some of those failures, to repair those failures and to create a basis for a far broader, deeper, more robust coalition towards the kind of world that we want to build.

Now, when I introduced the term intersectionality almost thirty years ago, it was to address multiple failures not only in law but also rhetorical failures, political failures, within feminism and anti-racism.

So first in the context of employment discrimination, intersectionality was meant to draw attention to the many ways that black women were being excluded from employment in industrial plants and elsewhere that were segregated by both gender and race. Specifically, black jobs were available to blacks who were men and women's jobs were available to women who were white. Black women – who were blacks who were not men and women who were not white – were not able to be hired in many of these industries because they didn't fit the kind of woman or the kind of black that was looked for by the employer.

Now beyond this intersectional discrimination – the combination of a race policy for hiring people and a gender policy, so right there is a structured intersectional form of discrimination – beyond that they face the discrimination in the courts. For the most part, courts thought that these cases could not go forward. They thought they couldn't go forward because black women had to combine two causes of action in order for courts to see that they were discriminated against. From the court's perspective, because all women weren't being excluded on one hand and all blacks were not being excluded on the other, these black female plaintiffs didn't have a case to make. Effectively they thought that if they were to allow anti-discrimination law to broaden itself to allow these women to make a race claim and a gender claim at the same time, these women would be given preferential treatment. Another way of putting it is, black men didn't have to combine two causes of action for their cases to be understood, white women didn't have to combine two classes of action for their discrimination to be understood, so to give black women the ability to do so was to give them two strikes at the bat and that's unfair to everyone else.

Now notice, black women in this employment regime were the only ones who needed to have two strikes at the bat in order to get what everyone else was getting by just the way the court understood what racism and sexism look like.

Now notice one of the odd dimensions of this case. White women could represent all black women, black men could represent all black people. Black men are no different from black women than black women are for black men. White women are no different from black women than black women are from white women. So effectively what we were looking at is a representational scheme that allowed white women to represent everybody, regardless of whether their particular way of experiencing discrimination was the same, and black men were able to do the same.

So intersectionality was meant to draw attention to the way that black women's experience, sometimes distinct experience of gender discrimination, was buried under the experiences of white women and black mens' sometimes distinct experience of race was buried under the experiences of african-american men.

Now, that first article was called "Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex in anti-discrimination law." That's where the term intersectionality began. It's where the framework was used to pay attention not only to the ways that racism, sexism and in other kinds of cases other forms of discrimination overlapped and created unique and distinct kinds of burdens for those women who were subject to both or more forms of discrimination. That's part of intersectionality – that's Intersectionality 101.

A lot of people, particularly those who haven't followed demarginalizing from its initial iteration, often mistakenly think that intersectionality is only about multiple identities. I've got three, you've got six – the identity question goes on and on. Some colleagues in Germany undertook to count how many intersections there are. Last count there were like 17 or something. There's an attempt to map them off.

That's not, at least, my articulation of intersectionality. Intersectionality is not primarily about identity. It's about how structures make certain identities the consequence of, the vehicle for vulnerability. So if you want to know how many intersections matter, you've got to look at the context. What's happening? What kind of discrimination is going on? What are the policies? What are the institutional structures that play a role in contributing to the exclusion of some people and not others?

There are multiple forms of intersectionality. I could talk about a lot of them, but the kind of intersectionality that I most want to talk about is the intersectionality around politics – political intersectionality.

The main challenge that I want us to think about is, what are the consequences of not having an intersectional politics when we think and talk about feminism and when we think and talk about anti-racism?

When feminism and anti-racism are nonintersectional – when feminism doesn't contest the logics of racism, when anti-racism refuses to take up questions of patriarchy – they often wind up reinforcing each other. They're not just neutral with respect to racism or neutral with respect to patriarchy, they end up reinforcing them.

Feminist arguments, for example, have historically taken racial hierarchy as their baseline, in issues, for example, like suffrage. Early suffragists in the United States often built the argument about why women should get the right to vote based on their racial affinities with white male power. Anti-racist advocacy that fails to incorporate a commitment to feminism has often reinforced patriarchy and intra-racial sexism against women and girls of color.

We've seen these patterns play out historically. For example, in the 19th and early 20th century in the United States, white feminists paid attention to the idea that their superior status over men of color should be the justification for them receiving the vote. Susan B. Anthony, for example, was outraged that her abolitionist allies abandoned the cause of feminism and in her anger took the low road in response, arguing that giving black men the right to vote over women was a particular insult to women. Black men, similarly, have argued that their political rights were based on the notion of black male masculinity and patriarchy.

These ideas are not just limited to the past. In contemporary politics, significant articulations of anti-racism have been built around the denial of black male patriarchy, the denial of leadership in families, in communities and in politics. These limited versions of feminism and anti-racism are not only just incomplete – they've been utterly damaging to the struggles of women and to people of color.

Most problematically, these failures from our past – the failure to interrogate patriarchy in anti-racism, the failure to interrogate racism and feminism – continue to shape modern politics. They undermine our collective capacity to create a more robust and inclusive set of coalitions around social justice.

I call these intersectional failures of the past Trojan horses of today that import elements of patriarchy with anti-racism and racial power within conceptions of feminisms. These consequences are often invisible to the naked eye, and the naked eye is the eye that's not accustomed to looking at issues through an intersectional prism.

There is, however, a solution, a practice that can heighten our capacity to see the limitations of a nonintersectional feminism or nonintersectional racism so they no longer hold our visions of the possible hostage to the failures of our past. It's invoked in the commitment to see beyond the conventional ways that feminists and anti-racist agendas are built on the narratives of just a few. It requires us to insist on bringing more fully into view, for example, the ways that women of color experience racism, the ways that women of color experience sexism. We could probably come up with dozens of examples that illustrate the unintended consequences of a conception of racism or sexism that are nonintersectional, but I'm going to focus on just a few because they open up the conversation to contemporary politics. I'm going to give you a few examples as a point of introduction into Say Her Name, as a point of introduction into why we can't wait.

Some of you might recognize this image. It's a shot from the unveiling of President Obama's signature racial justice program called My Brother's Keeper. Hopefully the title can kind of give you a sense of what I'm going to say about it. One notes immediately that it does have something to do with race, right? It's definitely about men and boys of color. It's also about disparity. It's about underachievement. In the speech that he gave it was about the need to address those who are falling behind. Something or someone is clearly in need of repair. That's the whole point of My Brother's Keeper.

But repair from what is the question. Missing in this post-racial narrative is the notion of racism or any mention of racial power whatsoever. So in My Brother's Keeper, men and boys of color are listed as more likely than their peers to be born into low-income families and to live in concentrated poverty, to have teenage mothers, to live with one or no parent, to attend a high-poverty school, a poor-performing school, to miss out on rigorous classes, to have teachers that are inexperienced or unqualified. I want to ask, more likely than whom?

These data apply to girls who live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same schools, have to navigate the same racialized state practices as their brothers do. Simply looking at the justifications given for this exclusive focus raises the question about where are the girls? Why are girls and women not seen as subjects of racial abuse? The question that it raises is, is this the new picture of intersectional erasure?

What's noticeable here is this is not a structural claim. What's missing here is all of the ways in which sisters, wives, daughters, mothers are also vulnerable to some of the same structural problems that have created disproportionate outcomes for communities of color. What's missing in this framework is the defunding of public institutions, the asset-stripping of urban landscapes, the unleashing of the police force, diminished oversight of discriminators in federal courts, the shifting of resources from service delivery to group management, the emphasis on individual punishment rather than on institutional and structural reform.

All of these are background factors that shape the vulnerabilities of people of color, but notice none of these are part of this framework as long as the framework exists in a discourse of patriarchy enhancement, an individual kind of argument that the problems of community of color are problems because the men are not appropriately socialized to be the kind of men who are responsible for families and for communities.

The continuity between this discourse and the discourse 50 years ago is a continuity that's made possible by intersectional failure – the initial ability to think about racial inequality solely in terms of patriarchal absences. So from the very beginning of the 60s, the problem of black communities was not framed in terms of the fact that females are paid less for the same work, where women workers are shut out of entire industries, where the standard definition of "worker" is defined as someone who has no children, needs no child care, where it would make sense to think about anti-poverty programs as being gendered to address both men and women in our communities. We are a gender- and race-based unequal society and all of those dimensions need to be addressed in an intersectional, anti-racist, anti-poverty program.

I don't want it to be suggested that the only kind of intersectional erasure is an intersectional erasure that's happening on the watch of anti-racism. Some of you might have seen this video a couple months ago, where a young black girl was literally thrown across the floor by a police officer in the schools. It is only surprising because girls have not shown up in the conversation about discipline and push-out, nor have black girls shown up in any of the discourse around educational opportunity and sexism.

When we decided to start looking at exactly how black girls were situated within public schools, we created a report called Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out,. Overpoliced and Underprotected. What we found out was shocking. While it is known in the United States that black boys are suspended at a rate of three times that of white boys and it is an outrage that this is happening, black girls are suspended and expelled at a rate that's six times that of their white female counterparts – six times that – in New York, and in Boston the number is ten times that.

When we talk about suspension as opposed to expulsion, the numbers go even further. In fact, we couldn't even calculate the ratio of expulsion for New York because in the year we looked there was not one white girl who was expelled from school, so we had to kind of make it up. We had to say, "Imagine if you will, one white girl who's done something to warrant being expelled from school. If you can imagine that girl, now we have a ratio. It's 53-to-1.

So we're looking at a significant racial barrier, a significant mode of racial bias that plays out between women, that plays out between girls but we don't know about it because we have thought about racism primarily as a question having to do with men.

So, our Why We Can't Wait campaign is made up of the clear aspiration for girls and women of color to tell stories about how they've been subjected to race and gender disempowerment, so that first their communities, their families, their stakeholders have an understanding, have an image, have a story about what racism looks like for women or what sexism looks like for blacks.

And of course when we do these town halls, we talk about all women of color. We talk about cis- and transgendered women. We talk about queer women and straight women. We're talking about the variety of ways that our understanding about what sexism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, transphobia, racism looks like when it's embodied in people who are dealing with all of those issues at the same time.

We've had 10 town halls so far across the country, lifting up those names, but we know that that's not enough. We know that information has to be made available to people, to stakeholders, to leaders about the actual dimension of the disparity. Every week, every March we have at the end of the month Her Dream Deferred webinar in which we talk about some of these issues.

For example, when we look at questions of violence against women, we know black women are more likely to be raped. We know black women are less likely to have their rapists charged. We know that when they are charged, their rapists are less likely to be convicted. And we know when they are convicted – and you can only imagine what a case looks like when someone is convicted of raping a black woman – the average sentence they get is two years as opposed to 10 for a white women.

So we know we've got to talk about the fact that we do have a movement against gender-based violence but the question is, is that movement against gender-based violence sensitive to the racial differences, the class differences that different women confront?

And here's the last, most important challenge – the challenge is expanding our notion of what gender-based violence looks like, away from simply private-private violence to state violence. This is the place where the gaps between anti-racism and feminism are simply profound. We have a feminist movement against sexual violence that doesn't really talk about the state as an agent of that violence, about police officers who are actually engaging in precisely the kind of sexual abuse that we see in the home. And we have an anti-racist movement against police violence that doesn't take up the fact that the second-most common complaint against the police is sexual abuse.

So this is an intersectional failure. These issues fall between the cracks of the prevailing ways of thinking about this issue.

One example of just last year. Daniel Holtzclaw, a former police officer in Oklahoma City, found to have raped eight women. The complaint actually said 13 – the jury didn't believe some of those women. He was charged for raping and abusing 13 black women over a period of less than a year. It causes us to ask, how could someone think that they could get away with raping 13 black women while on-duty? Intersectionality is the answer to that. These are women who were black, they were poor, some of them were involved in the criminal justice system, some of them were substance abusers, some of them worked in the sex trade. Each one of those factors independently makes those women less likely to be believed. You put them all together and you basically have open season on these particular women. And that's precisely what happened.

So Daniel Holtzclaw tells us about intersectional vulnerability. It also tells us about political exclusion, because unlike many of the other cases of sexual abuse that have been talked about in college campuses or police abuse that's been talked about in the street, virtually no one showed up for these 13 women in Oklahoma City.

So we're talking about a two-layer problem. You're subject to intersectional discrimination and subordination number one, but then number two, when it comes time to look for your allies, when you want people to show up, when you want people to say your life matters, intersectional failure often means nobody is showing up for you.

That's the kind of intersectional failure that Say Her Name is trying to address. Say Her Name is trying to draw attention to the various ways that black women also experience police abuse. It's trying to pay attention to the fact that black women are killed in many of the same circumstances that black men are killed.

They're killed driving while black – like Mya Hall, transgender black woman who was killed when she accidentally turned down the wrong street and the NSA shot in her car.

They're killed in the war on drugs when police – many times on a mistaken warrant enter a home, shoot first, ask questions later. People as old as 93 have been killed, people as young as six years old have been killed. Women have been killed. Mothers have been killed holding babies in their arms.

We don't talk about state sanctioned violence as a consequence of policing poverty. Black women such as Eleanor Bumpurs, killed when the New York police came to evict her for an overdue rent bill – less than a hundred dollars – shotgunned her to death.

We don't talk about Margaret Mitchell, a homeless black woman who was shot in the back by Los Angeles police as she was walking away with a shopping basket.

We don't talk about the fact that when police are called to homes in domestic violence calls, black women are vulnerable to police actually shooting them. Two cases this year alone, weeks after more notable men were killed black women were killed seconds after the police arrived in their homes.

We don't talk about the fact that black women in health care crisis – black women who are experiencing mental health crises – are killed by the police. Tanisha Anderson was killed less than 10 days before Tamir Rice. Why? Because the police were called to her home to help her family bring her inside because she was outside exposed. Rather than ensuring her safety, they threw her to the ground, did a take-down maneuver, kneed her in the back. She stopped breathing She never recovered.

Michelle Cusseaux was shot in the heart – in the heart – in her own vestibule when a police officer came in with an order to take her in for mental health screening. Why? He said, "The look on her face made me fear that I was in danger. She was holding," he said, "a hammer."

And finally Natasha McKenna. Natasha McKenna. Natasha McKenna was killed on videotape. She was a black woman who also called for help. Instead of taking her to a mental health facility, the police officer ran a criminal background check on her and arrested her instead. Kept her in confinement for seven days. When they went to extract her, they all wore hazmat uniforms. Went into her cell. Opened the cell. A diminutive, five-foot-two black woman, completely nude, came out of the cell. The first thing she said was, "You promised you wouldn't kill me," and then they proceeded to kill her. They tackled her. They threw her to the ground. They tasered her four times, two times while she was sitting in a restraining chair with a hood over her face.

Now we're not going to hear much about her. There aren't marches around her. Her name hasn't become a global symbol of police violence. Why? Intersectional failure. She doesn't fit the description of a victim of state-sanctioned violence.

We believe that this issue is not an issue just in the United States. We believe that if we reach out our hands across these boundaries, we'll find other women who died in custody. We'll find other women whose names we don't know. We'll find other circumstances that show us that women are subject to private and public violence, that people of color are subject to public and private violence, that women of color are subject to both public and private violence.

So the question we have to ask is, what can we each do about it? We've been saying the first thing you can do about it is say her name. Do not allow her death to happen in silence. Do not allow their children, their loved ones to grieve for them in silence. Do not allow, do not affirm the belief that their lives are insignificant.

If we can simply begin to say their names, the invisibility that shrouds their loss will no longer legitimize what happened to them. We'll be the footstool, the first step. The movement begins when we simply say her name..

Thank you.

#SayHerName, #BlackLivesMatter, #BLM