If there’s one thing I hear in every Gender Studies class I take, it’s this:
“You know, she’s a professor at the law school here. One day, you might run into her!”
It took me two years to achieve this UCLA Gender Studies right of passage. Finally, I was walking past Royce Hall with a friend and I saw her. Here’s a dramatic reenactment of how it went:
Guinivere: “Oh my God, that’s Kimberlé Crenshaw!”
Guinivere: “Kimberlé Crenshaw! You know!”
Narrator: Her friend did not in fact know.
To me, Kimberlé Crenshaw is a Gender Studies household name. Yet nearly everyone I ask doesn’t know who she is. Not my roommates, not my friends, not my family. And every time I discover this, I can’t believe it because of just how brilliant she is.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is an incredibly influential feminist, civil rights advocate and professor of law at UCLA and Columbia, where her teaching focuses on race and gender issues. She’s also known for her work surrounding critical race theory. Crenshaw, along with the African American Policy Forum, started the Say Her Name movement in 2014.
I was first introduced to Crenshaw and her work when I read her seminal and renowned paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” When it was first published in 1989, the paper revolutionized the way feminists treated issues of gender and race. It’s long, but I highly recommend reading it — especially if you consider yourself a feminist or want to become a more inclusive one.
In it, Crenshaw introduces the term, “intersectionality,” to represent the multiple ways Black women are discriminated against. Imagine an intersection. One lane is race, the other is gender. A Black woman stands in the center of this intersection, impacted by both lanes of “traffic.” Black women’s race and gender compound to form unique discriminatory situations that a Black man or a white woman wouldn’t experience.
Crenshaw herself does a great job of explaining it in her 2017 TED Talk, “The urgency of intersectionality,” which has been viewed over a million times.
Crenshaw has been teaching the world about intersectionality since her paper was published in 1989. And it is just as relevant today as it was then. As police violence against Black people continues, intersectionality is crucial to the way society thinks and talks about it. In the TED Talk above, Crenshaw notes that many people know the names of Black men who the police have murdered but cannot name women who have suffered the same.
Crenshaw notes that “these women’s names have slipped through our consciousness because there are no frames for us to see them, no frames for us to remember them, no frames for us to hold them.” Intersectionality is that frame. It operates as a way for us to consider all of the overlapping levels of social injustice Black women may experience. It ensures that their struggles, their stories and their lives do not go unnoticed or forgotten.
“Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all [of] the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation,” Crenshaw says. Intersectionality is a way to avoid this. It takes an active effort to incorporate it into our way of seeing the world, but it is necessary work that must be done.