Books by Crenshaw:
On Intersectionality: Essential Writings (coming 2022)
Critical Race Theory ed. Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda and Garry Peller
Seeing Race Again: Countering Colourblindness Across the Disciplines ed. Crenshaw, Daniel HoSang, George Lipsitz, Luke Charles Harris
Kimberlé Crenshaw is a pioneering scholar and writer on civil rights, critical race theory, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism and the law. She teaches at Columbia Law School, and is a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. Co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, and Columbia Law School's Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. She authored the background paper on race and gender discrimination for the United Nations’ World Conference on Racism in 2001, served as the rapporteur for the conference’s expert group on gender and race discrimination, and coordinated NGO efforts to ensure the inclusion of gender in the WCAR Conference Declaration.
It’s down to Kimberlé’s work, that we have a word for the complex way in which race, class and gender interact to situate a person in society, and to describe the way that different social disadvantages can compound one another: intersectionality. Originally a relatively obscure legal term, it’s gone viral over the last decade.
Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on intersectionality was influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution which takes into account how a person’s race interacts with other parts of their social identity.
One of the criticisms levelled at identity politics from both the Left and the Right (and everything in between) is that it encourages self-interest and discourages the envisioning of relationships between different demographics in society. For example, Black Power, Women’s Rights, or Trans Rights can be seen as statements that close those identity groups off to other groups in society. And it can certainly sometimes feel like Twitter is full of people obsessed with the idea of speaking their truth but uninterested in listening to the experiences of others. In short, contemporary society is sometimes characterised as narcissistic on the personal level, and self-obsessed on the level of identity groups.
The concept, or metaphor, of intersectionality overcomes that. As Crenshaw puts it, it is part of the arsenal in the fight to overthrow the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Seeing, and classifying, the compound power structure, and seeing and naming the compound identities that define us as social actors is a key foundation to taking action that accounts for the different roles that each of us occupy at the same time.
Naming, and drawing complex socio-political mechanisms into the light when they are often felt but too confusing to understand, is one of the key rare talents that Kimberlé possesses. Perhaps this talent comes from her legal expertise, a discipline in which words are active and definitions have to be precise. She is also responsible for identifying and naming the “school to prison pipeline” for African American children and the criminalization of behavior among Black teenage girls. On top of that, through the Columbia Law School African American Policy Forum (AAPF), which she co-founded, Crenshaw co-authored (with Andrea Ritchie) Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, which documented and drew attention to the killing of Black women and girls by police and which then led to the launch of the #SayHerName campaign to call attention to police violence against Black women and girls.
Whether you ‘buy’ Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality or not really depends on whether you accept that, although we are all unique individuals, we also exist within or in relation to social roles within society. The right have often critiqued the concept as disempowering individuals by labelling them and characterising them as victims. That’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s argument, for example. For her, the socially constructed aspects of identity that Crenshaw articulates in her intersectionality definition are things that are coincidental to who she is. ‘I happen to be black. I happen to be a woman,’ she says, ‘I happen to be a minority in the United States, I even happen to be an apostate, but none of that defines me as who I am.’
There are two ways to come back against Ayaan’s argument.
Firstly, you can accept that what she says is very true. Certainly, talking simplistically, you can have a nice white person, and a not nice white person, a vindictive woman, and a kind woman, a violent black man and a gentle black man – and everything else in between. So we can consider demographic groupings like race, sex, sexuality and class as social identities. But that doesn’t mean that those things that we ‘happen’ to be are not just as important, in how our life pans out, as things which are more integral to who we are as Hirsi Ali describes it. No, my race might not define me as who I am, but it defines me as how others see and treat me, so in the world of policy and law, a term to express my social identity is very useful.
The other argument you can make, is to say yes it does define me as who I am. This might be because of an understanding of identities which are social as also genetic, for example the belief that there is something about sex which also defines gender. But it might also be an existential belief that there is no ‘I’ that precedes any of the social identities that it wears. Even if there is some coincidental quality to whether I happen to be black, or a woman, or a minority or an apostate, when I am occupying that role, that is who I am.
And the thing is, even if social identities like race might feel like they are coincidental to Ayaan and others who follow her train of thought, when your life can be changed, or ended, just because of the way you are profiled by others, it surely can’t be considered a meaningless part of who you are.
That said, Hirsi Ali’s position isn’t a negative one if you take it as true that you can actually choose whether to be a victim or not; she’s talking about empowerment through individualism, which can be a very positive mindset. And she’s calling out self-pity in people who are actually really privileged. And certainly Crenshaw is not calling for ‘safe spaces for snowflakes’ she’s calling, most recently for example, for justice for murdered African Americans and for awareness of the individuals who have lost their life in racially motivated, violent miscarriages of justice by the police, individuals who were not seen as the valuable, unique human beings that they were, but as black and therefore as a risk, or even a target. Crenshaw doesn’t advocate for individuals to be reduced to their demographic, but commits to identifying, naming, and working against the way that people are limited to those groups by the structure of society.
Certainly in thinking about how we want Lafiy Press to work, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has been really important in our research into who is left out of the publishing world, why that might be, and therefore what we could do to improve access and outcomes.