“I have to make it a habit to come up the road more often,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw to an applauding audience in a packed Campbell Hall last Wednesday evening as she began her talk titled “Say Her Name: Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait.”
Crenshaw is a professor at both UCLA School of Law and Columbia School of Law and the director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia University. She is also a critical race theory scholar most known for coining the term “intersectionality” which is used today in academic and activist discourses.
In her essay Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, Crenshaw developed intersectionality theory to explore the way multiple oppressions interacted with each other. She found that multi-oppressions marginalize black women in ways that were different from black men and white women.
In her 1989 essay, she wrote, “Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender.”
Furthermore, intersectionality theory addresses the fact that black women most often experience discrimination “not [as] the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women.”
The use of the term intersectionality has recently grown in popularity, with use of the terms “intersectional” and “intersectional feminism” peaking over the week of March 4 in 2018, according to Google Trends.
Crenshaw’s popularity was obvious before the event started. Though the event was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., two long lines that curved around Cheadle Hall began to form by 4:45 p.m.
UCSB Professor of English Felice Blake and UCSB Vice Chancellor Margaret Klawunn introduced Crenshaw. Klawunn introduced the event as a collaboration between the MultiCultural Center and the Division of Student Affairs’s “Living Lives of Resilient Love in a Time of Hate” series. Blake talked about the impact of meeting Crenshaw several times while she learned and taught at both UCLA and Stanford.
Crenshaw moved away from the traditional lecture format to deliver most of her analysis by describing a vision she had after President Donald Trump’s inaguration. In her vision, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Arnwine, a Professor of Law at Columbia University and the founder of Transformative Justice Coalition, have a conversation about contemporary social issues.
Among some of the topics King and Arnwine discuss in Crenshaw’s dream are the falsehood of the post-racial society after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the failure of governmental programs to include women, the stigmatization of mother-led black families, and the black women who have been killed by police but ignored by the public.
Crenshaw brought up the Degraffenreid v. General Motors court case to highlight the purpose of intersectionality theory. In this case, a group of black women, including Emma Degraffenreid, sued GM for discrimination.
The plaintiffs argued they were facing both sex discrimination and race discrimination. Ultimately, the court ruled against them on the basis that they “could not combine the claims.” This left the plaintiffs unable to describe the unique way they were being treated differently than the non-black women and black men who worked there.
Crenshaw advised black women and other multiple-oppressed groups not to wait for what she called “trickle-down social justice,” calling it ineffective.
Another enlightening activity was when Crenshaw asked the audience to raise their hands and keep them up until they heard a name they did not recognize. Crenshaw read the names of several black men that had been killed by the police: Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. The majority of people kept their hands up. However, as the names of women were read, such as Rekia Boyd and Korryn Gaines, hands quickly fell. This indicated that people were unfamiliar with those events.
Crenshaw’s storytelling format made the importance of intersectionality clear because it moves feminist and anti-racist movements ahead. She ended the talk and showed a video tribute to Vicky McAdory-Coles, whose daughter India Beaty was killed by the police last year.
In her last note, Crenshaw remained hopeful but cautioned against superficial progress.
“We will know we are on the right path when Say Her Name, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too don’t have to be demanded but expected,” Crenshaw said.