Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw Envisions Intersectional Racial Justice

During the sixth annual Diversity Summit, Ms. Crenshaw discussed Black womanhood, critical race theory and white supremacy in the U.S.

November 16, 2020

Kimberle Crenshaw

Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw spoke about Black womanhood via WebEx during the sixth annual Diversity Summit.

By Briahnna Brown

Before most national media called the presidential election in Joe Biden’s favor, scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw was worried that “everything that we thought was not who we are, might in fact be who we are.”

She said that she was happy for the assurance that the worst was behind us, but she was then immediately concerned about the way President Donald Trump’s defeat was being framed as the country defeating white supremacy. Ms. Crenshaw immediately tweeted that we can celebrate today, but we must fight against white supremacy, fascism and dominance tomorrow.

“The moment of the victory was dissipating in front of my eyes,” Ms. Crenshaw said. “I felt the need to say, let's stop this process of both-side-ism. When we're worried about white supremacy, it's not white supremacy or Black supremacy, we were worried about dominance. It's not either I put my heel on your throat, or you put your heel on mine, it's about the fact that we are moving away from embracing values of mutuality, the values of we all count, the values of community.”

Ms. Crenshaw, who is a professor of law at Columbia Law School and UCLA as well as a leading authority on civil rights, spoke with George Washington University Law School Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew during the sixth annual Diversity Summit. The virtual three-day summit featured educational sessions by GW students, faculty and staff and alumni who were related to disability justice, LGBTQIA+ rights, Indigeneity and colonization, Black feminism, religion and issues of race and intersectionality among other timely topics.

The theme for this year’s virtual summit, “Past. Present. Future. What will our legacy be?” embodies understanding where we come from and where we are today, said Jordan West, director of university diversity and inclusion programs in the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement.

During his welcoming remarks, GW President Thomas LeBlanc said that the university community values and prioritizes diversity, inclusion and equity as evidenced through the significant virtual participation and engagement in events ranging from scholarly debates on reparations to navigating hate speech, from young adults discussing how they make change to how to build inclusivity into public health practices.

At a time when we are living through multiple pandemics of COVID-19, racism and ongoing anti-Black violence, Dr. LeBlanc said, valuing diversity and inclusion and living out these values is more important than ever.

“As an institution for learning, GW must always create spaces for members of our community to learn, to feel challenged and to determine their role in our future,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “Right now, our future demands that we actively combat all of the pandemics we are experiencing. This year we are reminded, again, of the importance of continuing to make progress toward becoming a more inclusive and welcoming community.”

Ms. Crenshaw’s discussion focused on how the fights for racial justice must be inclusive of Black women. Ms. Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989, which is the idea that multiple types of oppression work to reinforce each other to create new, unique forms of oppression. For example, Black women are oppressed by racism because they are Black and sexism because they are women, and that sexism is also racialized and vice versa.

In the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ms. Crenshaw said, it was incredibly difficult to mobilize people to fight for justice for Michelle Cusseaux in the way they mobilized to fight for Michael Brown, even though Phoenix police killed Ms. Cusseaux just a few days after Ferguson, Mo., police killed Mr. Brown. Ms. Crenshaw said that her calls for justice for Black women were met with pushback, and she was treated as an interloper on an issue impacting Black men.

This prompted Ms. Crenshaw to start the #SayHerName movement, calling for people to fight just as hard for Black women and Black trans people who are killed by police as they do for Black men.

“One of the reasons that we started Say Her Name was to draw attention to an absence, and that's a hard job,” Ms. Crenshaw said. “How do you occupy a space of no space? That was the challenge: There was no space for Black women who have suffered from police violence, and particularly those who did not survive their encounters with the police.”

Her approach to intersectionality and uplifting the unique struggles that Black women face is informed by her work as one of the original architects of critical race theory, which she said is to be critical of existing structures, having a capacity to see how race is constituted in those structures, to theorize how they continue to produce themselves and how to interrupt that reproduction.

Those who take a “colorblind” approach to racial justice are working to uphold a white supremacist approach to race and racism, she said, because now is the time to embrace our differences and find solidarity in that struggle.

“If you are saying that to articulate the ways that our history is structured into our institutions to produce these racially disparate outcomes over and over and over again, if you are saying that to do that is un-American, you're basically saying those inequalities are American, that that is fundamentally who we are,” Ms. Crenshaw said.

“So we are the ones I think, who are aspiring to a better America,” she said. “We're the ones that are taking seriously the claim that America is all about democracy, it's all about freedom.”

In terms of allyship from white people looking to make a difference, Ms. Crenshaw said that she is not looking for someone to try and partner in organizing a march or other demonstration. The types of interventions needed from those looking to be allies starts at home in challenging their community’s misconceptions about race.

“Some of the most courageous work I think doesn't happen in the streets,” Ms. Crenshaw said. “It happens in the home. It doesn't happen against people who hold power in society, it's [against] the people who hold power over what you feel comfortable saying, over what you feel comfortable challenging, over what you feel comfortable revealing."