The term “intersectionality” has been subjected to extreme misinterpretation. Contrary to the recent erroneous musings of critics like New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, intersectionality is not a cult, a new-fangled campus craze, or even a distraction from the so-called “real issues.” The term was coined by Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw as a tool of insight: a flashlight, not a distraction.
Used by Crenshaw to describe the crisscrossing oppressions of African American women, intersectionality first appeared in a legal paper over 25 years ago. Now the term is as contentious as it is ubiquitous.
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In this interview, Crenshaw offers a primer. A solid understanding of the real social conditions existing across race, gender and class isn’t just important because it fills in important gaps and misreadings (of the last election’s results, for example), but also because it gives us the knowledge we need if we are to bring people and movements together, and avoid repeating our divide-and-conquer history.
Find out in this interview where Crenshaw was for the Women’s March on Washington in January, what she makes of the debate over her term, and why she thinks we’re in a social justice “SOS” moment.
Crenshaw is a tenured professor of law at Columbia and UCLA Law Schools and the cofounder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.
Laura Flanders: Just to start, you were described in the New York Times, in an article by Amanda Hess, as “the leading thinker around this question of intersectionality, which is the predominant concept affecting our understanding of race, gender, social justice and movement-building.” That must have felt pretty good, didn’t it?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Well, you know, it’s amazing that the word intersectionality is on everyone’s lips. At the same time the way people are using intersectionality is varied at best.
Give us some examples.
Well, there’s some visions of intersectionality that just portray it as, “It’s complicated, it’s intersectional,” so basically there’s no explanation for what it is, and that’s often the end of the conversation.
I think the second thing that I’ve seen is the idea that intersectionality is basically identity politics on steroids. First you have the negativity associated with addressing the politics of identity, being reduced to a term, “identity politics,” that now functions kind of like “political correctness.” It’s the thing that you don’t want to be. Then you throw intersectionality into it, so it takes everything that’s bad about identity politics and then complicates it by a factor of a thousand. Those aren’t really the most productive ways of thinking about intersectionality at the moment.
You don’t say! What did you make of the way that the [Women’s] March on Washington handled some of these questions?
It was again another complicated moment, because on one hand it was important that a women’s march actually show the connections between issues that face women as a group and issues that women have specific kinds of ways of experiencing but are not traditionally seen as a women’s issue. Like immigration, for example, [is] not traditionally seen as a “women’s issue,” but immigrant women who are undocumented have a whole range of risks and vulnerabilities associated with being a woman who is undocumented.
It was important to be able to address those kinds of issues at a moment when the actual frame was about women. I thought that was great. Then there are other moments when I think folks thought intersectionality was just about who is standing up there. Not necessarily what they’re saying. You can be a woman of color or you can be a queer woman and not necessarily have an intersectional analysis…. You can be a white woman or a man of color and have an intersectional analysis. It’s one of the reasons why I stay away from the idea that you can tell if a movement or an organization is intersectional just based on who’s leading it. That’s not always the case.
It’s a big question, but if you were organizing a march tomorrow how would you tweak it? What would you do?
Yeah, well, one of the things that I would do, as I look at the different issues, is think about how intersectionality shapes the issue. Not, “Who are we going to get to come and talk about it?” One of the campaigns that I’ve been involved in is the #SayHerName campaign. We’ve been trying to draw attention to women, Black women, who have been victims of police violence. Say Her Name showed up at the march but not in a particularly broadened way that one would expect.
Mothers of the Movement were there. That was an important thing to make sure that we understand that state violence is of significance to women. That was important. But the mothers of women who were killed by the police were marching with us and they weren’t really speaking or featured. What do we make of that? Number one, it was important to have all the ways that women are impacted by state violence. That was a step. A further step is to think about, “How is state violence impacting women who are actually victims of state violence?” It’s basically just opening the vision so we don’t have holes in how the issue is presented.
You just released a report that is a transcript of an extraordinary webinar that you hosted in the days after the election of last November. You brought together 16 social justice experts. It’s called “Social Justice SOS.” I encourage everybody to check it out. The learning that your webinar afforded all of us was around all of those issues.
If we [had] “intersectionalled” better we would have understood how the votes happened. We would have understood how the issues were resonating or not in the media. We would have been able to anticipate white women’s votes, for example, because it has to do with patriarchy more than the “women”-ness of those voters…. The report is basically lifting up some of the most significant moments in the conversation, but I think also in reading the report you get a model of what it looks like to think about this moment in terms of an intersectional framework.
The class bit of it, for example?
The most common frame now that you hear is this election was about class, not about race. This election was about losses suffered by the working class. Well, of course, if class was the same set of experiences across all different groups you wouldn’t have had such a split between white men and Black women. When we’re talking about class, there is a class division right there. Obviously what is happening is people are framing class in a singular, biographic frame. Basically, white men.
They’re not taking into account, in fact, that even the effects people are saying contributed to this are far more significant in the lives of Black women and the lives of people of color — loss of economic security, all of the things that people say contributed to it — actually were happening among the people who voted the most against Trump.
Why do Black women vote the way they do?
That’s a class issue. It’s a race issue. It’s a gender issue. There’s an awareness of vulnerability coming not just from a lost expectation. This is something that Tim Wise talked about. It’s not just loss. It’s loss against a backdrop of expectation. He talked about white nationalism having created a set of expectations [for white people] about “what is supposed to happen to me and what is not supposed to happen to me.”
When certain things start happening that go against that grain, Luke Harris calls it diminished over-representation. You think you’re supposed to have 100 percent. Turns out you only had 90 percent. That leads to the resentment, the anger, the righteous indignation. You have other people like Black women, [for whom] the expectation is always forward-looking. It’s always, “How is my life going to get better?” It’s not, “This wasn’t supposed to happen to me.”
I think they just came into it with a very different set of expectations that then played out differently in the ballot box. That’s the kind of thing that an intersectional analysis brings to the table.
Project yourself into the future, 50 years. How will the history of this moment get written, do you think?
I see two possibilities. The one possibility is the way we think back on the election of 1876. The election of 1876 was the backlash election against the First Reconstruction. It was the election that decided the future of African Americans for seven decades. It was the election that led to the abandonment of the newly freed slaves. It led to the destruction of early efforts to create a public education system. It led to the disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans. It led to the fact that the first Black senator that we had after that moment didn’t happen until [the second half of the 20th century].
That’s the kind of thing that can happen: a complete unraveling of the basic infrastructure of civil rights. We could look back with that lens at this moment and say, “It’s not just the fact that Trump got elected.” It’s also the Democratic response, the response of civil society, the response of media that tells itself that the reason why this happened was because we’ve been too deeply associated with social justice. The whole idea is that we have to move back to the right to retake the white voter.
It could be a history like that. I don’t want that to be the history, right? I say … let’s try to tell this story: It was finally recognized that our inability to talk directly and persuasively about the expectations that have been generated by a history of white supremacy, of class domination, of patriarchy, led us to a moment where we were easily divided. We know we can’t do that again.
Anything that feels like it’s going back in the direction that we came from is obviously not the thing to do right now. Just number one, not that thing any more. Number two, now we know we need to have better ways of talking across movements. We need better ways of building movement infrastructures that actually ask: How do we connect up?
I want to say that in 50 years, this was the wake-up call, this was the moment when we recognized that actually we do have a greater constituency than we think. We just now need to figure out how to be far more strategic and visionary about mobilizing these resources, mobilizing this energy, and we need to have expertise to help us do the jobs that we need to do to build the connections that are necessary. It’s not just a word.
There’s been so many pitfalls that we’ve fallen into as a people over the centuries. One of them has been “divide and conquer.” If, for example, Donald Trump decides white men need a program like My Brother’s Keeper only for white males, what do we do? What about those white women who will say, “Yes, that is a good way to use public funding”?
Yeah, absolutely. We have got to be able to have a language that points in the direction of the problem, not the representation or the person. That’s actually the problem with the existing My Brother’s Keeper program. It’s not a program that is based on problems created by sexism, the problems created by white supremacy, the problems created by neoliberalism, the problems created by withdrawing public resources from all public institutions. Instead it creates this narrative that this particular person needs help.
Our failure to be able to challenge that makes it that much more difficult for us to challenge the versions of it that could emerge in the Trump administration. I think that being able to be far more literate on what actually the social conditions are across race, across class, with an awareness of the ways that race and class exacerbate some of these issues, gives us a platform to say, “What are the ways that moving in this direction actually recreates that expectation of the way that certain members of our population are experiencing a crisis?” And we need to be concerned about trickle-down social justice. We know trickle-down social justice doesn’t work, and in case we need some examples, here they are from history.