By Taylor Galla '18
On April 28, Scripps College welcomed Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, to campus for a lunchtime discussion followed by a lecture later that evening in Garrison Theater. The purpose of both talks was to discuss intersectionality in the political and social discourse surrounding anti-black racism in the United States.
The lecture in Garrison began with a brief introduction from Scripps College President Lori Bettison-Varga and Wanawake Weusi president Shanisha Coram ‘17, who gave a more detailed background of who Crenshaw is and her work surrounding racial justice.
“My talk tonight speaks to the current in which some widely contradictory impulses are playing out in the social arena,” Crenshaw said. “Most dramatically, this past year has witnessed the rising resistance to police violence and the apparent impunity with which individuals who are clothed with state power have been able to take lives without consequence.”
She began by introducing the discourse that recent events surrounding police violence has sparked around racial issues in America-- specifically, the racism towards blacks that has manifested in police brutality.
“The anger and agony of these deaths [such as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others] has released a powerful discourse of resistance and a dynamic effort to name the particular dynamics of this form of anti-black racism,” Crenshaw said. “Specifically, an issue has been the ways in which anti-black stereotype narratives and social imperatives have been woven together in a manner that enables the continuing drumbeat of death within an ideological framework that renders these killings to be normal, acceptable and even defensible.”
Crenshaw explained how the stereotypes and beliefs embodied in this anti-black racism lowers police accountability in terms of their treatment of all bodies, not just those of African Americans. When police are able to behave in the manner in which they do towards African Americans, she explained, what is stopping them from behaving corruptly and unjustly towards people of all races?
Crenshaw compares police violence in this way to the “way that the discourse surrounding welfare shredded the safety net for all poor women.” In other words, an unjust act is targeted at a specific group, it can easily spread to unlawful behavior towards a wider array of groups.
She explained that this particular form of racism both targets the targeted groups themselves and also creates a standard by which all other bodies are also made vulnerable. For example, if a law is passed that makes a certain facet of something illegal, the social understanding of that thing can expand this illegality to something larger that affects more people.
Crenshaw expanded this concept to the Black Lives Matter movement that signifies the unmattering of black life that has occurred in our society. She states “[O]ne doesn’t have to say things matter that clearly do.” To say black lives matter raises the question of under what circumstances black lives have been made out to not matter.
She then began to discuss post-racialism as the state our society is currently in. Post-racialism, said Crenshaw, “might be thought of as a more popular or more palpable vision of color-blindness which in turn denies and minimizes and erases institutional and structural forms of racism.”
Post-racialism is an acceptable way of talking about race, according to Crenshaw, who said also that one names race but not racism as one of the causes/consequences of some of these aforementioned issues. We as a society perceive that we’re in a post-racialism age and therefore do not name things as racist, only saying that race plays a role-- not necessarily in a good way or a bad way. We do not admit to our own acts of racism because we perceive that because we’re in this state of racial tolerance compared to various times throughout our history, they are not truly racist.
Crenshaw then explained that this issue in particular has been discussed extensively but what has not been discussed are the ways in which patriarchy has made post-racial discourses accessible to a broad array of social justice advocates and people of color.
Crenshaw explained that in our society there exists “Intersectional erasure or intersectional failure. That is to say, it reflects on the racist discourse that has failed to take up and to center a critique of patriarchy within it.”
She went on to explain that “[I]n today’s era of post-racialism, this intersectional failure has infiltrated what I call a shotgun wedding between racial justice movements on the one hand and conservatives and liberals on the other hand who are basically interested in racial justice as a measure of crime prevention.”
What has made these sorts of movements powerful for those politicians and activists, explained Crenshaw, is the demarginalizing of girls and women of color.
Crenshaw calls these women who refuse to have their voices silenced the “daughters of Harriet Tubman” because, “like Harriet Tubman, I hope many of you know, she was a freedom fighter of the highest order. She freed or stole hundreds of slaves out of bondage, never having lost one. [...] She was fierce, she was a warrior, she was successful; yet when it came time for her to collect her pension, like any other soldier, any other freedom fighter, she was denied-- relegated to the position of a mere wife of a soldier-- forced to accept a sustenance not as her freedom bounty but as an appendage to a man-- a man we only know now because he was married to Harriet Tubman.” Today’s racial discourse, Crenshaw said, is a very mirrored dynamic. Women and girls are seen as appendages to boys and men and not involved in their own struggles which are very much there.
Crenshaw explains, “I hold up Harriet’s legacy as a North Star in our contemporary efforts to steer racial justice advocacy towards a more inclusive social vision and a more robust social practice.”
She then began to explain that facts and figures surrounding these issues mean nothing without the proper frames. To illustrate, Crenshaw showed the audience a picture of cows grazing in a field surrounded by smoke and smog from factories. She asked who we would fault for the sick cows, and said that many people would blame the farmer and not feel personally connected to the problem. She then showed another photo zoomed into the smoke and smog from the factories to emphasize the health factor that may have been ignored by viewers in the previous photo, and said that with this photo, people would have a different answer to whether they are connected to or implicated by the problem. Because of the emphasis of the smog which people created, they would see their life habits and their own health to be connected to these cows.
Crenshaw equated the first frame to color-blindness, explaining that “we see it as a social inequality that does not implicate us; we see individuals that are responsible for it or that the cows are responsible for their own sickness.”
“[There is] all this kind of stuff that frames the problem in terms of the individual cows that are there. If we have a broader viewpoint of this sickness, we see that many of the environmental dimensions are not about the individual level of behavior or of the culture of the cows but instead it’s about the environment in which the cows are situated or the environment in which we are situated.”
She then went on to explain that frames like this replicate the idea of problems being framed on the individual level as opposed to the institutional level and the power in that difference.
She explained that the intersectional framework grew out of African American women protesting GE Motors who claimed that they were being discriminated against because GE did not hire African American women. The courts did not accept these women’s case because they said that the women could not prove they were being discriminated against. The courts claimed that the company was not engaged in racial discrimination because they hired African American men, and that they were not engaging in gender discrimination because they hired white women. Since both of these things were true and the African American women could not prove that GE was being discriminatory towards ALL of one or the other, they were charged with wanting special treatment and justice was not served.
Crenshaw elaborated on this case by asking listeners to “imagine the race and sex and class discrimination as all being different forms of power that ran along different thoroughfares and the dynamic dimension of the discrimination, the actual policy was the actual traffic that was running through a racial axis, a gender axis or a class axis.”
It was all of these policies coming together, Crenshaw explained, that created the instance in which the women were discriminated against. This intersectionality created political consequences because the courts tended to see the whole class of gender or race as those who are dominant within that respective group. This meant that agendas and typical cases were determined by either African Americans who were men and women who were white-- if certain things happened to them, it happened to everyone. They were the representatives and no one else was.
Crenshaw explained that “[T]he point of intersectionality was to draw attention to the ways in which the clarification or the understanding of discrimination typically was based on those who were dominant and that meant that the agendas were theirs.”
She explained that even though intersectionality is everywhere and is frequently discussed, there are still significant erasures that take place, particularly surrounding education and the current grassroots vocalization surrounding police violence and accountability.
“When one has a non-intersectional view of what racism looks like or what patriarchy looks like, it means that the agenda is going to be limited largely to those who are seen of being representative of the whole class,” said Crenshaw.
In terms of education, she specifically discussed a project called My Brother’s Keeper in which President Obama has worked towards making environments in which children are growing up the healthiest and most beneficial they can be because “children’s issues are women’s issues and women’s issues are children’s issues.” The logic behind this is largely that what the government can do to help children will directly help women, as they tend to be the primary caretakers.
When the issues discussed specifically involve families of color, however, women’s issues are nowhere to be seen-- Obama talks about “youths at risk” and those who have been left behind as being the target of this project, but those individuals are boys of color rather than all children of color, according the Crenshaw. When we discuss the school to prison pipeline, punishment, stereotypes, etc., all of these problems have been framed to almost exclusively affect men and boys of color.
Crenshaw believes that we’re marginalizing girls of color in terms of falling into the category of “youths at risk” and those who are in need of help. She argues that these girls are “not just fine” even though it may seem this way because their issues are not at the forefront of the discussion. People do not recognize them as having issues that society needs to confront because they have not been talked about. This is a vicious cycle because so little is known about the issues that are not recognized, and are thus not discussed and are not helped.
Crenshaw elaborated, “[I]t leads to a vicious circle of exclusion because when funded programs come online like My Brother’s Keeper, that are designed to bring to scale small-scale programs for people who have been affected, there are no programs or policies that affect girls because we assume that girls have not been affected, which then leads to a re-constitution of the same problem: girls are not facing the same challenges as boys.”
Crenshaw’s talk shed extensive light on the fact that girls and boys of color encounter much of the same problems in schooling but also have different experiences in some ways. Society must honor the struggles that both face and make it known that girls and women of color experience immense struggles and hardship at the hand of institutionalized racism, and our society must change its understanding and perspective in order to help create change.
Crenshaw’s talk was very well-received by the Scripps community as it reflected many of the core values that as a campus we attempt to discuss and keep at the forefront of our minds such as racism, classism and intersectionality.
For more information about Crenshaw and her work, check out her twitter bio and information page from UCLA: