AUTHOR: Ashley Benedict
“We are in a battle for the future.”
If you haven’t heard the name Kimberlé Crenshaw, there are two things you need to know: she coined the term Intersectionality and helped create the Critical Race Theory. This past Wednesday, January 18, Crenshaw graced Grand Valley’s campus to deliver a keynote presentation entitled, “American Democracy: Revolutionizing Our American Myths.” The central focus of this keynote was looking towards the future while examining the past. How do we move forward in this post-election America? What led to such an unexpected outcome? How has our past influenced the current situation in our country?
Crenshaw examined the effects of post-racialism and colorblindness and how these two phenomena are “perfectly consistent with white supremacy.” She emphasized to the audience how these racial tensions are not new and highlighted the history of Civil Rights and the true legacy of Martin Luther King Jr – not the glossed over version advertised to us. She explained how these phenomena have given rise to discourse of blame surrounding minority populations. At the same time, many people use the post racial card and the idea of exceptionalism (e.g., the historical election of our first black president), to deny the fact that racial issues continue to exist within this country. Post racialism, specifically, has a particularly nasty “underbelly” that many don’t recognize:
Racial difference + Inequality + Racial Power = Individual/cultural intervention
Another point she touched on was the role of higher education in politics, and how law “really helps create race” instead of being a neutral force that stays in the middle; law backs up exclusion and helps facilitate primary power relations.Too often, the law is a catalyst in perpetuating systems of oppression; this can be problematic, since many people look to the law to fix these existing systems. In short, this means that, historically, lawmakers have passed laws that are exclusionary in nature, e.g., segregation laws. Higher education has always prided itself on being “neutral” in politics, but Crenshaw explained how, in her experience during the time where African American students were just being allowed to enter white-dominated colleges, even liberal-centered institutions refused to acknowledge the issues. She spoke about unfulfilled promises from lawmakers, and the fact that “inequalities represent unfulfilled promises.”
On a separate note, Crenshaw touched on the concept of intersectionality and what exactly this term means. She discussed the Say Her Name movement, which brings attention to the black women killed by police in our country. She discussed the fact that these women often aren’t talked about, mostly because their deaths don’t receive any media attention – not like names such as Michael Brown and Treyvon Martin. The idea of intersectionality works to explain this. Many people look at racist acts and sexist acts as separate issues; they aren’t able to identify the fact that for many African American women, these two issues are realities with which they are forced to deal with every day. She explained that you can experience both racism and sexism simultaneously – or any other -ism and -phobia. The intermingling of these ongoing issues is what Crenshaw termed as “intersectionality.”
You may be asking yourself: what? That’s a lot of complex issues to cram into an entire keynote, and it’s even harder to relay back to people as a secondhand source. To truly appreciate and understand the content that Crenshaw touched on, it’s preferable to simply do your research on her writings and listen to her speeches. I promise you, it’s worth it.
If you are interested in being more socially aware within your community, Crenshaw provided Four Commitments to the audience for those motivated to actively engage in social justice:
- Resist normalization
- Engage in local struggle
- Creative conflict at home
- Practice intersectional fusion politics
“In this age it’s safe for us to assume that time is not on our side.”
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (born 1959) is an American civil rights advocate and a leading scholar of the field known as critical race theory. She is a full professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, where she specializes in race and gender issues. She is known for the introduction and development of intersectional theory, the study of how overlapping or intersecting social identities, particularly minority identities, relate to systems and structures of oppression, domination, or discrimination.
Watch Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED Talk.
Check out this book on Critical Race Theory.
Crenshaw also has a handful of scholarly works!