02: Kimberlé Crenshaw
lawyer and activist
Kimberlé Crenshaw is a Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, and a leading authority in the area of Civil Rights, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism and the law. Her work has been foundational in two fields of study that have come to be known by terms that she coined: Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.
Miranda Barnes is a native New Yorker currently pursuing a BA in Humanities and Justice at John Jay College. She is formally the Youth Representative and Documentary Photographer for the Women's Caucus for Art at The United Nations.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on August 31, 2016, in Kimberlé's Manhattan apartment. Miranda Barnes photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
KIMBERLÉ: I grew up in the midwestern state of Ohio in a small town called Canton. It is sport-centered, male-dominated. The education system largely grinds to a halt when it comes to football games; in assembly, the accomplishments that are most celebrated are sports accomplishments. So in that environment, a girl, and a black girl in particular, has to find her way. My parents were both school teachers. My mother was born and raised in Canton. Her father was one of the only black doctors in town, so everyone knew her and she knew everybody, which was hell for me.
KIMBERLÉ: I grew up in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, where it was still legal to segregate black people throughout the south, and in practice it happened in many places in the north, as well. My parents were activists, both in a traditional sense and also in [our] family. When we came to the dinner table every day we had to talk about what we had seen, what we learned...basically justify another day's existence on the planet. So when you're encouraged at a young age to observe, look, think, and opine about the things that you see, and much of what you see has to do with the way that race is playing out, that [became] a common thing that we would talk about.
Then as I got a little bit older, I started to think, "This girl thing has got some stuff going on with it, too!" [laughs] My most dramatic moment of awakening was sort of a preverbal awareness that something about my girlness was gonna be different than other girls' girlness.
I had this schoolteacher who had this game that we used to play called Thorn Rosa. It's kind of a mashup of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White in this song that people used to sing. We all had to link hands, and as each of the characters entered the circle, whether it was the horse or the mouse or the wicked witch, we had to hold up our hands and the person would come in —so there all all these little parts. But of course the coveted part was Thorn Rosa. So I played every role that you could think of, thinking that the better I play this role, the sooner I'll become Thorn Rosa, and boy, when I'm Thorn Rosa I'm going to enter as the regal princess that I want to be! And the days passed and the days passed, and I never got to be Thorn Rosa! I was like, oh my god I'm going to lose my mind if I don't get to be Thorn Rosa! So this panic set in towards the end of Kindergarten. Every day I'm like [whines] "Can we play Thorn Rosa? Can we play Thorn Rosa?" And my teacher's like "Oh tomorrow, tomorrow." So I lived in dread of like, what happens if tomorrow comes and I don't get to be Thorn Rosa? My life will be over!"
So we actually got to the last day of school and every minute I'm like "Can we play Thorn Rosa? Can we play Thorn Rosa?" And she said “Okay! In a minute, in a minute!" So we finally get to like, 2:00 (school’s over at 3:00), and she said "Ok, ok, we're going to do Thorn Rosa!" So we all link up and there's this long procession of the animals, and the wicked witch, and the prince, and the queen, and the king, and then finally when they start singing "And then Thorn Rosa enters," the bell rings! [laughs] Right? And I'm standing there thinking [howls] "It can't be!" So I start to cry, and she starts to feel bad, and she says "Ok ok ok ok, you know what? We're going to do it outside on the lawn, just don't freak out." So we get outside on the lawn and we start the whole song over, but of course by this time, parents are coming to take their kids home!
KIMBERLÉ: They start saying "Johnny, come on!" "Carlos, let's go!" So the circle gets smaller and smaller to the point where there's no people to hold their hands up for the grand entrance, and the last person gets called away! And I start to howl. You know that heave that comes from deep inside? My brother is on the other side of the playground, and he hears me crying and he knows that it's his little sister and he comes running over, saying "What happened?" And I'm like [blubbers], "The name was Torn Rosa! Thorn...Rosa...!" [laughs] And he's like, "Who's Thorn Rosa? She beat you up?"
KIMBERLÉ: "What family she from? Where can I find her?" He was asking everybody, "Who's this Thorn Rosa?" [laughs] And so we began this procession going home, where I'm just crying like, and he's following me like "Who's Thorn Rosa!?" We get home, and this is the end of school for everybody, you know? This is supposed to be a grand time! And here I am lying across the couch like, wahhhhhh!
KIMBERLÉ: Crying about Thorn Rosa, and they just couldn't figure it out. So I'm heaving, and you know you just get to the point where you're like: [hyperventilates, wails]
KIMBERLÉ: So they called the teacher, and I couldn't really hear what was going on. I think I kind of fell asleep, because when I woke up, my teacher was there! She came to my house! And [she said], "There, there.” And [she] gave what I guess is an apology to a six year old. [laughs] Like, "Don't cry, blah blah blah,” with this crazy promise that we'll do it next year. Now I'm old enough to know that, you know, Kindergarten's over.
KIMBERLÉ: But I can only think that that deep level of grief was my own confrontation with the denial that initially sets in [after you say] "I'm just like every other girl," when in fact you're not like every other girl. You're not blonde, you're not blue-eyed, you don't look like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and you’re not gonna be treated like that! [laughs] So figure it out, have your moment, and then put together what [your girlhood’s] gonna be about!
My girlhood was about confrontations with what it meant to be black, and what it meant to be a girl, but then in moments [like Thorn Rosa], confrontation with what it meant to be a black girl. And in some ways, it's different from both of those two things separately. That kind of early confrontation with the intersections of race and gender happened really early in my life. I didn't have a word for it, I didn't have a name for it, but I had an emotional confrontation with it, which I think carried me through teenhood into young adulthood and eventually into intellectual and political pursuits that I continue to do to this day.
SOPHIA: Did you have any specific moments in which [your family members’ experiences of blackness and gender] impacted your particular idea about who you were?
KIMBERLÉ: Having both a brother and an older brother [meant] having someone who saw you as part of his world and protected you against external threats, but as brothers are wont to do, could be a bully at home. That kind of ambivalent relationship between me and my older brother in some ways typifies ambivalent relationships that a lot of girls have with men in their lives. On one hand [his attitude is] “[she’s] mine, and you can't harm her;” on another hand inside the home or the sibling relationship, that sort of protectiveness isn't always expressed. So [it’s a process of] trying to figure out..."in this moment, am I valued to you?" I'm valued to you when Thorn Rosa's trying to beat me up, but when we're in the house and you're annoyed at me, you’re the one who's trying to beat me up! [laughs] So learning how to navigate that was another moment when I kind of learned a little bit about what you have to do to make your relative powerlessness less powerless.
[My parents] were into corporal punishment —so [my father] had a rule that if either one of us got in trouble or bothered him, we could both get in trouble. He'd send us to church early to go to Sunday school, and for some reason my brother thought that my father and mom weren't gonna be coming to church that day, which is odd because my mother was the organist and he was the director.
KIMBERLÉ: Yeah I have no idea! We got out of Sunday school and sat for the first prayer in church, and he said "Let's go!" And I was like, "We can't go!" And he said "Daddy told you to follow my rules, so we're gonna go!" So up I go out of church with him. We take the money that we had gotten for collection and went and bought some candy and some pop!
KIMBERLÉ: We just had a good old time! And I'm thinking, "I'm following the rules! The rule was, do what he says!” So we get home, and sure enough, they had gone to church, looked for us, and we weren't there. [My father’s] idea was that we were both gonna get punished! I was like "How is this fair!? You told me to do what this one said. This one started doing it so now I’m getting punished?" My father always used to say "Don't let [Kimberlé] get a word in edge-wise," because I would argue unfairness!
These are the moments of negotiating between the patriarch and the junior-patriarch. But the end of it came when we [would] have to wash the dishes; my brother and I would get into little shoving things, you know. He liked to tease me a lot, so he would say "You little kid!" And I would cry, and I would say stuff back to him, and when I finally got him mad, he would hit me! [laughs] Or throw the dishrag in my face, you know, ways that you taunt little kids when they've gotten under your skin. He knew that I was never gonna call dad, because dad's like "if I have to come up, then you're both gonna get it!" So [my brother's] like, “You don't want him, so I'm gonna do anything I want!” It hit me one day that the only thing that my brother was scared of was my father. So, ok, maybe I might get a spanking, but I'm getting it anyway. If I call my dad, you are too! So I said "I'm gonna go tell dad!" And he said "No you're not!" And I said, "Watch me!"
KIMBERLÉ: I went to dad, gave him the whole list, so my dad kind of put us both on punishment, but the fact that [my brother] was getting it meant that I now had a lever. So if it got bad enough that I was willing to engage in civil disobedience, basically, to change the system, then that was what we were going to do! So really early on, [I had] a sense of, [there being] some way to figure [a just solution] out —even if it means a little bit of a cost to me, if it's gonna cost you, too, [and] that's going to change the equation.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about any moments in which you had to deal with both the power of others and your internal power as you were in school and developing your career?
KIMBERLÉ: I think that early on [I saw power as] a liability sometimes. Girls who have ideas or girls who lead things are often not the preferred girls, and that became obvious to me. It also became obvious that even other girls are going to be kind of ambivalent about it. I would be the troublemaker, I would be the loudmouth, I'd be the conflict-resolver, but not the "preferred girl" when it comes to, for guys, dating. It's a two-edged sword to come into power by contesting power. You kind of have to acknowledge that. Frederick Douglass used to have a statement, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." That's true. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction —so yes, you can be [engaging with power], but it's not inconsequential.
A certain part of my teen years and young adult years —I would say even to now— was learning to deal with the various consequences of dealing with assertion of independence and your own agency. 'Cause the world, particularly a world that's built around patriarchy, doesn't exist to reward women and girls for independence, or being an agent for disruption. Disruptive women are rarely fully embraced, even by those who benefit from the disruption. Learning to live with that and to be satisfied by following the beat of your own drum is a lifelong lesson, and every moment you relearn it with new tools and with more support, but it is, I think, the reality of living in a society that constantly remakes itself to reproduce some of the same relationships that have always been part of it.
SOPHIA: You now spend your life working on issues of intersectionality, and you yourself occupy multiple spheres of oppression. How has doing this work throughout your life transformed your relationship to or your ideas about your womanhood, your blackness, or the intersection of those things?
KIMBERLÉ: I have sometimes complained to friends about something that might've happened, and my friends will say, "Yes, I can believe it, and the reason why is because someone once came up with a word called intersectionality! And it means that this kind of thing happens!"
KIMBERLÉ: "Why the heck do you think that it wouldn't apply to you?" So it's kind of funny because I live inside this life, and there are moments where still I experience things and ask, "What just happened?" Then I have to catch up with myself and say "What just happened was stuff that you've written about for thirty years." Even within my own head there's this la-di-da expectation of, "Yes, I'm a law professor!" or "Yes —a black person," or "Yes, I'm a woman," but something happens that reflects: "Yes, well not like other law professors," "Yes, not like other women," or "Yes, not like other black people." There's still that moment of going "Oh wow, I didn't see that coming," and you [have to respond:] "So why didn't I see that coming?"
I know that inside my own life there are these moments that you can never fully sit with and be like, "Yeah, of course!" You always need to have that, "I can't believe that!" [moment], because [it’s necessary] in order to disrupt the expectation that of course it should be that way. You should never give up whatever energy generates righteous indignation. It tells you that it always takes a few moments after something happens for the analysis to catch up, right? And that's useful, because it keeps your expectations from being the same as what reality is. You always want to have a higher aspiration for how life ought to be, and at the same time you don't want that catch-up to take too long, because you want people to see the things that are happening in order to transform them. So if there isn't a sense of "the fact that this happened is kind of jacked up!" You don't really have the ability to actually transform some of the conditions that actually shape people's lives.
That's what, on a broader trans-historical scale, is so important about moments like this with Black Lives Matter, or moments earlier in history with Civil Rights, or within the last decade, when marriage equality happened; they’re moments when the entire society is rethinking what is natural and normal. Their righteous indignation about that is enough to generate a momentary "I'm mad about it," but also a more sustainable: "And here are the things I'm going to do about it, and I'm joining together with hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to actually make those transformations real rather than just momentary, conscious ‘I'm annoyed’ kinds of moments.”
SOPHIA: Were there any particular interruptions to speak of during the process of theoretically developing [intersectionality]?
KIMBERLÉ: I went to Harvard, and it was a prestigious, but largely corporatist, status-quo-oriented kind of legal education at a time when many of us who were interested in racial justice saw ourselves as part of a radical rethinking of law, which not only included "How can we get civil rights to work better?" but more broadly, "How can we understand more clearly how law has helped create the racial structures that we live in?" As a law student I was really involved in a group called Critical Legal Studies. They were a radical group of law professors and students that were constantly thinking and talking about how you had to deconstruct many of the assumptions that make people think that we live in a fair country because we have something called the rule of law. Well what actually is the rule of law? What are the politics behind that set of beliefs? There were folks who were trying to rethink class relations and then another group who were trying to rethink gender —how patriarchy was deeply structured through law, some who would even say how law is male— and then we came along and we did the sort of race term, like "Let's think about how law is white!"
Each of these terms created a new vocabulary in our political discourse, but none of them directed themselves toward the subjects that fell in between. Feminism and anti-racism each had a project, but [we had to] to figure out how to create an interface between those projects so we could talk about: "What happens to women of color in employment settings where they hire men who are black and women who are white but they don't hire women who are black? Do we have a theory for that? Do we even know what happens? And if we don't know what happens, then what's the next critical project that we need to be talking about?"
There's both the challenge of "How do we get law to be more expansive to [address intersectional discrimination,]” and "What does it tell us about power that a) this is still a problem, and b) many of our anti-racist allies, feminist allies, don't even see it?" Intersectionality begins with the awareness that law structures relationships in ways that create vulnerabilities that are multiple for many people, but it doesn't end there. Intersectionality extends to identity politics, organized campaigns, organizations, national organizations like the NAACP and NOW, that at that time didn't have a rhetorical or conceptual strategy that could identify how some of the folks in their own groups were not being well-served by their agendas because their agendas were not intersectional.
When we were demanding the law school rethink its hiring policies, we were told and had somewhat participated in a committee coming together to look at women candidates, and a committee coming together to look at candidates of color, but at a certain point in the process it kind of became clear that the women that were being looked at were not women of color, and the people of color who were looked at didn't include women, each committee thinking that the other one was dealing with that issue, so women of color kind of just fell through the cracks because the "colored people" don't include women, and the women don't include "colored people." Now how's that happen? [laughs] It turns out it happens a lot, repeatedly.
SOPHIA: In "Traffic at the Crossroads," you wrote that "Rather than settling for top-down analytical strategies, we need to listen to ground-level-experts—the marginalized women themselves—and examine their experience and actual conditions, exploring how these reflect overlapping systems of discrimination." What have you found to be some of the most appreciated and effective methods of listening to women of color and allowing them to speak?
KIMBERLÉ: I'm grateful to have been part of a strategy over the last three years to take the process of listening and incorporating the voices of women and girls of color into the praxis of anti-racism and feminism through this town hall series that we've been doing with my organization, African American Policy Forum. We have been hosting these events all over the country, and our basic orientation is that in order to really create transformative changes in the way we think about anti-racism or feminism, you have to create the public will —a set of demands to say "here are a whole range of experiences that we don't know about, and as a consequence we don't advocate around them, and because we don't advocate around them, we effectively send messages to institutions like the police and others that it's ok to do this stuff to this part of the population because nobody's paying attention. When no one's paying attention, oppression happens, and we have to change that." So we've gone to various communities and said, "We want the spotlight for two, three, five hours to be on women and girls of color."
When we talk about police killings, we all know about Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Do we know about Michelle Cusseaux and Tanisha Anderson? We don't know those names, and that's telling us that there's a problem. To solve the problem, we need to sit down and actually provide the opportunity for families of women who have been killed by the police, young girls who have been sexually abused by the police, women who have been made homeless by housing policy and welfare reform, girls who have been kicked out of school or suspended for having an attitude or wearing the same outfit that someone else has worn, but her body looks different in it so somehow she's framed as obscene. We can go on and on about the particular experiences of race and gender that are not part of our political dialogue because we don't have the tools yet to immediately say the names of the women along with the men, or the girls along with the boys.
The hearings have been tremendously powerful and transformative, but also importantly, they have been mobilizing for women and girls who have had experiences but didn't identify them as group experiences. We’ve been talking to teenage girls about conditions in school, and one of the reasons this was important is because there are lots of programs and researchers who talk about the school to prison pipeline as something that only impacts boys, so much that even girls who are caught up in the same thing will talk about its impact on boys, and not its impact on themselves. [In the town halls] they’ll tell us all kinds of stuff! Girls will get sent to detention or even kicked out of school for typical kinds of things that happen between girls: they have beef with each other, they have fights with each other, they'll get annoyed with the teacher. And if a girl does it there's a sense that it is out of character for a girl and therefore more criminalizable. If a boy has an attitude to the teacher, they might just say "Oh well at least he's in class." [If it's a] girl: to the office. If you get sent to the office enough times, you become a target, a problem, and the first time you actually do something that escalates it, you get sent home. When girls are suspended, they become less likely to graduate and more likely to have a whole range of other things happening to them, including running away, being sexually abused, [and] a host of other risk-factors that lead to juvenile incarceration. So these are just some of the narrative lines that we tell. How do you go from a school-suspension policy to being homeless? Or being trafficked? How do you go from having a history of child abuse in the home to being arrested at school? What happens when you've been raped and there are no resources in school to give you any kind of trauma treatment, and a teacher gets on your nerves, and you hit them? [The] first time anyone ever sees you is when you're in detention, not when you've experienced the prior trauma that led to the course of events.
So these are moments where family members and ministers and teachers and community leaders finally hear for the first time how women and girls are experiencing a lot of these systems that everyone is already talking about. It's the first time that a lot of women and girls hear about it. It's an important step in building consciousness towards transformation to recognize that what you might be experiencing as an individual is actually part of a system. And it is a system for girls of color that really doesn't yet have a name, but not having a name doesn't mean it's not doing harm. And it's the voices that allow that to come into awareness.
SOPHIA: I feel like you just answered this, but what do you think that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
KIMBERLÉ: You're right, some part of it is there, which is: make the space for other women. I know that that seems kind of boiler-plate, but I think that one of the conditions for some women to be successful, to rise to the level of leadership, has been [a result of] signaling that they won't necessarily be disruptive, and open up space for other women to be, to be seen, and to exist. Say Her Name actually came out of that desire to creatively disrupt a narrative that was increasingly excluding the ways that black women are subject to state violence. One of the things that I do when I talk about Say Her Name is ask everybody to stand up, and tell them to sit down when they hear a name they don't know. I can go through five, six, seven men's names from Mike Brown to Philando Castile, and audiences around the country —black, mixed, radical, professional— they will know six, seven men's names. Then I started to say Michele Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Natasha McKenna, Meagan Hockaday —black women that were killed sometimes within the same week of the men— and no one will know their names. [One can] look around the room, see all the people who are still standing, and then [upon hearing] the first woman's name, almost everyone sits down. It's sort of a dramatic reenactment of the erasure that's ongoing. I ask people to think about "What does erasure mean? And what is it telling us about our own capacity to make space for women and girls where we're also making space for men and boys?”
It shows people that there's a problem, but it also shows people that goodwill is not enough to change the equation for women and girls. Being a progressive is not enough. Being a feminist is not enough. Being a Black Lives Matter activist is not enough. You've got to embody your conception of what it means to be an activist for these causes by an awareness of all the intersectional erasures that are happening even within your existing frame. Then you gotta commit to actually doing something about that frame. Our symbol for Say Her Name is a word puzzle, and it's got names for like twenty black women who have been killed by the police. It's not just their names, it's a word puzzle, which means you've gotta actually do the work of moving the weeds, and lifting up what is in plain sight, but buried under our fogginess around intersectional vulnerability. Say Her Name meaning, say the ways that this issue is playing out on women and girls, and commit yourself to never allowing that erasure to take hold within the structures and rhetorical modes of political activism that are part of the movement.
That's what I would like to see women more broadly do across a number of issues. What are our day to day practices that participate in that erasure? If you identify the practices, then you're able to articulate what needs to be done differently, but when you just see it as "Oh, I gotta be better at this," and you don't know what the "this" is, it will reproduce itself. [But] it’s an ongoing process…and we're never there. I think thinking of anti-racism, feminism, intersectionality as a destination that's just over the hill is actually sometimes immobilizing. Malcom X said that "Racism is just like a Cadillac; they make a new model each year."
KIMBERLÉ: We can aspire to building more effective tools to identify, more effective relationships to build coalitions, more inclusive definitions of the problem, to work against the tendency to shiloh our movements. It's all a matter of catching up with and meeting the fact that....globalization is about globalizing power, and we need to think about social justice in the same terms. How do we go beyond group —> nation —> tribe —> gender to create a more globalized understanding of what is unjust, and how do we build the tools in order to more effectively resist what is this century's articulation of colonialism, racism, and gender power? It's a matter of being more effective at realizing our aspirations.
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