April 18, 2024

A ‘Courageous Conversation’ with leading critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw

Equity, diversity, inclusion and intersectionality on the table at March 18 event
A woman sits on a stage with a microphone in hand
World-renowned critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw speaks at a March 18 event at UCalgary. Don Molyneaux, for the University of Calgary

A capacity crowd of over 700 people was on hand last month to take in a speaking engagement featuring Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles, and a leading scholar of critical race theory who famously coined the term "intersectionality" to describe the way people’s social identities overlap.

Crenshaw also kickstarted two of the most engaged campaigns in the social justice movement with #SayHerName and #BlackGirlsMatter.

Crenshaw’s March 18 talk at the University of Calgary’s Red & White Club

Intersectionality: Re-imaging Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in the Academy was a part of UCalgary’s Courageous Conversations speakers series. Moderated by Dr. Malinda Smith, vice-provost and associate vice-president research (equity, diversity and inclusion), the talk touched on many of the big social issues of our time.

It may have been surprising to many in attendance to hear Crenshaw — who is also the co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum — describe intersectionality, the pivotal concept she conceived in 1989, as remedial.

“I saw intersectionality as a remedial tool to help explain what seemed obvious to me, but what was difficult for judges to understand,” said Crenshaw to laughter from the crowd. “Intersectionality was a way of saying to the courts: ‘I understand you are traumatized when you have to figure out how to address a Black woman who says she was discriminated against on the basis of both race and gender, but I’m going to help you out by giving you a basic framework that maps it out for you.’”

To that end, intersectionality lays out the myriad ways by which race, gender, class, and other social identities intersect and overlap with one another in relation to societal and legal systems of discrimination and oppression. For legal and social justice scholars intersectionality is key to uncovering inequities and dismantling systems of disadvantage and injustice which are particularly harmful to members of equity-deserving groups.

From the perspective of the far right, it’s a concept that has sparked “anti-wokism” and is synonymous with preferential treatment for historically marginalized and under-represented groups, largely at the expense of white heterosexual men. Conservative voices say that proponents of intersectionality are not engaged in upending racial and cultural hierarchies so much as on creating new ones — a scenario of “reverse discrimination.”

It's no wonder Crenshaw finds herself in a “defensive posture” these days. “In recent years the conversation around intersectionality has taken such a turn that instead of describing what it is, I’m spending more time explaining what it is not,” she said at the Courageous Conversations event, MCed by Dr. Bukola Salami, PhD, RN, professor of community health sciences. Salami is also the EDI director for the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and member of the O’Brien Centre for Public Health.

Three women on a stage

From left: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Malinda Smith, and Bukola Salami.

“One way of thinking about the urgency of intersectionality is by considering the consequences of its absence,” noted Smith.

“We need to be prepared,” said Crenshaw, in an interview after the event, regarding the possibility that in November, Donald Trump may regain the United States presidency. “If he does get elected, he’s already told us what he thinks of our ideals. His party has been gearing up to use every tool at their disposal to erase civil rights gains made over the last several decades. They’ve clearly said that to Make America Great Again’ we must go back to a time that wasn’t great for all Americans.”

She adds: “This time we have the benefit of seeing it coming. We can’t say we’re being blindsided by this effort to dismantle the progress we’ve made. And the best defense is a good offense."

Crenshaw showed her willingness to be proactive during the recent State of the Union Address when Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, wearing a red MAGA hat and a T-shirt bearing the phrase Say Her Name, attempted to goad President Joe Biden to say the name of Laken Riley, a woman who was killed by an undocumented immigrant. In doing so, Greene was drawing attention to Biden and the Democrats for their approach on immigration. Crenshaw characterized her as pushing Trump’s “xenophobic, anti-immigration policies.”

Crenshaw’s response to the incident had both a professional and personal dimension. It was she who first coined the phrase 'Say Her Name' in 2015, a slogan meant to tell the stories of the many Black women who lost their lives to police brutality but were often forgotten in media discourse and public advocacy. 

For many, police violence against Black people was widely thought to be a problem experienced by Black men. Black women who experienced similar injustices had largely been overlooked, and with Say Her NameCrenshaw sought to change that.

“Everywhere, we see the appropriation of progressive and inclusionary concepts in an effort to devalue, distort and suppress the movements they have been created to advance,” wrote Crenshaw in a statement to the Associated Press.

Crenshaw’s hope is that the Say Her Name incident becomes “a point of departure for social justice advocates... to start pushing back more robustly” against the appropriation of concepts originally meant to advance human rights and make visible the experience of people with intersectional identities.

She adds: “One thing the extreme right is very good at, because they really don’t have any sense of constraint, is to take ideas and rebrand them in ways that suit their agenda. They know that if they keep repeating it, the mainstream media will pick up on the repetition. . . . We need to do the same thing and repeat our messages: ‘You are misappropriating. You are misinforming.’ There comes a point where we must turn and fight.”

A woman in black clothing sits crossed leg on a chair

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Don Molyneaux, for the University of Calgary

But it’s not only Black women that have been harmed by unjust legal systems. During their talk, and in the spirit of UCalgary’s One Child Every Child research initiative committed to the health and wellness of children, Smith asked about Crenshaw’s research on intersectionality and the experiences of Black girls, referring to a report Crenshaw had co-written in 2015, titled Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.

Black Girls Matter addressed the inequalities in both the U.S. education and legal systems that led to a “school-to-prison” pipeline for so many Black children. However, as with the Say Her Name campaign, the focus tended to be on the trajectories of Black boys.

“We knew that Black girls also faced huge racial disparities within the system,” says Crenshaw. “And their pipelines also led to negative consequences and outcomes for them over the life cycle.”

Intersectionality helped bring much-needed attention to the experiences of this long-neglected demographic group of Black women and girls.  “We were able to bring more evidence and more data to the table, which meant that young women and girls were not left out of certain social policies,” says Crenshaw.

It was another example of how, as Smith stated: “In this historical moment, intersectionality remains an urgent analytic lens, a prism for advancing equity and social justice.”

But in the current political environment principles of equity, diversity and inclusion are endangered, says Crenshaw. “One dimension of our current ‘post-truth’ reality is that those who yell the loudest have been increasingly able to define the political terrain. That is a deeply troubling development as we strive to sustain our democracy.”

She continues: “When we allow power politics to define what history is relevant, rather than the truth of history, we’re sliding to the edge of our democracy and descending into something else. The fact is, we can’t save democracy without securing anti-racism and we can’t save anti-racism without securing democracy.

“One can’t exist without the other.”

Intersectionality: Re-imaging Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the Academy with Kimberlé Crenshaw was hosted by the Cumming School of Medicine’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, UCalgary’s One Child Every Child initiative and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

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