Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the influential scholar who coined the term “intersectionality,” received the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler prize on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Crenshaw has spent several days in residency, speaking with classes and at campus events. On Wednesday, she delivered a lecture on the intersectionality of racism, sexism and other forms of systematic discrimination and marginalization.
Crenshaw, a professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia Law Schools, delivered her lecture to a crowd larger than Rapaporte Treasure Hall could hold; students sat in the aisles and stood outside the backdoors in the rain to hear her lecture.
The Gittler prize honors scholars who “have produced a body of published work that reflects scholarly excellence and a lasting contribution to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations anywhere in the world,” explains the website for the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public life, which presents the award.
Crenshaw explained at the beginning of her presentation how surprised she was to receive an award, saying “no one in their right mind goes into social justice research and advocacy with the idea they are going to receive personal rewards or recognition for it.”
Crenshaw has earned numerous awards and fellowships around the world. She co-founded the African American Policy Forum, helped launch the Why We Can’t Wait campaign and co-authored two works on critical race theory, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” and “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.”
Crenshaw discussed critical race theory and the emergence of intersectionality, and how to relate these ideas to the risks of post-racialism in Trump’s presidency.
“There’s no moment when we can wipe our hands collectively and say ‘it’s time to move on,’” Crenshaw noted.
Crenshaw used several deft metaphors throughout her talk. She responded to recent criticisms on intersectionality, notably the idea that the concept of intersectionality causes the very problems it tries to unpack. “The common denominator in most of these criticisms seems to be precious little literacy about intersectionality,” she said. “It’s like a very bad game of telephone.”
In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, she again found herself in the position of defending intersectionality. The object of the interview, she said, was not to ask her about issues like the exclusion of black women from political discourse, but to ask about controversy surrounding the term itself.
The goal “was not to escort the subject of intersectionality into the town square. The point was to pull the vehicle that carried them over, to interrogate the idea that fit the description of controversial, potentially dangerous interloper in the gated community of legitimate academic discourse.”
Crenshaw discussed the difference in marginalization between black men and women, such as in the issue of police brutality. Towards the end of the talk, Crenshaw asked everyone to raise their hands. She listed names of black men who were killed by the police and asked the audience to lower their hands when they heard a name they didn’t recognize. She listed people like Eric Garner and Philando Castile, and nearly every hand in the room stayed up. She then listed names of black women who were killed by the police, and after the first name, nearly half the hands in the room went down; by the next two names, almost every hand in the room had lowered.
Crenshaw and her organization were instrumental in the founding the Say Her Name movement, which aims to increase awareness of black women who have been killed by the police.
During her talk, she described her surprise at one day seeing herself on Fox News. Bill O’Reilly had criticized Crenshaw’s view that while President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative mentors young black men, it ignores young black women. Crenshaw defended her standpoint of being “agitated for gender equity in the president’s racial justice initiative.” Noting the importance of recognizing the intersectional identity of being a black woman, she continued “this wouldn’t be the last time that O’Reilly or any others would denigrate black women in pursuit of defending Trumpism.”
Many statistics about young black men used to highlight the My Brother’s Keeper program apply equally to black men and women, said Crenshaw. It was an “exclusive use of inclusive data,” she said.
Her talk also touched on how certain societal critiques focus on black men, but not black women. The school to prison pipeline is an example of this—black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys, but black girls are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended.
This relates to the circularity of exclusion, where black women and girls are not included, no one discusses the situation and no one is aware of these issues.
She also described Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings as a “failure of intersectionality.” After Anita Hill came forward, Thomas’ support among the black community grew and some called Hill a traitor. She described the institutional silencing of black women as a further reason for the necessity of intersectionality.
“It was a failure to acknowledge and elevate the intersectional vulnerability of black women within our community that roped us into being complicit in creating a supreme court that has gone on to undermine the civil rights infrastructure,” she said.
The Gittler Prize includes $25,000 and a medal. Past recipients include Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, Rev. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the founder of liberation theology and Patricia Hill Collins, ’69, PhD ’84, a Brandeis alumna and prominent scholar of black feminist thought. The 2018 Gittler Prize winner has already been selected as Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emeritus at Spelman College and a leading scholar on racial identity and segregation.
Intersectionality is a “framework” to help people see situations in a more complete way, said Crenshaw. The term emerged from a consideration of how intersectional discrimination was affecting black women in the legal system, with regard to hiring practices, for example.
“Industries had jobs for black people and they had jobs for women, but the jobs for black people were not for women, and the jobs for women were not for black people,” said Crenshaw. “Black women couldn’t make a claim for race discrimination because not all black people were excluded, and they couldn’t make a claim for gender discrimination because not all women were excluded.” Black women were told it would be “preferential treatment” if they were allowed to make to compounded claims because no other group was allowed to do so.
When Crenshaw concluded her talk, the audience immediately rose to their feet and applauded. Crenshaw has engaged both with large groups and directly with members of the community throughout her residency.
Jocelyn Gould contributed audio recording.