I saw Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis tonight. Crenshaw’s work on the unique legal and political situations that Black American women faced led her to coin the term intersectionality. As she said tonight, she meant for this term to be a dynamic term of analysis rather than a noun of identity, but she graciously allowed that concepts are dynamic and take on a life on their own. As an analysis, intersectionality shows how Black women’s concerns could be captured neither by race in the law, which considered Black experience in terms of men, nor by gender, which considered women’s experience in terms of white women. A new analysis was needed to see that adding black to woman did not just mean adding those experiences up but in fact pointed to a unique set of concerns. Intersectionality has so become a part of our discourse that it is now being used against the very movement that spurred its coinage.
Tonight she gave a talk that was a model example of how public intellectuals should be engaging public audiences. The talk was purposefully marketed to the community: the Black woman sitting next to me told me she heard it advertised on Praise Indy, A Black Christian radio station in Indianapolis. Some of the leadership team of BlackLivesMatterIndy were there, as well as other activists. And of course, a bunch of academics. Crenshaw staged her talk as an interview that lawyer, civil rights activist and now radio show host Barbara Arnwine conducted with Martin Luther King, Jr. today, in these times. King wanted to know what the state of racial justice was since he’d been gone. Using that narrative device, Crenshaw was able to dramatize the real harm that has been done to the cause of racial justice by forgetting history, tracing back to Dr. King’s own work how the movement erased the previous work of women like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks. She argued that Parks has become pacified and acceptable to white Americans through the story of how she was too tired, but Parks was actually an activist who had been defending Black women for years, purposeful in her planning for this moment. She spent much of the talk drawing connections, as she explained them, between unlearned history and the present moment, having the talk show host explain to King how the things that he left unlearned from his history help produce this moment, like the forgetting of Harriet Tubman in favor of Frederick Douglass.
While effectively dragging Mark Lilla for his critique of identity analysis, she pointed to how people across the political spectrum from Black male civil rights leaders to white conservatives bought into “Moynihanism”–the idea that the responsibility for racial injustice lies with the Black family–which allowed them to naturalize patriarchy as a point of departure for advocacy up to and including in Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper project. Crenshaw argued that everyone from the right to left internalized this view and effectively ignored the structural workings of those invested in maintaining racial power. As she put it, when we broader the frame, our sense of responsibility shifts.
She took this device further to draw attention to #SayHerName and the women who have been killed by police, and to say in drawing to the close, “When we take leadership from the margins, things change.”
As I sat and listened and learned from her, I thought about how effective she was at engaging a public audience in her work even as that work was complicated and deep. She didn’t make it less complicated. But she found ways to make her case that did not require jargon and made the work significant for her audience. She honored the contributions of activists to her own work. I have shown her Ted Talk (below) of this same title–The Urgency of Intersectionality–in classes. But she wrote a new talk for this moment and this place that made this case in a new way, urgently.