As a child of the 1960s growing up in Canton, Ohio, Kimberlé Crenshaw says she was encouraged, as early as the age of five, to discuss “interesting things” that she “observed in the world that day” at the dinner table with her parents, who were both teachers.
That prepared her for things to come.
“I gave my first speech when I was about 9 or 10 and Martin Luther King was assassinated,” she recalls. “Black activists took us to the church from school to talk about Dr. King’s life and legacy. They asked us if anyone wanted to speak about Dr. King, and we all just sat there, then I got up. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I knew something would come to me.”
And it did. By the time she got home, word of her eloquence had spread to her parents, and they were proud of her rave reviews. “But it was bittersweet because they were so bereft,” she says. “I had never seen my father cry, and he was crying full on, just crying. So I knew that this [King’s assassination] was a life-changing moment for us as a people,” Crenshaw explains.
The early training to “observe what was happening in the world and to discuss it,” was the basis of her career choices. Her education — Cornell University undergrad, Harvard Law School and a master’s of law from the from the University of Wisconsin — prepared her to tackle social justice issues and to become one of the leading scholars and activists on civil rights, Black feminist legal theory, racism and the law.
She famously coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how race, gender, class and other individual characteristics intersect, when she published an article titled, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” in the University of Chicago Legal Forum. The paper focused on three legal cases that involved both racial discrimination and sex discrimination. Crenshaw posited that Black women, being both Black and female, are subject to both forms of discrimination, possibly even at the same time.
“Black women sometimes experience discrimination in ways similar to White women’s experiences; sometimes they share very similar experiences with Black men,” Crenshaw wrote. “Yet often they experience double-discrimination — the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex. And sometimes, they experience discrimination as Black women, not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women.”
Crenshaw is currently a bi-coastal educator, holding positions such as professor of law at Columbia Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is also co-founder of the African American Policy Forum and director of the Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS), which she founded in 2011.
Her inspiration comes from Black scholar-activists of the past, especially Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. “He was probably the greatest thinker of his generation and was foundational to numerous disciplines that we take as a given today,” she says. “He was written off by others in his field as being not objective and too much of an advocate for the Negro.” She says DuBois was called an activist “because he dared to say the Negro was equal [and] dared to explore the sociology behind White domination, so you can put me on that team any day!”
This month, Diverse is conferring on Crenshaw a 2020 Dr. John Hope Franklin Award for her groundbreaking contributions to higher education, which has special meaning for the scholar. “I’m a lawyer by training and my focus is on race and racial power, and a lot of that work is about unearthing hidden histories.” She notes that Franklin served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that helped to develop the sociological case for Brown v. Board of Education. “John Hope Franklin was a master historian who was able to cut through all the ideological justification for turning Black people into lesser citizens.” She says Franklin was able to explain how discrimination “was a result of specific policy decisions.”
Crenshaw points out that even after three decades, intersectionality remains a target of right-wing critics. “We’ve seen this before,” she says, reflecting on the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders who were often repudiated by those seeking to maintain the status quo.
Conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro described intersectionality as “a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depends on how many victim groups you belong to. At the bottom of the totem pole is the person everybody loves to hate: the straight white male.”
Social activism and research
Crenshaw has not only written about these issues, she has been an advocate and activist in that space. She was an organizer of the #SayHerName movement, created to raise awareness about Black female victims of police brutality and overall anti-Black violence in the United States. She also was a speaker at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and she has lectured nationally and internationally on race and social justice throughout Europe, Africa and South America. Crenshaw also has facilitated workshops for civil rights activists in Brazil and in India, and for constitutional court judges in South Africa.
Her articles on civil rights, racism and the law, and Black feminist legal theory have appeared in publications including Harvard Law Review, the National Black Law Journal and the Stanford Law Review. She is a founding coordinator of the Critical Race Theory workshop and co-editor of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. Crenshaw has lectured internationally on race matters in Europe, Africa and South America and has facilitated workshops for civil rights activists in Brazil and in India, and for constitutional court judges in South Africa. In 2001, she authored the background paper on race and gender discrimination for the United Nations’ World Conference on Racism. In the domestic arena, she has served as a member of the National Science Foundation’s committee to research violence against women and has assisted the legal team representing Anita Hill.
She co-founded the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) with Dr. Luke Charles Harris, a political science professor at Vassar College, as a result of her involvement assisting professor Anita Hill’s legal team during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearing in 1991.
“We spent a lot of time going around the country to 14 cities raising awareness about issues such as sexual violence, aging out of foster care, gentrification — all of these through a race and gender lens,” she said.
Twenty years later, Crenshaw was named director of the Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, which conducts research and produces reports on the subjects being examined by the AAPF team.
The coast-to-coast classes, speeches and lectures along with her substantial research have expanded upon her family’s tradition of observing what’s happening in the world and not only discussing it, but finding ways to make it better.
This article originally appeared in the March 19, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.