Crenshaw Urges: Challenge the Narratives

When Ashley Judd spoke of “intersectionality” during the Oscar ceremony this past Sunday night, Kimberlé Crenshaw was thrilled. Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate, feminist, UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law professor, coined the term back in 1989. But in the movements that have dominated the current cultural conversation — #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BlackLivesMatter, to name a few — the topic of intersectionality is in the spotlight.

Crenshaw, who addressed HBO employees in celebration of International Women’s Day, explained that she had developed the term first to define what she could only describe as “the crack that women of color were falling into,” but acknowledged intersectionality now reaches far beyond that, to matters of sexuality, disability, immigration and more.

To illustrate the concept, Crenshaw suggested thinking of a traffic intersection. “Narratives are created,” she explained, “and we’re all used to navigating a space, but intersectionality is when these pathways cross each other. What happens when an accident happens and the people who support each path can’t determine where the problem comes from?”

She cited the case of Emma DeGraffenreid, an African-American woman who sued GM, claiming that she had faced employment discrimination based on race and gender. The judge, finding that African-Americans and women had both been hired by the company, dismissed her case. But, as Crenshaw pointed out, the African-Americans were men, and the women where white; neither represented the case of a woman of color. “This is what I’d call an intersectional failure,” she said.

One of the major challenges to intersectionality is what Crenshaw called “schematic thinking.” “If the facts don’t fit the frame, we discard the facts,” she said. She summoned the classic riddle about a father and son who are injured in an accident and raced to the hospital, only to hear the surgeon decry, “I can’t operate, this is my son.”

“The first time I heard this,” Crenshaw confessed, “It took me a beat to realize the surgeon was his mother. We take instruction from the people we can see in the role, and it can be a steep climb for people who don’t fit the image.”

Making sure the right stories are being told and passed along is one way to combat these schemas. Crenshaw mentioned Rosa Parks, who famously inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There’s more to the story, said Crenshaw: Parks was not a tired woman who just refused to surrender her seat on the bus; she was also an experienced civil rights activist.

“The stories we tell, the images we lift up, the ways we think of social justice issues have everything to do with where we are in this country,” Crenshaw concluded, “and new possibilities happen by revisiting the past and bringing it forward.”