Cause and Effect
Kimberlé Crenshaw on the Say Her Name movement and her fight for gender-inclusive racial justice.by Lauren Savage Published Spring 2016
A law professor and the founder and director of Columbia’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS), Kimberlé Crenshaw is a leading authority on civil rights, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism, and the law. In 2015, she helped create the Say Her Name movement to call attention to police violence against Black women. We sat down with Crenshaw to learn more about her efforts to highlight the challenges facing women and girls of color.
Columbia Magazine: You and your colleagues at CISPS and the nonprofit African American Policy Forum (AAPF) helped create the Say Her Name movement. Can you tell us more about it?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Say Her Name is an effort to challenge the way we think and talk about racial justice so that it becomes far more gender-inclusive. We were inspired to start Say Her Name while protesting the Eric Garner grand-jury decision. Protesters were calling out the names of Black men who had been killed by the police, but Black women who had died in similar circumstances were not mentioned. We began saying the names of these Black women. We began chanting: Say her name. It soon transformed from a Twitter hashtag into a movement. Our goal is to break the silence around state violence against women of color.
What kind of response have you received?
Some people are surprised to hear that the police kill Black women. Others are really grateful that we have raised these issues. And then there are a few — just a few — who are disturbed by it, because they actually see us as intervening in a way that is undermining the focus on Black men and boys.
What do you say to this argument that including Black women’s experiences in the movement against police brutality undermines the work being done on behalf of Black men?
My colleagues and I would say that we can’t significantly improve the well-being of communities of color without dealing directly with the vulnerabilities that women face. To ignore Black women’s experiences would constitute a deeply tragic misunderstanding of how multiple vulnerabilities get enhanced in relationship to each other. But even if you adopted the male-exclusive approach, you can’t work toward bettering the lives of Black boys, for example, without paying attention to the socioeconomic status of their mothers. In our community, the vast majority of Black children are dependent on their mothers’ income and well-being, and many of those children are living in homes with single Black mothers. Yet Black women are faring worse in the economy than any other group. Clearly, race- and gender-targeted interventions are needed to improve the well-being of Black women, Black families, and Black communities.
Your theory of intersectionality speaks to many of the challenges that Black women face. Tell us about intersectionality.
I first used the term nearly thirty years ago to describe a case where several Black women sued General Motors on the grounds of race and gender discrimination. Though the company had employed Black people and women, the jobs that were available for Blacks were only given to men, and the jobs that were available for women were only given to white women. So, for a long time, the intersection of GM’s race and gender policy had a special impact on Black women, completely excluding them from any of the jobs. The theory of intersectionality is about learning to recognize the multiple vulnerabilities that every person faces, which sometimes set us up for compounded or targeted forms of discrimination. You need to have a sense of the varying ways that people experience social injustice in order to be more inclusive of their realities. Intersectionality theory highlights aspects of discrimination that have historically made it much more difficult for certain people to be seen and for their circumstances to be addressed by the law.
Police brutality is often framed as an injustice against men and boys. What does police violence against women look like?
Sexual misconduct is the second most common form of misconduct reported against law-enforcement officers [according to a 2010 Cato Institute report], and this critical issue also requires our attention. In our Say Her Name report [released by the AAPF and CISPS in May 2015] many women point out that police have no significant constraints around the use of sexual power. In fact, two-thirds of police departments in the United States do not have a single policy that addresses sexual abuse by their officers. Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma police officer, was recently convicted of sexually assaulting eight Black women, and while he was ultimately sentenced to 263 years in prison, his conviction should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. We live in a rape culture: victims are not only blamed for the violence they endure, but their credibility is also attacked. There are untold numbers of socially marginalized women who encounter all forms of sexual violence by law enforcement and have no chance of having their cases heard or prosecuted.