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[INTERVIEW] Kimberlé Crenshaw: Liberty. Equality. Intersectionality. An antidote against fascism.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

I met Kimberlé Crenshaw at the Sorbonne University in Paris in January 2019, at a conference organized by Marta Dell’Aquila and Eraldo Souza dos Santos to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of intersectionality. Kimberly Crenshaw developed the notion of intersectionality in 1989 in her paper “De-marginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. On that occasion, her goal was to challenge the limitations of anti-discrimination laws that looked at gender and race as separated and mutually exclusive categories. Over the past thirty years, intersectionality has become an essential analytical tool to explore how multiple structures of oppression shape individual vulnerability. In this interview, Kimberlé Crenshaw offers not only a crash course in intersectionality for our readers, but tells us why intersectionality is vital to transform the current political situation. In a majestic example of theoretical sophistication and simplicity, Crenshaw uses the notion of intersectional failure to explain the election of Donald Trump. It is not simply the resentment of a white working class that feels “left behind” which explains the electoral triumph of the far right, she argues. It is working class resentment rooted in male entitlement and white supremacy, which determines this victory. In this sense, the triumph of the far-right in countries such the United States or Italy that have an un-resolved history of white supremacy and fascism, can be seen as the result of a number of intersectional failures – when class consciousness doesn’t contest the logics of racism, when anti-racism doesn’t contest the logics of patriarchy, when feminism doesn’t contest the logic of racism, they end up reinforcing them all.

A world-leading scholar of critical race theory; a full-time Professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, and a tireless advocate for civil rights, Kimberlé Crenshaw had just arrived in Paris when we met and was clearly tired by the jet leg and by the flu. We wish to acknowledge Kimberlé Crenshaw for her uncommon generosity of time, irony, superb analysis and pioneering political vision. We also wish to express our gratitude to Madeline Cameron Wardleworth, Julia Sharpe-Levine, Marta Dell’Aquila, Eraldo Souza for their invaluable support in making this interview possible.

FC: Today we are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of intersectionality and I would like to go back to thirty years ago when you used this notion for the first time. Can you tell us how you developed the notion of intersectionality and what was its purpose?

KC: Intersectionality is a metaphor that I developed to make clearer the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that are often not understood if they are cabined by race discrimination or gender discrimination. I decided to write an article to reveal the way that legal protections against discrimination had been inadequate to confront and deal with discrimination that was happening against black women, and one of the reasons why in court judges were unable to see it is that the way racism and sexism was thought about was separate and mutually exclusive categories, so you could experience race discrimination or you could experience gender discrimination but the idea that you could experience both of them was largely hard to imagine. It was as though these two types of discrimination were seen as running just on a parallel tracks, that never came together but rather run on straight linear parallel lines. I wanted to provide a metaphoric way of thinking that would bring people from the way they currently thought about discrimination as two parallel lines and say, actually these lines are not parallel but rather they curve (laughs), so let’s take that thinking and try to bring it to a point where those categories are not linear but rather they can be intersecting. I have since come to realize that you can tell people a lot of facts but if you can’t give them a frame to hold the facts together, the facts don’t matter, they cannot hold on to it, so intersectionality was a frame intended to hold some facts about a variety of ways that black women experience discrimination. One of the reasons why the facts of their discrimination didn’t hold is that the conceptual frames of discrimination suggested that racism is something that happens to all people of the same race or sexism is something that happens to all people of the same gender, but that is not always the case. In some of the law cases I was looking at there were jobs that were appropriate for black people and jobs that were appropriate for women, but the black jobs were appropriate for black men and the women’s jobs were appropriate for white women, so it was the classic kind of situation where you have two different kinds of structuring going on and when those two structures came together for blacks who were women or women who were black, they were impacted by these structures differently than blacks who were men and women who were white. So we had these facts but we didn’t have a framework, and to get judges to actually see that it is not OK to discriminate against a subset you had to more or less paint the scene of the crime for them and you had to trace how these different structures of oppression came together in a unique way for people who were uniquely situated to experience both types of discrimination.

FC You often mention the DeGraffenreid vGeneral Motors Assembly Division court case in which a group of black female employees sued General Motors alleging that their employment policies discriminated against black women. In that case, the court dismissed the claim as it failed to recognize that black women’s vulnerability lied at the margins of the legally protected categories of race and gender. Since then, you emphasized the importance of intersectionality non only in legal cases but also in rhetorics, politics, social movements. Could you tell us more about this?

KC My first use of intersectionality was in the legal cases and in pieces of legal scholarship and it was done in a context and at a time and in a way that was recognizable to people who did legal scholarship. This was the first generation of intersectionality, in a way. In that instance, I should also say that intersectionality was at the intersection between black feminist theory, since I was a black feminist, and critical legal theory, as I was a part of a law-based movement that interrogated the ways in which the law both shaped as well as regulated all kinds of social hierarchies – in other words, rather than just seeing anti-discrimination law in its inherently liberatory functions, we would see the law as much a part of constituting the structural conditions under which this discrimination happened as it was providing a solution. Both of these intellectual orientations were coming together, both to identify black women as a site of interrogation and to identify the way in which the law was functioning to naturalize what had happened to them as a social and legal problem. Intersectionality was a framework that I used to look at a whole range of issues that were historically part of the unfolding feminist, anti-racist, and eventually queer movements that were happening in the late-80s and early-90s. In those years, violence against women was a real touchpoint for the ways that feminism was travelling into the law. In some ways, violence against women was forcing us to think about how the law framed this violence and what we needed to do as feminists to reframe it in ways so as to reveal how patriarchy was actually playing out. At the time, violence against women wasn’t called that, there wasn’t an it, it was just family pathology, crazy things that poor people or people of colour do, but also things that happen to middle class women, even tough we don’t imagine middle class households to be sites of violence. Some parts of the feminist movement and the legal dimension of that movement were constituting the idea that there is something that transcends all of these narrow narratives and that is called violence against women – it is a systemic, institutional, social and cultural phenomenon. So this was happening at the same time when people of colour were also starting to critique mainstream feminism for its solipsistic dimensions. I was part of these conversations and more or less believing, in fact, that there was something called violence against women and it did make sense to try to theorize how patriarchy was systemically playing out and at the same time there was a reality that within that sameness there were also differences, there were differences in vulnerability, there were differences in access to resources and there were differences as to when the state really did care and where it didn’t, as to who had the rhetorical power to say ‘this happened to me and someone cares about it’ and who had not. There were these moments where being able to navigate the sameness and the difference was really hard to do and intersectionality was a way to frame what the challenge was for us. Patriarchy was creating conditions that were right for violence and at the same time if you are an immigrant woman facing violence from a partner on whom you are reliant for a green card, which in the US is a condition for staying, that is an intersectional vulnerability, you share some dimensions of vulnerability with elite women but there are other aspects of that vulnerability like xenophobia or linguistic access, and these are all the product of other structures of power. So, I began to see that intersectionality was useful not just for looking at the law per se but for looking at the ways that powers were often differently constituted for different people even given a common vulnerability to a social problem like violence against women.

FC: When Trump was elected, you described his victory as an intersectional failure. Largely, the mainstream media maintained that Trump was elected due to the losses suffered by the working class. In other words, the mainstream media insisted that the problem was that the white working class has been ‘left behind.’ At the same time, class resentment alone does not explain what happened. In White Rage, Carol Anderson looks at the ways in which every step forward for people of colour in US history has been met by a kind of rage-led backlash against them. It seems to me that it’s not simply about the losses suffered by the working class. It’s as if those losses had awakened a sense of entitlement to the point that class justice can only be pursued at the expenses of the racial other. What do you mean by intersectional failure and what’s the role of white rage in producing such a failure?

KC: Well, those are great questions, I mean I guess I would say, intersectional failure is the consequence of a political vision that is meant to be transformative but it fails to fully interrogate many of the baselines upon which it is activated and in that failure it makes itself vulnerable to political conditions that actually rob the movement of its ability to do what it even claims it wants to do. So we talked about intersectional failures within antiracism based on patriarchy or intersectional failures within feminism based on racial supremacy. One might also say that intersectional failures can apply to a class politics that is based on nationalist borders, xenophobic notions of what the community is or patriarchal investments as to what the family has to look like. When you are articulating investment as partial and incomplete, your ability to actually do the work that you want to do is made vulnerable. So what does a class-based movement look like if it doesn’t actually include migrant workers? What happens when your base-line of nationalist, xenophobic commitments is part of your working-class consciousness? It means that you see enemies and threats where you aught to see opportunities and it also means that there are things that you don’t see, for example you don’t see that what’s really threatening workers around the world is not other workers but rather a massive redistribution of wealth and power. So a partial working-class consciousness that doesn’t look up, but looks across and down is a prescription for the failure of working-class interests around the world. It is huge in the United States, and one of the arguments that’s been made for our turn to the far right is that this was working-class people responding to the failure of mainstream politics to see them and acknowledge them and suggest ways in which their obvious social and economic slide could become politically relevant and have some meaning in agenda setting. If that were really the case and if that really explained Trumpism, poor black women would be the number one supporters for Trump because socially and economically they experience the most significant losses! If that really was the analysis, then the folks who support Trump would look totally different. That’s telling you this working-class articulation is actually itself an intersectional failure.

FC: Do you think this is why they’re trying to reframe intersectionality as an expression of victimhood? I mean, it seems as though the far right is trying to offer an idea of intersectionality cleansed from the structures of oppression that produce vulnerability – patriarchy, racism or colonialism, never appear in their analyses. Since they can’t see any structure of oppression, they deplete the notion of intersectionality and turn it into identity politics — there’s even an intersectionality score calculator on line intended to calculate and reward the most oppressed. I guess this is what you meant when you spoke of anti-intersectional intersectionality or identity politics on steroids. Sill, if I look at Italy, a country that’s never come to terms with its patriarchal, colonial and fascist history, it seems as though intersectionality is often perceived as a disturbing term, almost a form of treachery, disloyalty or betrayal of class values, as if working class values were worth defending only if they are rooted in masculinity and whiteness.

KC: What is fascinating to me is the way that the allegation of victimhood as a demerit of intersectionality doesn’t preclude them from using their own victimhood as legitimate grounds because basically the entire critique is that intersectionality makes us victims. So it is really not a critique of the victimhood discourse, it is a critique of who gets to claim it and that’s basically a straight out power-grab. My colleague Luke Harris says that this is part of a broader anti-civil rights, anti-affirmative action, and anti-equity argument because it all boils down to what is effectively an argument of “diminished overrepresentation” – basically white males are overrepresented across society. Overrepresentation is often a product of illegitimate power and intersectionality offers rhetorical, analytic and doctrinal tools to actually interrogate that asymmetrical overrepresentation of power. The backlash to that is that intersectionality is actually perceived as unfair to them, so what’s unfair, a minor modest diminishment of their over-representation – not taking power away, not putting them under our hill, but just saying that the tremendous overrepresentation of power that they have is not consistent with democracy, is not consistent with human rights, it is not consistent with fairness, or its continued overrepresentation. The very power to claim the status of the victim so effortlessly “hey I am a victim” is an illustration of the power of being dominant, of the power of being male and of the power of being white. Kate Manne, the author of “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny,” (Oxford University Press, 2017) who I am a great fan of, has a word that applies to it and it is “himpathy” – the disproportionate sympathy given to male perpetrators of sexual violence. She talked about it in the Kavanaugh hearing, even though many people saw Christine Blasey Ford as a legitimate witness to something that seems to many people to have happened. Kavanaugh’s ability to come in and basically have a fit even though he showed fundamental lack of qualifications to be a judge, to have the temperament that he should have, there was so much of an emotional reaction of himpathy to a white elite man losing it – losing what he is entitled to have, that the fact that he loses it emotionally, psychologically, professionally is not disqualifying at all. That himpathy I think also plays a role in how simplistic arguments against things like intersectionality seem to be taken as gospel truth – it’s all about how many different victimhood claims you can make – people accept that even though the whole point of departure is to say I am a victim. I think I might have said this yesterday when I was talking about how white men make intersectional arguments all the time and they are not seen as intersectional arguments, it’s partly because the status quo begins with them with their social biography and their social identity, neutrality often comes back to white men. So when they claim that they have lost something because their entitlement to have it is the baseline, people see it is a legitimate loss. When other people claim to have lost something because their biographies, their social identities, their historical reality isn’t the baseline, the question becomes well, did you deserve it in the first place? So people of colour, women, immigrants, they don’t have the same social rhetorical capital as white men. White men can say, “this harms me,” and it’s a social crisis. People of colour can say for centuries that colonialism and slavery and patriarchy harm us and the jury’s still out on that– that’s power.

FC: The thing that frightens me is, how quickly they activate himpathy and how quickly they activate prejudice.

KC: Shapiro prejudice  is instantly activated, you activate it by saying hey, this is coming against us and this is instantly awakened. I call it a slow boil because it’s suddenly popped up, but it’s been carried in phrases like political correctness. The whole thing of fighting back against political correctness is in fact fighting back against anti-racism and feminism and fighting back against the anti-colonial discourse. When I hear people who are progressives using the notion of political correctness I wonder, you do realize that what you’re actually doing is legitimizing a move of repudiation, an idea that certain things that we’ve now repudiated in the past hurt us, hurts me? If now society agrees that political correctness is a bad thing, what you’ve basically lost is the social repudiation of all of those terrible things like slavery and racism.

I used to show a video, I still do, on the civil rights movement, this is during de-segregation when the civil rights activists were trying to integrate the lunch-counters and they had an interview with the waitresses and here you have these nice pretty white women who get livid instantly: “It violates my civil rights, my freedom to now have to serve those people.” So the ability to turn economic, racial, gender justice into an offence against other people is part of what’s caught up with this term politically correct – it violates my civil rights to be told I can’t call you the N word, I can’t exclude you and I can’t beat you.

FC: Do you see any differences between the US and Europe, in this regard?

KC: I guess the similarity that strikes me the most is denial. In Atlanta you saw straight up some of the consequences of the denial of a country that is largely grounded in theft – theft of labor, theft of land, theft of sovereignty, theft of life, and those are things that just don’t get cabined in the past, they are things that obviously project their consequences across generations. We understand the projection of certain historical moments across generations for things that we want to celebrate, American exceptionalism is all about the legacy of ‘our founding fathers’ that created this great country – we celebrate that stuff. The terms and conditions that made the US possible are not seen as relevant to anything today, they are not the point of departure to re-articulate or redistribute opportunities in American society. It’s interesting to come to Europe and also see European’s own colonial past and in some countries its anti-democratic past and its fascist past, but these things are locked away. In both continents the inability to bring history consciously forward is in tension with the way that history is materially brought forward so there’s this vacuum, this contradiction everywhere between the fact that the material conditions are a product of colonialism and slavery, and a consciousness that is unable to integrate this reality. I think this is probably a ground zero social justice movement trying to bridge the gap between the historical grounding of the inequalities that we are facing and the lack of readily available rhetorical means to make these moments available to this very moment.

FC: What do you see happening in the future?

KC: I believe that the consequences of the recent turns to the right pretty much across the planet are deeply disturbing to constituencies around the globe who are worried that the direction that we’re going in is going to get worse before it gets better, and I want to think that that encourages what I would call the party of humanity to really self-interrogate what we’ve missed and what we haven’t done effectively and let that be a lesson for what we need to now do differently. But I also am deeply aware that the opposite possibility is also the case, and that what little traction feminism and anti-racism and all the liberatory discourses actually have might actually unravel at this moment, given the tendency of some folks (even within this sort of party of humanity) to point to the liberatory mobilization as the cause of this moment (as opposed to looking at all the ways that neoliberalism and protofascism have been made possible). So I see us at a crossroads right now. We are not going to be able to convince anyone if we are unable to convince ourselves that we are not the cause of this crisis and then abandoning the partial baby-steps that we’ve taken to make our society more equitable and able to confront some of the legacies that have mis-shaped opportunities and our lives. If we accept that’s the reason why we’re here, then I don’t see how we dig our way out of that, so I see this as a critical moment and it’s critical for us within progressive movements to find ways of creating far more robust and effective interfacing, which doesn’t mean that feminists have to give up feminism, and anti-racist have to give up anti-racism, or people who are driven by class-consciousness need to give that up. It means that we have to interrogate the base-lines of all of our movements that often constitute the denial of the relevance of all the other ones. If we can manage to do that, then it seems as though we have the capacity to actually articulate a vision of the current moment that helps us get to a future that’s worthy of the lives that we want to live, and if we don’t do it, then I don’t really see what is going to interrupt the slide that we see happening all over the world. Because reinforcing the traditional distribution and logics of power that’s easy, that’s like rolling a ball downhill and that’s not going in the direction needed, to be pushing upwards, and that means we need more collective mobilization, more collective strength to do that. That only happens if we are able to more effectively weave together our various narratives, rather than certain pieces, need to be a part of the common consciousness.

The entire interview was originally published in italian in Jacobin Italia, n. 2, 2019 – here is the link to an extract.

Francesca Coin is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. Her current work focuses on the eugenic regimes that underpin the intellectual history of neoliberalism and on their role in shaping sexual and racial hierarchies in our society.