DISTINGUISHED: Kimberlé Crenshaw
IT WAS excellent timing that during Women’s History Month, well-respected US academic Dr Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw visited the UK.
A law professor by trade, Crenshaw’s work has been instrumental in advancing the understanding of critical race theory – the study of how race impacts society’s power structures.
Crenshaw explains: “We focus on racial structures; we focus on institutions, as well as individual forms of racial discrimination. Our focus is less on the idea of prejudice and bias, because that suggests that racism is simply a matter of prejudice against people of a particular colour. That’s a very narrow definition of racism. We look instead at racial power.”
Her input has influenced thinking about equality in global moments of importance, including the United Nations World Conference on Racism, and drafting the equality clause in the 1996 South African Constitution.
The professor is a pioneer of intersectionality – analysing how different inequalities interact with one another, such as race and gender.
Yet, feminist politics is too often overlooked within black communities.
Crenshaw responds: “Race equality is gender equality…I can’t abide by or accept a version of anti-racism that says ‘we will handle the race problem and we’ll get around to the gender problem afterwards’.
“Racism has always been a problem of gender and vice versa. Feminism, to me, is a quite basic idea around gender equity, in the context of family, community, nation, and the world. Fighting for racial equality while leaving gender hierarchies in place is basically just fighting for half a community.”
For those who dedicate their lives to challenging social injustice, the moment of recognition occurs at a very young age. For Crenshaw, who was born in 1959 in the midst of the civil rights movement, she was aged 5.
“I was in the car with my parents,” she reminisces. “My mother was very fair-skinned; my father and my brother were my complexion, a little darker. We were sitting at a red light, and there was a white family in the next car, and they kept staring.
“My brother was very nationalist. He was like, ‘what are they looking at? What are they looking at?’ Then my father said ‘oh, they just think your mother’s white’. I said: ‘Mum is white!’ They were like ‘what’? They all turned around at the same time to school me on the fact that just because my mother was light-skinned, doesn’t mean that she was white…That was my first recognition that there was something in this racial structure.”
Crenshaw went on to attend America’s prestigious Cornell University and Harvard Law School, before joining UCLA’s School of Law as a professor from 1986 to present day. She also lectures at Columbia Law School.
It is her background in law that Crenshaw attributes to her work in critical race theory – “an offshoot of the first generation of students who integrated into law schools after the civil rights movement”.
She recalls: “Those were the days of the student protests, the days of people marching in the streets demanding justice. Then we [the second generation] were the ones who came in, looked around and saw that the furniture needed to be changed around, maybe the whole architecture of the institution needed to be rethought, and that we’d have to start from the ground up.”
Since then, much has improved in the way of equality of civil rights, but Crenshaw believes that it is dangerous – not to mention premature – to celebrate the dawn of a post-racial era, specifically in the US, just because there is a black man in the White House.
“Some people say, ‘…I’m not going to acknowledge my race or your race. And I’m not going to listen to or engage in any race talk,” Crenshaw continues.
“It’s this idea that to eliminate race, you have to eliminate all discourse, including efforts to acknowledge racial structures and hierarchies and address them,’ she says. “It’s those cosmopolitan-thinking, 21st Century, ‘not trying to carry the burdens of the past and you shouldn’t either’ [people].
“Along with them are people who consider themselves left, progressive and very critical, who in some ways join up with the post-racial liberals and colour-blind conservatives to say, ‘if we really want to get beyond race, we have to stop talking race’.”
Crenshaw says there remains a challenge in showing why discussions on racism is still important – or being “racially attentive”, as she puts it – in order to dismantle a power structure based on race.
“It is not a useful use of social construction to say, ‘well, since we built it, we can take it apart by just not ignoring it’,” Crenshaw argues. “It’s not the acknowledgement of race that created white supremacy. It’s what people did with that acknowledgement.”
She also believes we have gone backwards when it comes to applying feminism to discussions on race equality.
“I think there have been some times in history where we’ve done better than we’re doing now,” Crenshaw explains.
“Classically, for us in the United States, slavery was a system in which there were gender-specific obstacles to it, and we fought not just to end it for one gender.
“We recognised across the board that it created particular kinds of harms that were both the same for men and women and some that were different by men and women.
“That recognition of a commonality struggle, even though there might be gender specific manifestations…abided well when we stuck to it.
“I think we’ve been less successful in efforts to frame anti-racism around producing in our own communities the same kind of male-focused policies, and male-centric leadership… we haven’t done so well there.”