September 9, 2018

The urgency of intersectionality

Written by Alejandra Vasquez

Michelle Cusseaux. Aura Rosser. Tanisha Anderson. Mya Hall. Natasha McKenna. These are the names of but a few African-American women who were victims of police brutality in the past two years. Why are most people unfamiliar with these names? Activist and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw urges us to ask this question. Through her theory of intersectionality, she explains the overwhelming underrepresentation of violence against African-American women in activism, politics and media.

“The problem is, in part, a framing problem,” Crenshaw says. “Without frames that are capacious enough to address all the ways that disadvantages and burdens play out for all members of a particular group, the efforts to mobilize resources to address a social problem will be partial and exclusionary.”

For Crenshaw, this meant developing a language as a method of understanding this problem, she says: “When there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem. When you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it.”

Inspiration struck as a law student, when she came across the case of Emma DeGraffenreid, an African-American woman who sued a manufacturing company for not hiring her on the basis of race and gender. The judge dismissed her claim, noting that the company had hired people of her color, and hired people of her gender. It just didn’t happen to hire people who were both. Crenshaw seeing this obvious injustice (or “injustice squared,” as she puts it) imagined DeGraffenreid standing at the intersection of being both a woman and an African-American. This intersection is at the heart of the theory of intersectionality, a theory Crenshaw has developed to describe how our overlapping social identities relate to structures of racism and oppression.

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