Kimberle Crenshaw

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959 - present) is an academic and civil rights advocate. She is best known for her scholarship on critical race theoryparticularly for coining the term intersectionality and developing it as a theory. 

Kimberle Crenshaw Kimberle Crenshaw

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Table of contents

    Critical race theory is a movement of civil-rights activists and academics who examine the intersection between race, law, and social systems in the United States of America.

    Intersectionality is a term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Intersectionality examines how social identities and their related systems of oppression intersect and influence each other.

    Kimberlé Crenshaw's biography and education

    Kimberlé Crenshaw was born in Canton, Ohio in May 1959. She spent the entirety of her childhood there. Crenshaw graduated from Canton McKinley High school and went on to study at Cornell University in New York, from where she graduated with a degree in government and African Studies in 1981. During her time at Cornell, Crenshaw was a member of the Quill and Dagger senior Honors' Society, which seeks to recognise exemplary undergraduates.

    After graduating from Cornell, Crenshaw continued with her studies, earning a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School in 1984, and a Master of Laws from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1985.

    After completing her studies, Crenshaw joined the faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she lectured on civil rights and constitutional law among other subjects. It was here that she became a leading figure in critical race theory. In 1995, Crenshaw earned her role as a full professor at Columbia Law School, where she later founded the Center for Intersectionality & Social Policy Studies.

    Over the course of her academic career, Crenshaw has become a well-respected scholar and lawyer. In 1991, Crenshaw assisted the legal team representing Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' US Senate confirmation hearings, following his nomination for the position of Supreme Court Judge. In 1996 she co-founded the African American Policy Forum, and in 2000 she wrote the background paper on Race and Gender Discrimination for the United Nations' World Conference on Racism.

    Anita Hill is a lawyer and author who became well-known when she accused US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas is now a judge on the Supreme Court.

    African American Policy Forum is an organisation that presents research and policy suggestions intended to advance social inclusion.

    Crenshaw continues to write on civil rights and intersectional feminism. In 2015 she was named 'No. 1 Most Inspiring Feminist' by Ms. Magazine; she was awarded the Outstanding Scholar Award for Fellows of the American Bar Foundation in 2016.

    Ms. Magazine is a liberal feminist magazine, founded in 1971 by Gloria Steinem.

    Kimberle Crenshaw, a close up image of Kimberle Crenshaw with her hair up in a black dress, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Kimberlé Crenshaw.

    Kimberlé Crenshaw's work on intersectionality

    In her 1989 essay 'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.' Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality.

    In this essay, Crenshaw highlighted the problematic consequences 'of the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis', most notably how the focus of feminism on 'the most privileged group' (white women) leads to the marginalisation of 'those who are multiply-burdened' by different types of oppression.

    Although, as admitted by Crenshaw herself, the concept of intersectionality already existed in academic discourses surrounding systems of oppression, it was only formally recognised as a theory after Crenshaw coined the term.

    Crenshaw's initial inspiration for the concept of intersectionality was her own experience in academia. While studying, she realised that the intersection of gender and race as two connected aspects of a person's identity was under-examined or not examined at all in her classes. Due to her academic background in legal studies, Crenshaw intended the term to be 'used to capture the applicability of black feminism to anti-discrimination law'. 1

    In her 1989 paper 'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex', Crenshaw discussed the 1976 case of Degraffenreid vs General Motors, among two other legal cases. Crenshaw highlighted how in this case, five Black women sued General Motors on grounds of both racial and gendered discrimination. However, all pre-existing anti-discrimination laws considered race and gender as separate entities. Therefore, no specific law existed to defend the rights of these women. Instead, the court considered whether these women had been discriminated against based on their race or gender separately.

    As not all women were discriminated against in the case, it was ruled that the women could not prove that they had been discriminated against based on their gender. And, as the women could not prove that all Black workers had been discriminated against, the court ruled that the women had not been discriminated against based on their race. Therefore, in the eyes of the court and pre-existing law, the women had not been discriminated against.

    The theory of intersectionality reveals that the women had been discriminated against. The combination of two systems of oppression (racism and sexism) in relation to their identities as Black women made them face more difficulties than Black male workers and white female workers.

    In her 1991 paper 'Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color' Crenshaw set out three types of intersectionality; structural, political, and representational.

    Structural intersectionality

    Structural intersectionality examines how social structures, such as legal and educational systems, work to create differences in how minority groups experience areas of their life compared to the most privileged group.

    Political intersectionality

    Political intersectionality acknowledges how, in a political context, systems of oppression conflict and cross over depending on the factors which make up the identity of an individual.

    Representational intersectionality

    Representational intersectionality underpins the importance of representing people of different genders, races, sexualities, and abilities in art, film and television, and literature, as well as in politics and positions of power.

    One of Crenshaw's most notable contributions to political intersectional feminism is her role in and commentary on the case of Anita Hill in relation to the Supreme Court Nomination of Clarence Thomas. After Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, he labelled the case brought against him as a 'high tech lynching'.

    As noted by Crenshaw, Hill was perceived as a woman rather than as a Black woman, and her accusation of Thomas was at times framed as a racial attack. The case became an issue of race versus gender, rather than an issue of the intersection of race and gender. Hill was heavily supported by the feminist movement, but the lack of intersectionality in this support removed the aspect of race from Hill's experience and identity. By contrast, Thomas was largely supported by the Black community. 2

    Although Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality originated in legal scholarship, over time the term has become one used across multiple disciplines, from feminist politics to literary analysis.

    Important works by Kimberlé Crenshaw

    Let's take a look at some of Crenshaw's most popular works and the themes that are discussed in them.

    'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex' (1989)

    It was in this paper that the concept of intersectionality was first introduced as a critique of the 'tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of gender and analysis'. Throughout the paper, Crenshaw highlights how these categories intersect with and influence each other. By not recognising this, we erase Black women in the 'conceptualisation, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination'. While the basis for the paper is legal cases and concepts, the term intersectionality soon became used much more generally.

    Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement (1995)

    This work is a collection of essays edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas. The collection of essays acts as a general foundation for the concepts and ideas behind critical race theory. Crenshaw's essay 'Race, Reform and Retrenchment' is included in the collection. The essay examines the influence of racism on the subordination of Black Americans and considers arguments stating that civil rights reforms have not been successful in achieving racial equality. Crenshaw highlights the social and cultural systems of oppression that work against Black Americans, and how these go beyond reforming legal systems of oppression. For civil rights reforms to create equality, they must recognise how different systems of oppression intersect and address the racist norms which exist in the social structures of America.

    On Intersectionality: Essential Writings (2014)

    On Intersectionality provides an introduction to Crenshaw's work on the concept and theory of intersectionality. The book contains a number of Crenshaw's essays on the concept of intersectionality and its importance in developing solutions for a more equal society that facilitates opportunities for black people.

    Kimberlé Crenshaw's key quotes

    'Intersectionality and identity politics: Learning from violence against women of color' (1997)

    Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently."

    'Opinion: Why Intersectionality Can't Wait,' The Washington Post (2015)

    Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power. Originally articulated on behalf of black women, the term brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members but often fail to represent them."

    "I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use," The New Statesman (2014)

    In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political moment, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race. So this is in continuity with that."

    Kimberle Crenshaw - Key takeaways

    • Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959 - present) is an academic and civil rights advocate. She is best known for her scholarship on critical race theory, particularly for coining the term intersectionality and developing it as a theory.

    • Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in her 1989 essay 'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.'

    • In 1991, Crenshaw assisted the legal team representing Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' US Senate confirmation hearings, following his nomination for the position of Supreme Court Judge.

    • In her 1991 paper 'Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color' Crenshaw set out three types of intersectionality; structural, political, and representational.


    1 Bin Adewunmi, 'Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use," The New Statesman (2014).

    2 Aamna Mohdin, 'Kimberlé Crenshaw: the woman who revolutionised feminism – and landed at the heart of the culture wars.' The Guardian (2020)


    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Kimberlé Crenshaw (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kimberl%C3%A9_Crenshaw_(40901215153).jpg) by Mohamed Badarne (https://www.flickr.com/people/44112235@N04) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Kimberle Crenshaw

    Where was Kimberle Crenshaw educated?

    Crenshaw graduated from Canton McKinley High School and went on to study at Cornell University in New York. 

    After graduating from Cornell, Crenshaw continued with her studies, earning a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School in 1984 and a Master of Laws from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1985. 

    What is Kimberle Crenshaw known for?

    Kimberlé Crenshaw is known for coining the term intersectionality in her 1989 paper  'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.' 

    How old is Kimberle Crenshaw?

    Kimberlé Crenshaw was born in 1959.

    What is intersectionality according to Kimberle Crenshaw?

    A term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality examines how social identities, and their related systems of oppression, intersect and influence each other. 

    Who is Kimberle Crenshaw and what did she do? 

    Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959 - present) is an academic and civil rights advocate. She is best known for her scholarship on critical race theory, particularly for coining the term intersectionality and developing it as a theory. 

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