#SayHerName: A Q&A with Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw
March 13th marks the one year anniversary of the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in her own home. To honor the day, YouTube has partnered with the African American Policy Forum and Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, founder of the #SayHerName movement, to elevate the stories of women of color and their personal experiences with police brutality and racial injustice. You can watch our playlist here.
We had an opportunity to speak with Professor Crenshaw about the movement and the road ahead.
You coined the term ‘intersectionality’ over 30 years ago to describe the layered experiences of racial and gendered discrimination of women of color at the intersection of race and gender, as well as class and sexuality. This started as a legal term, but in recent years it has taken on increased urgency as a necessary way of challenging the constant erasure of Black women from conversations of racial and gender equity. What do you want people to understand about intersectionality?
What I want people to understand about intersectionality is that it is a way of seeing; it’s a prism that can inform advocacy, policy, and everyday practice in a way that encourages more equitable futures.”
What I want people to understand about intersectionality is that it is a way of seeing; it’s a prism that can inform advocacy, policy, and everyday practice in a way that encourages more equitable futures. It’s not some formulaic, additive, academic doctrine—it is a concept that is capacious enough to take in and understand the many overlapping social dynamics that inform how inequalities are produced and sometimes overlooked by prevailing ways of thinking about discrimination.
I first theorized intersectionality in a 1989 essay after examining the ways in which Black women in the workplace were discriminated against not just as women, nor just as Black people, but as Black women. Decades later, when we at the African American Policy Forum started the #SayHerName Campaign, we drew attention to the fact that Black women’s vulnerability to state violence was not being seen as a part of traditional anti-racist and feminist frames. What we saw was that the same intersectional failure that I’d written about in 1989 was playing out on an even broader scale.
That’s the power of an intersectional framework—it allows us to see how the limited and siloed approaches we’ve taken to discrimination create crevices that swallow up countless issues. To build more capacious approaches to social justice, we have to attend to people who fall between the cracks.
It’s Women’s History Month, and earlier this week we celebrated International Women’s Day. How should we be thinking about an intersectional approach to women’s history in 2021 and beyond?
An intersectional approach to women’s history understands that women’s history is world history. It’s Black history; it’s colonial history; it’s queer history; and it’s the history of the working class. The history of women is informed by all the ways the social and political world has been shaped. That’s because women are constitutive of every moment in human history.
This history should, of course, be celebrated and uplifted. But still, after what happened at the Capitol on January 6, we must understand that there is much left to do in order to protect what’s been accomplished. The corrosive story that this country belongs to just some of us is rewriting our past, gutting equality, and reversing efforts to make “liberty and justice” a reality.
We can’t fight for inclusion if we cannot name exclusion. It’s true of the history of women, and it’s thus true of the history of humanity.”
All across the nation, efforts to ban frameworks like intersectionality, structural racism, and gender equity rob future generations of the tools they need to ensure that no one is left behind. After all, we can’t fight for inclusion if we cannot name exclusion. It’s true of the history of women, and it’s thus true of the history of humanity.
Movements like #SayHerName and #MeToo have mobilized both online and offline with great success. How do you think that digital and social media have changed or influenced activism and community organizing?
Like all new technologies, the internet has enhanced our capacity to communicate instantly and directly. For the #SayHerName Campaign, that’s meant that we’ve been able to circumvent the usual limitations on telling stories about Black women—stories that haven’t been reported because they fall outside of conventional narrative lines. In that sense, our very capacity to know the stories of Black women killed by police, and connect with their families, has been advanced by digital and social media.
Still, as has been the case throughout history, we are collectively adjusting to the ways in which social media can be used as a tribalistic echo chamber. It’s no accident that in study after study Black women receive a disproportionate number of death threats and hateful messages online—it’s an experience that I know all too well. This hatred, injustice, and disproportionate impact are a reflection of the fact that the internet is beholden to the same structural dimensions of racism and sexism that the rest of American society is plagued by. And although the internet presents incredible possibilities for marginalized communities to come together, it still requires the same intervention and the same reckoning with histories of injustice that other facets of society do.
We’re now one year on from the death of Breonna Taylor and while no one from the police force has been held accountable, there have been changes to policing procedures such as the ban on no-knock search warrants enacted by the city of Louisville. Do you feel that these measures will have a positive impact or do they fall short?
So long as the structural dimensions of policing that insure disproportionate impact on Black people go unchallenged, all reforms are going to be piecemeal.”
So long as the structural dimensions of policing that insure disproportionate impact on Black people go unchallenged, all reforms are going to be piecemeal. That’s not to say that such reforms are not incredibly important, and that they won’t save lives as they are enacted. But new rules that change some features of law enforcement, while leaving untouched the overall project of constraining and punishing Black populations, will always fall short.
This means that the struggle is greater than just one reform on particularly egregious police tactics. We have to go much further, and probe much deeper, to talk about the role of police unions in insulating violent state actors from consequences, the role of prosecutors in targeting the most vulnerable, the role grand juries in parroting the same biases that have been reflected in the law for generations, and the role of our political system in reinforcing policing’s status quo and rewarding “tough on crime” narratives.
Case in point, it wasn’t just the existence of a no-knock warrant that took Breonna Taylor’s life. It was the War on Drugs and its targeting of the distribution level of the drug trade rather than elites in gated communities. This focus on the most marginalized predictably and repeatedly placed people of color and low-income people at the brunt of draconian policing practices, resulting in innocent people like Breonna losing their lives.
The same focus on the flaws of the downtrodden is present in the media privileging of the police story. Taken together, we have a system—and a broader social discourse—that supports an industry of life-taking. Because that industry has been the status quo in America for so long, people mistakenly think it can only be this way. That’s thinking that is being transformed by movements today.
The #SayHerName Mothers Network has been focused on centering and sharing the stories of mothers affected by police brutality and police violence against their daughters. Why is it so important that we hear from these mothers?
Historically, Black women, girls, and femmes have not fit the most accessible frames of anti-Black police violence. Their precarity is buried beneath myths, stereotypes, and denial. But the heartbreaking truth is that Black girls as young as 7 and women as old as 93 have been killed by the police. They’ve been shot, beaten, and tasered to death for driving while Black, having a mental health crisis while Black, being homeless while Black, and sleeping in their own beds while Black. They’ve been killed when they don’t conform to gender stereotypes, and executed when their very existence strikes fear into the hearts of police officers. Many times, they’re killed for simply being while Black.
The #SayHerName Campaign—and #SayHerName Mothers Network in particular—breaks the national silence around the killing of Black women by the police.”
The #SayHerName Campaign—and #SayHerName Mothers Network in particular—breaks the national silence around the killing of Black women by the police. The work of AAPF and the mothers of the movement is grounded in the belief that while Black women’s names are not on our tongues, their mothers don’t grieve for them any less, their children don’t miss them any less, and we should not protest their killings any less than the killings of their Black brothers.
#SayHerName has no marquee women. There is no one story that rises above, no family grief that is more important than another's, and no demand for justice that rings louder than the rest. This equal footing is the glue that holds the campaign together, and entrenches the work of the #SayHerName Mothers Network.
What are you optimistic about as this movement progresses? Where do you envision we are five years from now?
Although optimism is often hard to find in times like this, I glean hope from the fact that our collective consciousness is now grounded in the reality that Black women have lost lives to police violence, and that these lost lives have inspired massive, collective outrage. With that outrage, we can forward legislation and advocacy that we’ve never seen before—we can marshall a truly intersectional moment, while restructuring and reimagining what’s possible for this country.
Over the next five years, I hope that we’re able to equip thousands of change agents to enact a new story—an intersectional one, that demarginalizes Black women in order to build a more just society for all.
You are a legal scholar, a beloved law professor, a movement leader, and the pioneer of Critical Race Theory as well as intersectionality. What made you want to fight for justice in the classroom, the courtroom, and on the streets?
We’ve got a ways to go, but the only way to move ahead is together.”
To take seriously the possibility of progress, you have to take seriously that any theory of change must be collaborative and cross-institutional. Growing up in Canton, Ohio, I knew early on that my experience as a Black girl was affected by the law, and I witnessed—as the daughter of a generation of Black folks who advocated for racial justice—the possibilities of activism. From those early days, I knew that embarking on a journey to create a more egalitarian society required speaking out and talking back to injustice. The on-the-ground activism that I saw around me was supplemented by substantive work on the history and theory of transformative change that I learned in college, law school, and over the course of my career. I’m still learning, adapting, and re-imagining. It’s a lifelong process.
My orientation is to marry the often-disparate arenas of activism and academia, integrating tools and resources to promote the legal, institutional, and mass mobilizations that are necessary for true, structural change. We’ve got a ways to go, but the only way to move ahead is together.