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TEDWomen 2016

Kimberlé Crenshaw: The urgency of intersectionality

October 27, 2016

Now more than ever, it's important to look boldly at the reality of race and gender bias -- and understand how the two can combine to create even more harm. Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the term "intersectionality" to describe this phenomenon; as she says, if you're standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you're likely to get hit by both. In this moving talk, she calls on us to bear witness to this reality and speak up for victims of prejudice.

Abby Dobson - Artist
Passionate about using music as a tool for empathy cultivation, Abby Dobson creates music to inspire audiences to reflect on the world we live in and engage in action to promote transformative social change. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'd like to try something new.
00:12
Those of you who are able,
00:15
please stand up.
00:16
OK, so I'm going to name some names.
00:20
When you hear a name
that you don't recognize,
00:23
you can't tell me anything about them,
00:26
I'd like you to take a seat
00:28
and stay seated.
00:29
The last person standing,
we're going to see what they know. OK?
00:32
(Laughter)
00:35
All right.
00:37
Eric Garner.
00:38
Mike Brown.
00:42
Tamir Rice.
00:46
Freddie Gray.
00:51
So those of you who are still standing,
00:56
I'd like you to turn around
and take a look.
00:57
I'd say half to most of the people
are still standing.
01:00
So let's continue.
01:04
Michelle Cusseaux.
01:07
Tanisha Anderson.
01:15
Aura Rosser.
01:22
Meagan Hockaday.
01:27
So if we look around again,
01:30
there are about four people
still standing,
01:32
and actually I'm not going
to put you on the spot.
01:35
I just say that to encourage transparency,
so you can be seated.
01:37
(Laughter)
01:41
So those of you who recognized
the first group of names know
01:44
that these were African-Americans
who have been killed by the police
01:47
over the last two and a half years.
01:51
What you may not know
01:54
is that the other list
is also African-Americans
01:56
who have been killed
within the last two years.
02:01
Only one thing distinguishes
the names that you know
02:07
from the names that you don't know:
02:11
gender.
02:14
So let me first let you know
that there's nothing at all distinct
02:16
about this audience
02:22
that explains the pattern of recognition
that we've just seen.
02:24
I've done this exercise
dozens of times around the country.
02:28
I've done it to women's
rights organizations.
02:32
I've done it with civil rights groups.
02:35
I've done it with professors.
I've done it with students.
02:37
I've done it with psychologists.
I've done it with sociologists.
02:40
I've done it even with
progressive members of Congress.
02:44
And everywhere, the awareness
of the level of police violence
02:48
that black women experience
02:52
is exceedingly low.
02:54
Now, it is surprising, isn't it,
that this would be the case.
02:57
I mean, there are two issues
involved here.
03:01
There's police violence
against African-Americans,
03:03
and there's violence against women,
03:06
two issues that have been
talked about a lot lately.
03:08
But when we think about
who is implicated by these problems,
03:11
when we think about
who is victimized by these problems,
03:17
the names of these black women
never come to mind.
03:21
Now, communications experts tell us
03:25
that when facts do not fit
with the available frames,
03:28
people have a difficult time
incorporating new facts
03:32
into their way of thinking
about a problem.
03:36
These women's names
have slipped through our consciousness
03:40
because there are no frames
for us to see them,
03:44
no frames for us to remember them,
03:47
no frames for us to hold them.
03:49
As a consequence,
03:53
reporters don't lead with them,
03:55
policymakers don't think about them,
03:58
and politicians aren't encouraged
or demanded that they speak to them.
04:01
Now, you might ask,
04:07
why does a frame matter?
04:09
I mean, after all,
04:10
an issue that affects black people
and an issue that affects women,
04:12
wouldn't that necessarily include
black people who are women
04:18
and women who are black people?
04:22
Well, the simple answer is that this is
a trickle-down approach to social justice,
04:25
and many times it just doesn't work.
04:30
Without frames that allow us to see
04:34
how social problems impact
all the members of a targeted group,
04:36
many will fall through the cracks
of our movements,
04:41
left to suffer in virtual isolation.
04:44
But it doesn't have to be this way.
04:49
Many years ago, I began to use
the term "intersectionality"
04:53
to deal with the fact
that many of our social justice problems
04:59
like racism and sexism
05:03
are often overlapping,
05:05
creating multiple levels
of social injustice.
05:07
Now, the experience
that gave rise to intersectionality
05:13
was my chance encounter
with a woman named Emma DeGraffenreid.
05:18
Emma DeGraffenreid
was an African-American woman,
05:24
a working wife and a mother.
05:27
I actually read about Emma's story
from the pages of a legal opinion
05:30
written by a judge
who had dismissed Emma's claim
05:36
of race and gender discrimination
05:40
against a local car manufacturing plant.
05:42
Emma, like so many African-American women,
05:47
sought better employment
for her family and for others.
05:51
She wanted to create a better life
for her children and for her family.
05:54
But she applied for a job,
05:59
and she was not hired,
06:01
and she believed that she was not hired
because she was a black woman.
06:03
Now, the judge in question
dismissed Emma's suit,
06:07
and the argument
for dismissing the suit was
06:12
that the employer
did hire African-Americans
06:14
and the employer hired women.
06:19
The real problem, though, that the judge
was not willing to acknowledge
06:23
was what Emma was actually trying to say,
06:27
that the African-Americans
that were hired,
06:30
usually for industrial jobs,
maintenance jobs, were all men.
06:33
And the women that were hired,
06:39
usually for secretarial
or front-office work,
06:41
were all white.
06:44
Only if the court was able to see
how these policies came together
06:46
would he be able to see
the double discrimination
06:51
that Emma DeGraffenreid was facing.
06:54
But the court refused to allow Emma
to put two causes of action together
06:58
to tell her story
07:04
because he believed that,
by allowing her to do that,
07:05
she would be able
to have preferential treatment.
07:09
She would have an advantage
by having two swings at the bat,
07:13
when African-American men and white women
only had one swing at the bat.
07:18
But of course, neither
African-American men or white women
07:24
needed to combine a race
and gender discrimination claim
07:29
to tell the story of the discrimination
they were experiencing.
07:33
Why wasn't the real unfairness
07:39
law's refusal to protect
African-American women
07:42
simply because their experiences
weren't exactly the same
07:46
as white women and African-American men?
07:50
Rather than broadening the frame
to include African-American women,
07:55
the court simply tossed their case
completely out of court.
08:00
Now, as a student
of antidiscrimination law,
08:05
as a feminist,
08:09
as an antiracist,
08:11
I was struck by this case.
08:13
It felt to me like injustice squared.
08:17
So first of all,
08:21
black women weren't allowed
to work at the plant.
08:23
Second of all, the court
doubled down on this exclusion
08:27
by making it legally inconsequential.
08:31
And to boot, there was
no name for this problem.
08:35
And we all know that,
where there's no name for a problem,
08:39
you can't see a problem,
08:42
and when you can't see a problem,
you pretty much can't solve it.
08:44
Many years later, I had come to recognize
08:49
that the problem that Emma was facing
was a framing problem.
08:52
The frame that the court was using
08:58
to see gender discrimination
or to see race discrimination
09:00
was partial, and it was distorting.
09:05
For me, the challenge that I faced was
09:09
trying to figure out whether
there was an alternative narrative,
09:12
a prism that would allow us
to see Emma's dilemma,
09:17
a prism that would allow us
to rescue her from the cracks in the law,
09:22
that would allow judges to see her story.
09:28
So it occurred to me,
09:32
maybe a simple analogy to an intersection
09:34
might allow judges
to better see Emma's dilemma.
09:39
So if we think about this intersection,
the roads to the intersection would be
09:44
the way that the workforce
was structured by race and by gender.
09:49
And then the traffic in those roads
would be the hiring policies
09:56
and the other practices
that ran through those roads.
10:00
Now, because Emma
was both black and female,
10:05
she was positioned precisely
where those roads overlapped,
10:10
experiencing the simultaneous impact
10:15
of the company's gender and race traffic.
10:19
The law -- the law is
like that ambulance that shows up
10:25
and is ready to treat Emma
only if it can be shown
10:31
that she was harmed
on the race road or on the gender road
10:34
but not where those roads intersected.
10:39
So what do you call
being impacted by multiple forces
10:43
and then abandoned to fend for yourself?
10:49
Intersectionality seemed to do it for me.
10:53
I would go on to learn
that African-American women,
10:57
like other women of color,
11:02
like other socially marginalized people
all over the world,
11:04
were facing all kinds
of dilemmas and challenges
11:08
as a consequence of intersectionality,
11:12
intersections of race and gender,
11:15
of heterosexism, transphobia,
xenophobia, ableism,
11:19
all of these social dynamics come together
11:24
and create challenges
that are sometimes quite unique.
11:29
But in the same way
11:34
that intersectionality
11:36
raised our awareness to the way
that black women live their lives,
11:39
it also exposes the tragic circumstances
11:45
under which African-American women die.
11:49
Police violence against black women
11:54
is very real.
11:57
The level of violence
that black women face
11:59
is such that it's not surprising
12:02
that some of them do not survive
their encounters with police.
12:05
Black girls as young as seven,
12:11
great grandmothers as old as 95
12:14
have been killed by the police.
12:19
They've been killed in their living rooms,
12:21
in their bedrooms.
12:24
They've been killed in their cars.
12:26
They've been killed on the street.
12:29
They've been killed
in front of their parents
12:31
and they've been killed
in front of their children.
12:34
They have been shot to death.
12:37
They have been stomped to death.
12:40
They have been suffocated to death.
12:43
They have been manhandled to death.
12:46
They have been tasered to death.
12:49
They've been killed
when they've called for help.
12:52
They've been killed when they were alone,
12:57
and they've been killed
when they were with others.
13:00
They've been killed shopping while black,
13:04
driving while black,
13:08
having a mental disability while black,
13:11
having a domestic disturbance while black.
13:14
They've even been killed
being homeless while black.
13:19
They've been killed
talking on the cell phone,
13:24
laughing with friends,
13:26
sitting in a car reported as stolen
13:29
and making a U-turn
in front of the White House
13:32
with an infant strapped
in the backseat of the car.
13:35
Why don't we know these stories?
13:39
Why is it that their lost lives
13:44
don't generate the same amount
of media attention and communal outcry
13:48
as the lost lives
of their fallen brothers?
13:53
It's time for a change.
13:57
So what can we do?
14:02
In 2014, the African-American
Policy Forum began to demand
14:06
that we "say her name"
14:12
at rallies, at protests,
14:16
at conferences, at meetings,
14:19
anywhere and everywhere
14:22
that state violence against black bodies
is being discussed.
14:25
But saying her name is not enough.
14:30
We have to be willing to do more.
14:33
We have to be willing to bear witness,
14:35
to bear witness
to the often painful realities
14:39
that we would just rather not confront,
14:42
the everyday violence and humiliation
that many black women have had to face,
14:45
black women across color,
14:52
age, gender expression,
14:54
sexuality and ability.
14:56
So we have the opportunity right now --
15:00
bearing in mind that some of the images
that I'm about to share with you
15:05
may be triggering for some --
15:09
to collectively bear witness
to some of this violence.
15:11
We're going to hear the voice
of the phenomenal Abby Dobson.
15:17
And as we sit with these women,
15:22
some who have experienced violence
and some who have not survived them,
15:26
we have an opportunity
15:33
to reverse what happened
at the beginning of this talk,
15:34
when we could not stand for these women
15:38
because we did not know their names.
15:41
So at the end of this clip,
there's going to be a roll call.
15:45
Several black women's names will come up.
15:50
I'd like those of you who are able
to join us in saying these names
15:54
as loud as you can,
15:59
randomly, disorderly.
16:01
Let's create a cacophony of sound
16:04
to represent our intention
16:08
to hold these women up,
16:11
to sit with them,
16:14
to bear witness to them,
16:15
to bring them into the light.
16:18
(Singing) Abby Dobson: Say,
16:27
say her name.
16:35
Say,
16:42
say her name.
16:49
(Audience) Shelly!
16:54
(Audience) Kayla!
16:56
AD: Oh,
16:57
say her name.
17:05
(Audience shouting names)
17:11
Say, say,
17:14
say her name.
17:21
Say her name.
17:28
For all the names
17:34
I'll never know,
17:37
say her name.
17:44
KC: Aiyanna Stanley Jones,
Janisha Fonville,
17:47
Kathryn Johnston, Kayla Moore,
17:50
Michelle Cusseaux, Rekia Boyd,
17:52
Shelly Frey, Tarika, Yvette Smith.
17:55
AD: Say her name.
18:00
KC: So I said at the beginning,
18:10
if we can't see a problem,
18:13
we can't fix a problem.
18:17
Together, we've come together
to bear witness
18:20
to these women's lost lives.
18:23
But the time now is to move
18:26
from mourning and grief
18:29
to action and transformation.
18:31
This is something that we can do.
18:35
It's up to us.
18:39
Thank you for joining us.
18:42
Thank you.
18:44
(Applause)
18:45

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Kimberlé Crenshaw - Civil rights advocate
As a pioneer in critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw helped open the discussion of the double bind faced by victims of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice.

Why you should listen

Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, is a leading authority in the area of cvil rights, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism and the law. Her work has been foundational in two fields of study that have come to be known by terms that she coined: critical race theory and intersectionality.

Crenshaw’s articles have appeared in the Harvard Law Review, National Black Law Journal, Stanford Law Review and Southern California Law Review. She is the founding coordinator of the Critical Race Theory Workshop, and the co-editor of the volume, Critical Race Theory: Key Documents That Shaped the Movement. She has lectured widely on race matters, addressing audiences across the country as well as in Europe, India, Africa and South America. A specialist on race and gender equality, she has facilitated workshops for human rights activists in Brazil and in India, and for constitutional court judges in South Africa. Her groundbreaking work on intersectionality has traveled globally and was influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution.

Crenshaw authored the background paper on race and gender discrimination for the United Nation's World Conference on Racism, served as the rapporteur for the conference's expert group on gender and race discrimination, and coordinated NGO efforts to ensure the inclusion of gender in the WCAR Conference Declaration. She is a leading voice in calling for a gender-inclusive approach to racial justice interventions, having spearheaded the "Why We Can't Wait" campaign and co-authored Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, and Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.

Crenshaw has worked extensively on a variety of issues pertaining to gender and race in the domestic arena including violence against women, structural racial inequality and affirmative action. She has served as a member of the National Science Foundation's committee to research violence against women and has consulted with leading foundations, social justice organizations and corporations to advance their race and gender equity initiatives.

In 1996, she co-founded the African American Policy Forum to house a variety of projects designed to deliver research-based strategies to better advance social inclusion. Among the Forum's projects are the Affirmative Action Research and Policy Consortium and the Multiracial Literacy and Leadership Initiative. In partnership with the Aspen Roundtable for Community Change, Crenshaw facilitated workshops on racial equity for hundreds of community leaders and organizations throughout the country. With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Crenshaw facilitates the Bellagio Project, an international network of scholars working in the field of social inclusion from five continents. She formerly served as Committee Chair for the U.S.-Brazil Joint Action Plan to Promote Racial and Ethnic Equality, an initiative of the U.S. State Department.

Crenshaw has received the Fulbright Distinguished Chair for Latin America, the Alphonse Fletcher Fellowship and was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in 2009 and a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy in 2010. Currently, Crenshaw is director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies  at Columbia Law School, which she founded in 2011, as well as the Centennial Professor at the LSE Gender Institute 2015-2018. Crenshaw received her J.D. from Harvard, L.L.M. from University of Wisconsin and B.A. from Cornell University.

Abby Dobson - Artist
Passionate about using music as a tool for empathy cultivation, Abby Dobson creates music to inspire audiences to reflect on the world we live in and engage in action to promote transformative social change.

Why you should listen

Abby Dobson is the 2016 artist-in-residence with the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). A sonic conceptualist artist, Dobson's sound is the alchemy of R&B/Soul, jazz, classic pop, gospel and folk, forging a gem that erases musical boundaries. Dobson has performed at venues such as S.O.B's, Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, Apollo Theater, Blue Note Jazz Club, Queens Museum and "The Tonight Show." Her debut album, Sleeping Beauty: You Are the One You Have Been Waiting On, was released in 2010 to glowing reviews. Featured on Talib Kweli’s album Gravitas on State of Grace, Dobson was also nominated for a 2014 BET Hip Hop Award for Best Impact Song.

Dobson received a Juris Doctorate degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a Bachelor's degree from Williams College in Political Science and History. Her interests have been deeply impacted by intersectionality discourse and critical race theory. An artist and independent scholar, Dobson's interests focus on the intersection of race and gender in the imagination, creation and consumption of music. A sampling of recent presentations include: International James Baldwin Conference at American University of Paris (2016), Association for the Study of African American History and Life Conference (2013-2015); Anna Julia Cooper Project at Tulane University (2013); and National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) Conference (2013).

Passionate about using music as a tool for empathy cultivation, Dobson creates music to inspire audiences to reflect on the world we live in and engage in action to promote transformative social change. She creates music to privilege black female voices and highlight the human condition. Inspired by AAPF’s social justice work, Dobson composed and performs "Say Her Name" in tribute to the black women lost to state and non-state violence.

Dobson also volunteers with the National Organization for Women, NYC Chapter's Activist Alliance serving as a member of its Intersectionality Committee. She is currently wrapping up recording for Sister Outsider, the follow-up to her debut album, slated for release in 2017.

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