Kimberlé Crenshaw and Lady Phyll Talk Intersectionality, Solidarity, and Self-Care
Critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality, talks activism with U.K. Black Pride organizer Lady Phyll.
In 1989, celebrated critical race theorist and professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw penned the now-seminal paper for that year’s volume of the University of Chicago Legal Forum Journal. In it she put forward, among other things, a new theoretical framework for how we recognize and reckon with the machinery of oppression; she called it intersectionality.
Nearly two decades later during the summer of 2006, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, a trade unionist and working-class Black lesbian activist better known as Lady Phyll, would embark on a bold inaugural journey to Southend-on-Sea — a coastal resort town in southeast England — taking with her two busloads of queer Black women. They were a small, intimate group armed with no more than a DJ, a marquee, and a boundless desire for community. That day, unbeknownst to much of the wider world, a fledgling U.K. Black Pride took its very first steps.
I do not believe that back then either of these women could have fathomed the irrevocable change that they’d make to the topography of the international struggles for Black queer rights, be it by providing the very words and lens by which we free ourselves, or the spaces and stages for us to be in those moments of communion with one another. Now, intersectionality is the essential and much-touted (if somewhat misunderstood) cornerstone of modern civil rights movements — a key to opening the very heart of political organizing — and U.K. Black Pride is the U.K.’s biggest event of its kind, catering to more than 8,000 queer people of color during its annual one-day festival, but with an even broader base of support throughout the country.
We spoke with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Lady Phyll to talk about the gifts they’ve given to a generation of Black LGBTQ+ people: the tools to dismantle the master’s house, and a blueprint for the promised land to be built on its grave thereafter.
I’ll start with the question for Professor Crenshaw that you are always asked: What is intersectionality and what is its role in our modern rights movements?
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw: Intersectionality is simply a prism to see the interactive effects of various forms of discrimination and disempowerment. It looks at the way that racism, many times, interacts with patriarchy, heterosexism, classism, xenophobia — seeing that the overlapping vulnerabilities created by these systems actually create specific kinds of challenges.
“Intersectionality 102,” then, is to say that these distinct problems create challenges for movements that are only organized around these problems as separate and individual. So when racial justice doesn’t have a critique of patriarchy and homophobia, the particular way that racism is experienced and exacerbated by heterosexism, classism etc., falls outside of our political organizing. It means that significant numbers of people in our communities aren’t being served by social justice frames because they don’t address the particular ways that they’re experiencing discrimination.
Nowadays, intersectionality has been twisted and misunderstood both within and outside of progressive circles. Some critics say that at its core, it feeds a kind of identity politics that divides us more than it unites us, and some think our granular focus on all these “isms” distract us from the real fight of class war. What do you say to those critics?
KWC: Well, to be honest, for the past 10 years I haven’t said anything to a lot of this stuff. The one common thread that it represents is illiteracy; a fundamental refusal to engage in any serious way with the problems that intersectionality was initially articulated to address. So when I hear a critique of intersectionality that isn’t about how the framework failed the projects that it was designed to address; when I don’t hear Black women plaintiffs; when I don’t hear Latinx people who were excluded from domestic violence shelters because they didn’t speak English; when I don’t hear about how the marriage equality discourse in the U.S. leaves behind trans people and poor lesbians; when the critique is not grounded in material, sociopolitical injustices, I’m just not that interested in it! Because they’re not interested in what intersectionality was initially designed to do!
Of late I’ve gotten back into at least trying to have a sense of what the discourse looks like, because as it turns out, not responding or participating in it does not mean that you aren’t brought center stage — sometimes in chains, sometimes with a gag on your mouth. So once I saw some of my work and me many times being cited as the source of the most objectionable articulations of intersectionality, I realized that silence wasn’t necessarily going to save me. So I’ve started to speak back a little bit to it. I think that the one that is the most shocking is a discourse that came in the wake of Trump’s election. One silver lining that I thought might come out of it was that at last the liberal left cohort among the intelligentsia, pundits, and organizers, would finally acknowledge that not dealing with race and racism was going to be the end of all of us, because that in large part was what motivated so many people to vote for this maniac.
But the reverse happened!
KWC: Exactly. So I thought: Okay, at least now people know that we weren’t alarmists. This was really important, people are finally going to put resources and attentiveness into figuring out how to disabuse so many white people of their sense of righteous indignation. As my colleague Luke Harris says, most of their angst is about diminished overrepresentation, not actually absolute losses. Well as it turns out, that’s not the direction it went. The direction that came out of the liberal left was not that we’ve got too little discourse about racism and feminism, but that we have too much!
People have blamed everything — from Brexit and violence against people of color to Donald Trump’s election — on intersectionality and identity politics.
KWC: What’s exciting is that I really don’t remember a time when a political academic concept generated by people of color — and particularly a concept that is the home of women of color — has gotten this much elite attention. There’s a way in which the mad attention on intersectionality by the left and the right — the fight over what it means, the fight over how it gets deployed, who gets to use it — is a recognition that we’re sitting on some valuable conceptual real estate, and we just need to double down and figure out how to develop and protect it.
Members of our LGBTQ+ community, particularly our trans siblings, face an epidemic of violence: particularly our trans siblings. An essential dilemma of civil rights movements is that in the midst of our organizing, we are perpetually in disabling, consuming mourning. Just in the past two months, Cathalina Christina, Diamond Stephens, Keisha Wells, Sasha Garden — all trans women of color — have been murdered. How do you emerge from that perpetual rage and mourning into transformative action?
Lady Phyll: Every year we hold a minute of silence at U.K. Black Pride to acknowledge the loss, the pain, the hurt, but also to celebrate and come together as one. To hold each other in that meaningful space, it contains the sorrow.
KWC: It marks the sorrow and it mobilizes it.
LP: Absolutely. It’s powerful to have so many people in that one space come together and hold each other, acknowledging what has happened to us as a community over the previous year — whether it’s our trans siblings who’ve been murdered; the government’s heinous, horrendous crime toward the people of Grenfell; the sexism that plays out in #MeToo — we’re all still in the movement together. The different shades of the diaspora are there too, but we are able to just be one with each other for that moment. Not often can we root out the source of the pain. It’s the pain and the sorrow that we feel every single day while we’re busy being disabled, while we’re busy being queer, while we’re busy being Black women trying to navigate so many spaces. It doesn’t just stop our rage and sorrow there, but it allows us to be in sync with each other.
KWC: The driving force behind #SayHerName was that so many of the families that lost women to police violence were solely in private mourning and not in public mourning. Effectively, they experienced two homicides — one was the homicide of the person, but then they also experienced the killing of the significance of the killing. Those deaths weren’t mattering to the wider Black community, and they weren’t mattering to the organized women's community that was all about violence against women, except if it was state violence against women. It didn’t even really matter to the queer community. So many of the Black women who were killed were either lesbian, bi, or trans, and their deaths weren’t acknowledged by the wider LGBTQ+ movement. So there’s individuated mourning that isn’t part of a collective recognition of loss, and when you don’t have that, you don’t have the predicate for social action to interrupt the system that produced that loss. So seeing Black Lives Matter, seeing the names of Black cishet men being lifted up, and not seeing the names of Black women at all, it was quite literally a demand to say their names. If you cannot say their names, you cannot mobilize behind them — the next step, the moving beyond the mourning.
For the mothers of the victims themselves, one of the things that was just so wonderful about #SayHerName was that when they were able to come together, they discovered that they weren’t the only ones. When they came together and sat beside a dozen other women who were also mothers of women who were lost, that became enormously activating for them, not just to engage in political activism, but also to really be able to live a life. We bring them together for a family weekend to share their stories with one another and to have human connection and actually celebrate life. Because for some of them, they felt that to go on and enjoy life was to abandon a daughter — especially when the daughter isn’t getting any attention or recognition otherwise. In that space, they are able to share moments of joy, moments of being able to have a good laugh, a good drink, a good dance with each other! Many leave that space each time with a new commitment to live life clearly still in mourning about their loss, but now determined to stand in their daughter’s stead to demand accountability from their communities as well as from the state that took their lives.
LP: The erasure of the Black woman is real, isn’t it!
KWC: It’s real, and it’s in every political space that claims to be there for them.
LP: That’s how U.K. Black Pride started. It started with a group of Black queer women, because we did not see ourselves. It was a heightened experience of HIV/AIDS. There was a lot of money going into campaigns for Black gay men’s concerns, but Black queer women didn’t see that. There were no resources or services. Austerity was starting to hit the resources that we needed, especially in terms of safe housing, because we also suffered from domestic violence. So when we got together as BLUK — Black Lesbians in the U.K. — there was this empowerment in being able to recognize and connect with one another.
KWC: Isn’t it something!
LP: That’s why when you’re talking I’m just like yes, yes, yes! Somebody said to me, “My fellow Black woman, when I see her, she is my road atlas.” You are my journey, my mirror, my blueprint. Just being in this space, for me, right now, right here. What you just said about those women coming together to honor their children, to celebrate themselves as well, to know that they are worthy — it’s so important.
As seasoned activists, you both bear witness to so much violence in order to create frameworks to challenge it. How do you make sure to protect yourself from all that pain?
KWC: It’s the self-care question. It’s been a challenge, but it’s prompted me to think about what is sustainable in the work, about these moments together. When we started, I told you, “I’m dead, I’m exhausted! I don’t have anything!” And then we start vibing, start talking about the commonality of the context, the way in which our aspirations align, and I can start the sentence and Lady Phyll can finish it for me. That’s my regenerator — knowing that we’re all doing the work. We might never all get a chance to see each other, but when we do have a chance to, it reinforces how vital the spirit in which we are moving really is. How it articulates across so many different people’s lives when we’re actually with each other; when we see what's actually happening and what’s being mobilized! So now I feel a lot better than I did when we started, even though we’re going down a road of articulating what the pain is, what the mourning is about, and why Lady Phyll mobilized U.K. Black Pride, why I mobilized #SayHerName.
The reality is that theorizing doesn’t put us outside of the actual dynamics that we are writing and talking about. We know these things to be true. Against those moments where sometimes it feels like Why should we continue? — to actually have the opportunity to meet the movers and shakers who find the tools useful, and who are able to do something with them, that makes me double down and say: What else can I contribute? What else can I do? How else can I be in solidarity?
LP: You have given us a lot!
KWC: And you give me a lot.
LP: This conversation has recharged my batteries. This has made me feel like what I do is not in isolation. And there are people whether or not you see them every single day — Black women who understand and are doing the work. So thank you, really thank you. And I will continue to move and shake!
KWC: And shake and shake and move!