Without the creation of these hashtags, the names of Symone Marshall, Renisha McBride and Deborah Danner would’ve possibly gone unnoticed, caught in the rapturous feverishness surrounding the media’s focus on Black male bodies and police brutality.
Without Kimberlé Crenshaw and the work of the African-American Policy Forum, a think-tank she co-founded along with lawyer and former Vassar Professor, Luke Harris, the above-mentioned phrases which sound the alarm and effectively evoke a specific call to action, would cease to exist.
HelloBeautiful sat down with the lawyer, feminist, activist and advocate of the people just days before foundation’s 20th anniversary to discuss the organization’s future, what it means to sit on the shoulders of revolutionary giants, how to battle PTTS (“post-traumatic Trump syndrome”) and why state-sanctioned violence against Black women remains siloed in the mainstream media.
HelloBeautiful: The African-American Policy Forum is celebrating 20 years of fighting the good fight. Could you take me back to 1996, 1997 and just speak to what was missing during that time to create such a dynamic voice in the movement for civil rights?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: One bit of pre-history was when I met my company-founder Luke Harris, and we were at that point in the middle of one of the signature events in black history that demonstrated the crisis around our failure to incorporate patriarchy into anti-racism, and that was the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy.
So this was the clearest example of not only what happens to black women when they’re not believed, but frankly, what happens to the black community when they are disciplined to fall behind and support an African-American man simply because he’s being accused of doing something that he probably, in fact, did do.
And we also had the failure of feminists to really be able to speak to racial justice issues as they come within feminism, so you had black folks basically calling Anita Hill a traitor, you had white feminists saying, “I don’t know about this race stuff, but women are harassed all the time,” and there you had a classic case of intersectional failure.
Initially we did a lot of work pointing out the way affirmative action was thought about as preferential treatment or just to achieve diversity rather than as a necessary intervention to dismantle race and gender superiority, not diversity but racial and gender justice — these are some of the campaigns that we were involved in, and we would do training, we would help create materials that masses of people could adapt to the social justice work they were doing.
One of our most notable products was something called the Unequal Opportunity Race. It’s a cartoon, it’s been now viewed by over a million people, and it basically is a structural racism frame — you see people going around the equal opportunity track for several generations before people of color get involved, and as soon as people of color get involved they run into all these barriers and obstacles, so we use that to frame inequality and show affirmative action is simply removing those obstacles and barriers.
HB: How will you guys use the time this weekend in New York City to create and outline for your future plans in advocacy?
KC: One is lifting up as examples the people whose leadership we think exemplifies the various faces of AAPF’s work, so we have a Shirley Chisholm Award who is still un-bought and un-bossed and unfortunately needs to be recovered and lifted up because people don’t know — she’s the first black person to run for president.
We’re going to give that award to Keith Ellison who is a person who breaks barriers. He’s the first Muslim to be an elected representative to swear in on the Koran, he is a leader who doesn’t play by the, “Well, this is my race work and this is my class work,” he understands the need for intersectional notions of politics and frequently is mover and shaker behind the effort to bring the Progressive Caucus and the Race Caucus and the Gender Caucus together.
Eve Ensler the playwright and founder of V-Day is receiving the Virginia Durr Award. Virginia was a white southern woman who was there at the jail to help bail out Rosa Parks when she started the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
HB: Oh, wow. I did not know that.
KC: You wouldn’t know it because basically women are not given political agency. I mean, even Rosa is not really given political agency, she’s just framed as a seamstress who didn’t feel like giving up her seat and people don’t know she was a rape crisis activist, which is a fearless thing to do in the south for Black women.
The media has always been important for us, particular black media. I dare say that if had it not been for black media, things like the Emmett Till case would probably not have become the mobilizing force that it was for the Civil Rights Movement.
George Curry was that person. He was the editor-in-chief of Emerge. Joy-Ann Reid seems to us to occupy a space where she’s carrying that torch forward, so we’re really proud to give her that award.
And last but not least we call her the OG, Barbara Smith, who was understanding the imperative of writing and publishing and creating a platform for Black feminism to be articulated with the Combahee River Collective and Kitchen Table Press. She is one of our unsung heroes that deserves to be lifted up. Barbara is receiving the Harriet Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award.
HB: I want to talk about young Black women. In a lot of the conversations that I have, I find that it’s very hard for some of them to identify with feminism.They say it’s exclusionary and the framework is based on a white woman’s point of view. How can we combat that and speak to the ears of those women who feel marginalized and shut out from the movement?
KC: When I hear that, I try to help people see the long arc of history in which black women have struggled against racism and patriarchy and identify our vision of feminism as one that is as central to the aspirations of black liberty [and] anti-racism includes feminism.
HB: I wanted to ask you about the work that you have done to shed light on the stories of black women excluded from mainstream media, specifically when it comes to police or state-sanction violence with bringing it to light with #SayHerName and Black Girls Matter.
I watched your TED Talk and you said, “When we think about who is implicated, when we think about who was victimized, the names of these black women never come to mind,” and everything that you said I feel like is wrapping this up, but I just wanted talk about the work that the AAPF has done to continue putting this into the forefront and just moving forward.
KC: The stories around black women’s death at the hands of the police just have not been galvanizing. Many of the deaths, they’re killed in the same ways. Mya Hall was killed driving while black. Miriam Carey was killed even though she had the baby in the backseat of her car because they said her erratic driving made them think that she was trying to come into the White House. I mean, it’s just the same kind of overreaction to black bodies appearing to engage in behavior that suddenly constitutes a risk to every human being.
So yes, we’ve been trying to lift up the issue and we’ve also been trying to assist the development of a community of family members who have lost women and girls to police violence and have not gotten support. Some of them don’t even know that there is a community of them, they think that they’re the only ones, because how would they know? Who’s talked about it?
So we bring them together for family weekends. That gives them the opportunity to connect up with other mothers because if they’re going to fight the fight, they need a community of other like-experienced women who can tell them, “Well, this is what it’s like for the first six months. This is what it’s like for the first year. This is what it’s like when you have to fight to get custody of your daughters kids,” even when the father might have had something to do with calling the police that got them killed, which is what happened to some of the women.
We want to get to a point where we rely on our community more than on foundations — people who look like us rather than those who don’t in order to do the work.
We want to generate … and we know there are Black feminists, male feminists out there of all ages. We want to give them an opportunity to come together and build their community and do the work that they need to do.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.