Kimberlé Crenshaw, American civil rights activist. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian
An interview with scholar-activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term ‘insersectionality,’ on gender, race and armed militancy.
For most American audiences, the female fighter exists in a land far, far away. To consider female militancy in this country, in our movements, requires a reckoning: the need to see police brutality against black women as state violence, checkpoints in school cafeterias as militarization, and the death rates from domestic and mass violence as mimicking those of a warzone.
As the racial divide in the United States deepens, black women are increasingly taking up arms. According to data released by the Texas Department of Public Safety, black women are one of the fastest-growing demographic groups to obtain permits to carry a concealed weapon. Like combatant women elsewhere, these civilian women cite the necessity of carrying a gun – for protection and power.
Legal scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw is a critical voice in understanding this trend, and the driving forces behind it. Renowned for coining the term “intersectionality” over two decades ago, she’s steadfast in her focus on the political impact a violent society, and state, has on black women, who are positioned at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression. Through the #sayhername and #breakingthesilence campaigns, Crenshaw has drawn the traumatic testimonies of black women into the mission of active movement-building and national debates on gender and violence.
The legitimate use of violence as a form of resistance was as divisive a question in the civil rights era as it is in contemporary conversations on the value of black life. As the political landscape in America becomes increasingly militarized, women in the alt-right are armed, young white supremacists are armed, and, some hope, teachers may soon be armed. Where does this leave black women?
In the interview below, Crenshaw explores the possibility of black militancy among women. She is characteristically thoughtful – neither condoning nor condemning. Thinking back to the church massacre in Charleston, however, she wonders why nobody seems to be expressing outrage, acknowledging that black women are under siege. “Is anybody going to sound the bell that we have to be thinking much more strategically about how to protect our lives at this moment?”
—Nimmi Gowrinathan for Guernica
Guernica: Every resistance struggle has a moment where violence becomes an option. Right now, in America, we have a rise of intolerance, and the resulting rise of both fear and rage in marginalized communities. Do you see signs of a tipping point, where violence may, again, become an option?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: I can’t fully speak to whether I’m seeing a tipping point in terms of a result to forms of violence framed as self-defense, or understood to be self-defense. What I do see is a renewed recognition of the vulnerability of black life and the debate, at times intense debate, about what that means in terms of response.
I’m thinking particularly about the killing of mostly black women at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. And I was particularly troubled by what can be seen as either the reflection of deeper vulnerability or denial about the threat that we face. The discourse of forgiveness, the discourse of de-escalation, the discourse of “we have nothing to do but forgive”. Even rhetorical defense seemed to be outside of the scope of possibility for so many people.
When I watched the funeral, I wept both because of the unthinkable tragedy it represents but also what I thought to be the potential green light to a premature discourse of forgiveness and homage to old spirituals of amazing grace – without the capacity to actually defend our right to self-defense in these contexts. I still feel that feeling of: is anybody going to express outrage about this, is anybody going to say we are under siege, is anybody going to sound the bell that we have to be thinking much more strategically about how to protect our lives at this moment?
And that didn’t happen and we just got a discourse of forgiveness in a context which is entirely inappropriate, when no one is asking for forgiveness. If the killer was let out tomorrow, we’d have no reason to think he was seeking forgiveness. To give forgiveness when no one’s asked for it rather than to have a full-on discourse about how we’re going protect ourselves seemed to be the secondary tragedy. And the fact that they were women in a church made me feel more vulnerable. At the end I wonder, if he killed a dozen people, and it was all men and not in a church, would we be so quick to default to this discourse of forgiveness?
Guernica: You have hosted conversations with women in the Black Panthers. Can you share your thoughts on what, in the past, may have driven these women to a more militant form of resistance to state violence?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: I think that it’s important to contextualize their activism with reference to the violence that they were resisting. I would say at least two, if not three, levels of violence. First, there’s just the violence of a socio-economic system that was predicated on racial repression of poor people, of black people, and especially of poor black people. I think that the framework of the Panthers began with the violence of white supremacy, virulent white supremacy, all of its multiple displacements, all of its destructions, all of its authorizing of private as well as public violence. By that I mean not just the violence of “the baton against the head”, but the violence of ever-restricting opportunities for living, for thriving, for working, for creating, for producing. All the ways that both the public and the private constrained African American life have got to be the first level of violence.
Then there’s the quite explicit violence that stresses the conditions of police-state relationships with black communities, and I want to say here that typically it’s understood in terms of police brutality, as extraordinary surveillance, and a court system that backs up that violence and surveillance with continuous forms of repression. And that’s just as a general matter, just generally what black people were, are, experiencing.
And then the third level is political violence, with a capital P – essentially, the idea that to be organized, politically, and to build the capacity to serve one’s own community would be met with extraordinary state repressive violence. Efforts to kill the Panthers – across the country, I might say, not just in Oakland or in Los Angeles, but a national project to seek out and destroy activists for resisting the violence of deprivation and of fear – is a third level of violence.
When you add all of these different forms of violence you’re looking at a situation in which for anyone in the midst of that, their options are either death or self-defense. And, quite frankly, we need to think about how women were involved and, in particular, their way of being involved at the most fundamental levels of the work – organizing communities, feeding children, educating children, advocating for those who had been subject to the first and second forms of violence. This is the work of defending the community, the work of protection, the work of advancing a sense of self-worth, self-determination, and just a pure right to exist.
There are so many other contexts around the world where violence in pursuit of the right to exist is seen as a legitimate expression of that right, except when it’s black people and except when it’s women. And so when you add those two together, black women having the right to protect themselves and to affirm their right to exist by any means necessary is patently outside the parameters of what people consider to be legitimate uses of violence.
Guernica: When women are targeted, the possibility of violent resistance is often even more remote – as women taking up arms is still unexpected, often frowned upon. How do you see the gendered nature of a rise in societal, and state, violence?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: I think that the particular ways that black women experience gender-based violence at the hands of the state is another issue that has been largely unarticulated until many black women came to an awareness that their fear of police, because of potential sexual abuse, wasn’t individual. There was a reason for the group to be worried about that.
The Daniel Holtzclaw case (in 2016 an ex-cop was sentenced to 263 years in prison for the rape of several black women) was a lightning rod for that awareness, and it wasn’t surprising that black women traveled to Oklahoma City for the sentencing. That was a symbolic moment of conscious, collective recognition of vulnerability and an effort to shift away from silence around that issue by not only denouncing it, but also demanding anti-racist and women’s groups actually address this dimension of state violence that they both ignore. That seems to reflect a significant shift.
What remains the most challenging problem is to shift that discourse to include not just state violence, not just fighting back against police officers, but also recognizing the systemic violence that occurs within our community as an expression not simply of white supremacy, but white supremacy mixed with patriarchy that can play out between people of exactly the same racial and cultural background. So our ability to turn that corner, to make that shift, has yet to be fully realized. I do think that the case of [Marissa Alexander] in Florida, who was looking at a long-term conviction for shooting warning shots in self-defense, was a moment where black women were increasingly able to see that in a personal way. That they were facing the violence of partners and the violence of the state.
The Trayvon Martin case of course reflects a classic situation – where the state and private violence converge to endanger the lives and take the lives of black people. That’s far easier to mobilize around than her case, which is also a state-private convergence, but the private dimension of the violence is interpersonal violence, it is male-female, it’s within that space, being caught between trying to resist and being subject to state punishment.
It’s so fascinating, the prosecutor of Zimmerman was also [Alexander’s] prosecutor. But you know, here you have a white female prosecutor who can get behind, however ineffectively I have to say, a conventional understanding of how black people are subject to private violence, and not be able to get behind it when the black person is a woman. That recognition of our multiple marginality and vulnerability is the growing awareness we need. That case made a big difference among those who are fighting interpersonal violence. Just to see what happens when the state colludes with perpetrators, and colludes with perpetrators against black female bodies in ways that we think probably wouldn’t happen if we were white female bodies.
Guernica: Similar to responses in my own work with women in guerrilla movements, when asked about the reasons for gun ownership, among black women there was almost an equal split between the threat of domestic violence and the external rise in racism in this country – the layered threat they felt as women and the threat they felt as women and black people. Do you see gun ownership for black women as reflective of an increasing need to have a blanket protection against multiple, intersecting forces of violence?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: I find it interesting how the marketing of guns for women that I’ve seen don’t include black women, but the message of gun ownership as an equalizer seems to, in particular ways, have some potential to speak to those who are most vulnerable to forms of violence.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns out to be the case that gun ownership for black women is increasing at a disproportionate rate. If anything it’s sort of potentially catching up to the disproportionate vulnerability that black women face across lots of different vectors. I mean, I’ve been witness to many conversations since Charleston about whether there is a black feminist case for black women to arm up, to protect themselves. And it’s not a conversation that I have remembered participating in since I went to school, at the tail end of black militant student movements, and even then the discourse on guns was not one that involved women. It was more one that involved traditional sorts of masculinist orientation toward engaging in liberation struggles with community police or community state, or sometimes community vigilantes. To the extent that there was an overt gender dimension to it, it was sort of your role as a revolutionary man to know how to shoot a gun.
So this conversation now about arming black women, I don’t think it’s really broken through. I could probably list four or five things that I’ve heard women talk about in private, and one of them is what are we going to do to defend ourselves? I’m not at all surprised if the conclusion of that conversation for many women having it is: one thing I’m going to do is exercise my legal right to bear arms.
Guernica: There was a young black woman, a graduate student in Texas, who described gun ownership as a form of empowerment that should be embraced as part of a modern feminist movement. Most contemporary movements, like Black Lives Matter, have a stated commitment to non-violence. Do you see conversations on gun ownership happening within the organizing work of broader political movements or does it feel more isolated, linked to individual protection or threat to life?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: It could be because of where I circulate, but if anything I’ve seen a clear effort to dispel the reproduction of the “Panthers are dangerous, let’s kill them” sensibility. In the organized spaces that I’ve seen, there’s kind of a concerted effort to not engage in these questions on developing the capacity to use violence as self-defense. Most of what I’ve seen is much more an interpersonal, “I just don’t feel safe.” Of course, it’s important to note, the politics of a black women not feeling safe and buying a gun is completely different than the politics of a white woman not feeling safe and buying a gun.
Guernica: The legitimacy of violence is one of the central debates in resistance movements, and one that can be divisive, even within the community itself. How do you understand the role of class in perceptions of violence?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: I’m glad you said “perceptions of violence” as opposed to simply participation and self-defense, because sometimes class gets over-determined with violence – in terms of who was in and who was out. In terms of perception, we should be careful to mark where this perception is represented, like in middle-class publications that spoke to the aspirations of an integrationist project. If we’re talking about the mid-level career professionals, those who were making their way through government, and, to a certain extent, corporate America. If we’re looking at those spaces I think it is not surprising to anticipate that they would be a constituency experiencing a fair degree of pressure against and have a fair degree of dissonance around the prospect of violence – a disconnect from the idea that at the end of the day there is nothing left to defend oneself other than violence, other than that kill-or-be-killed instinct.
We see it today when folks who are seen to be articulating visions of racial equality and justice are outside the “mainstream” and targeted by others to force other black people to come out and denounce them. It’s still the group mentality of the past, of group punishment – either you denounce or you too shall be considered to be fully part of this group that cannot be allowed to live. I don’t mean to discount the role of respectability politics and I don’t mean to discount, in reality, the fear that drove a lot of middle-class upwardly mobile, and even working-class upwardly mobile, people to distance themselves from what was seen as a far too radical and dangerous expression of self-determination. But I think it is important to just recognize that some of the dimensions of power that these groups were fighting against actually played out in the lives of middle-class and elite black folks as well. Forcing, many times, performances – or at least incentivizing performances of distance and repudiation against these groups.
Guernica: Through your work at the African American Policy Forum, how have you seen the overlapping daily, state, and structural violence shift the politics of black women and girls? Do you see a distinctive political perspective crystalizing, driven by the violence that’s been ever-present in their lives?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: I do see the shift in a conscious denunciation of both violence and the erasure of the violence. The most pronounced articulation of that is the #sayhername campaign. It’s an effort to engender a discourse about anti-black state violence with an awareness and a set of demands around the recognition that black women and girls are also subject to that violence, and they are subject to it in ways that are similar to men and boys and also subject to it in ways that are different. So the recognition around the multiple black women who’ve been killed by the police that has garnered a set of politics that aren’t fully realized. But much more than ever before there is an insistence that women’s names be lifted up in efforts to articulate and denounce violence against black people. So the recognition that black women are black people is then expressed in a way that we haven’t seen in recent history.
Guernica: In other contexts, like for Tamil women in Sri Lanka, the draw to violence emerges from an inability to have a distinctive political voice in non-violent spaces, because that space has never existed for them. Your advocacy work reveals how limited the political space for black women and girls is, here in the US. Have you seen political spaces opening up for black women and girls that are a compelling alternative to violence? Are there new spaces emerging on social media, through radical art or intellectual dialogue, that are, or might become, political outlets?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Over the last two years there have been spaces emerging that are both expressive and developmental. Whether and how they constitute full-on alternatives, I couldn’t say. The work we’ve been doing with black women and girls in breaking the silence identifies the violence of silence and what is permitted to do in that space. So that we are opening an alternative to speak one’s existence into the gap, into the erased part, and then the second, equally challenging task is to build community out of the resistance to erasure. That’s a different point of departure for community; it’s not just the women’s auxiliary. And it’s not just, We fight white supremacy, too. It is a space that begins with, I recognize the demand that I not see you, because I recognize the demand that I not see myself. And a radical act of the reversal of that is not only to see but to embrace. To love, in ways that are transgressive.
In other words, to put black women at the center of their politics, of their mobilization, of their conscious awareness, or their capacity to articulate what is the imperative around racial justice – the imperative is us. That is a response to a particular form of violence that is a potential alternative that we’ve been seeing play out. There’s #sayhername, there’s Girl Be Heard, and all sorts of smaller pockets of this consciousness that seem to be taking root across the country. And I think it remains to be seen where it goes and what it turns into. There are some who see its potential in terms of moving into more traditional forms of political power.
Many, many people are talking about what happened in Alabama, for example, as the picture of what it looks like when black women become far more self-consciously political actors in their own right, and the questions is: did Alabama represent that? So that’s one potential direction, but I don’t think it’s the only potential direction this might take. Going around to college campuses, I just spent a week at Brandeis, and was really blown away by the articulation of a group identity that is born in a recognition of an erasure that is no longer tolerable. And that’s not the “black women, my queen” kind of stuff, with the baby on one hip and the gun on the another. You know, the “follow my man”. It wasn’t that kind of stuff. It was coming from, what felt to me like, a completely different point of departure. If you ask me what are some of the alternatives to resisting violence, this seems to be like: “We resist violence by affirming self-love and affirming our right to be and our right to be in solidarity with each other.”
Nimmi Gowrinathan is a visiting professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York and director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative.