Kimberlé Crenshaw on Finally Changing the "Toxic" Parts of American Culture

The co-founder of the African American Policy Forum invented intersectionality; now she says we can all "demand a fuller, more vibrant existence — one based on justice and not just comfort."

Kimberlé Crenshaw
Photo: Guardian / eyevine

If you know the word "intersectionality" as it pertains to feminism and race equity, you owe that bit of knowledge to bicoastal badass Kimberlé Crenshaw. The co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum put a name to the concept 25 years ago after realizing that attention to police brutality didn't always include violence against Black women, and that feminist fights for equity often left people of color behind — that an intersectional approach would be the only way forward. Her work is more pressing than ever now, as the misguided mantra of "this isn't America" still falls out of the mouths of people who can't believe white nationalist terrorists were all but allowed into the Capitol building amid a violent siege.

"It just always astonishes me, it's so easy for those who are uncomfortable with dealing with our history, uncomfortable with our institutions being reformed so they work better for everybody, [to say] that that's un-American," Crenshaw told InStyle as part of our Badass Women issue. "So intersectionality, critical race theory, implicit bias and structural racism [awareness], those are tools to allow people to say, 'Look, we built this thing with a lot of material that isn't really good stuff, it's like asbestos, it's all in our foundation and our structure, and our goal is to get rid of it because it's toxic.'"

That's a metaphor for how certain problems in this country haven't been tackled head-on, or have been treated as separate issues when they are so intermingled as to really be one. So, along with co-founder Luke Harris, she launched the AAPF with the goal to promote a vision of social justice that is fully intersectional. Now, they're working on the Say Her Name initiative (launched in 2014) to expose what she calls the double loss families experience when a Black woman is killed by police (the loss of a loved one, and of the ability to grieve publicly when we don't collectively 'say her name').

"Black women have been subject to state violence, institutional violence, sexual violence since we got here," Crenshaw says. "We try to historicize and give people the sense of — this stuff is happening now, here's what you miss if you don't have an intersectional viewpoint of what gender-based violence looks like."

Why She's a Badass

Crenshaw is a lawyer, an activist, and a professor at Columbia Law School and the UCLA School of Law. Born in Canton, Ohio, during the throes of the civil-rights movement, Crenshaw followed in the footsteps of her father, who was studying law at the time of his death, to earn her J.D. from Harvard Law School and LL.M. from the University of Wisconsin Law School before co-founding the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). When she's not giving lectures, she's busy moderating her webinar series, Under the Blacklight, which focuses on the race gaps in vulnerability to COVID-19, she's furthering the conversation on anti-Black violence.

Critical race theory, the view that laws and systems perpetuate racial inequality, was at the bedrock of Crenshaw's academic studies, and at Columbia, a lively debate about race eventually turned into the first workshop at the school's Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, founded by Crenshaw in 2011. "Leadership is about loving yourself and the people you're fighting for enough to face the consequences for speaking out," Crenshaw says. "Every stage of my life is defined by not taking any crap," she says. "Badasses are the ones who demand a fuller, more vibrant existence — one based on justice and not just comfort."

Kimberle Crenshaw
Crenshaw with Anita Hill (left) and Gloria Steinem at the 2020 Makers Conference in L.A. Rachel Murray/Getty

What She's Wearing

When Crenshaw was growing up, Nancy Sinatra's 1966 hit, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin,'" was a staple of the radio, cementing boots as the power shoe of the moment. So when she began attending civil-rights protests in law school, Crenshaw would always strap on a pair. "Boots are for when I'm trying to say, 'It's on,'" she says. "They make me feel like I'm going to war." A red Western style by Texas bootmaker Lucchese is currently in heavy rotation. "The color is unusual and really does spark joy," she says. "Those boots tell people not to mess with me. Even the way I walk in them — you don't teeter in boots, you stomp."

What She's Watching

Should a gap in her schedule arise, Crenshaw enjoys kicking back with a good TV show. "The worst thing to ever happen to me was discovering Netflix auto-play," she says. "It sucks you in, and before you know it, you've watched hours of television." Right now she's a fan of Bridgerton ("It's fascinating to reimagine what could've been had the elite not been so damn racist") and HBO's Lovecraft Country ("It's like watching applied intersectionality"). More than anything, Crenshaw is "enjoying this moment where people's experiences with race find their way into pop culture rather than being treated as issues that should not be talked about." She remembers decades when Black women's stories were simply left out of the mainstream. "I don't take it for granted that we'll always have this entertainment; I hope we do. I'm looking forward to it."

For more stories like this, pick up the March 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb 12th.

Updated by Laura Norkin
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