Kimberlé Crenshaw, leading scholar and thought leader in civil rights, Black feminist legal theory and intersectionality, was honoured June 21 during spring convocation ceremonies for graduands of Osgoode Hall Law School.
Crenshaw was on the convocation stage to accept an honorary doctor of laws degree in recognition of her enormous contributions to civil rights, law and intersectionality.
A professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Columbia Law School, Crenshaw is a leading authority in civil rights, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism and the law. She has lectured widely on race matters, addressing audiences across the country as well as in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.
Crenshaw delivered a funny, fiery speech filled with her experiences gained while challenging the legal status quo in gender and race in the United States, including violence against women, structural racial inequality, and affirmative action. Her remarks brought faculty, graduands and guests to their feet in a standing ovation.
She spoke about her own convocation from law school and of her mother. “In the crowd at my graduation was my mom who was proud, and quite honestly, incredibly relieved that this day had come. She had watched me playing lawyer at my father’s desk at 10, pretending to read the hefty law books that were left behind after his untimely passing,” said Crenshaw. “My ultimate matriculation into law school turned those bittersweet playdays into reality. But, there was more to her exhale than completing a journey begun by my late father. My career as a law student – the choices I made, the questions I asked, the demands I’d help raise – had added a layer of unexpected anxiety to my mother’s hopes.”
Her mother had integrated wading pools, movie theatres, orchestras and schools all her life and she been worried to find that her daughter was listed in the New York Times as one of the leaders of a student sit-in on behalf of faculty diversity and curricular change. But Crenshaw said the sit-in was a natural extension of her childhood. “I was surprised that she was surprised. She and my father had encountered my constant questioning about why things were the way they were since I was little. ‘Why?’ I would ask, when a seemingly arbitrary rules was announced,” recounted Crenshaw.
“Sometimes their unsatisfying answer prompted more questions until the ultimate truth came out: ‘Because we’re the parents and we say so.’ So there it was. The coercive power of the state revealed. Now I knew what I was dealing with,” said Crenshaw with a smile.
“Yet asking these questions of society – why do things have to be the way they are? Who said so? And why does their say so end all discussion – were precisely the questions that they nurtured in me to ask of the wider world, questions asked by young people everywhere – at lunch counters, places of employment, colleges and universities.”
By the time she enrolled in Harvard Law School, she began to ask her own questions about legal education. “Why were there no courses on race, racism and the law, on women and the law, on Indian Law, or poverty and the law, on immigration?” she said. “And why were there no people of color on our faculty and precious few women to teach these courses?”
What she discovered was in fact the familiar and unsatisfying reply. “Because we said so.” So she continued to protest and worked to redefine legal education and ultimately the law.
In 1996, Crenshaw co-founded the African American Policy Forum, a gender and racial justice legal think tank, which houses a variety of projects designed to deliver research-based strategies to better advance social inclusion. 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.
In 2011, Crenshaw founded the Center for Intersectionality & Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School, which aims to foster critical examination of how social structures and related identity categories such as gender, race, and class interact on multiple levels, resulting in social inequality. Her groundbreaking work on “Intersectionality” has traveled globally and was influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has also recognized the relevance of an intersectional approach to addressing multiple grounds of discrimination in human rights claims.
“Intersectionality was a product of a particular historical moment. My generation came of age during an expanding vision of social inclusion across many vectors and we became lawyers in the riptide of its reversal,” said Crenshaw. “You are at a similar historical juncture. As you are entering the profession, democratic institutions are at risk, basic commitments to access to justice are being treated like unaffordable luxuries, and the most powerful social movements these days – the ones marching en mass to dismantle commitments to inclusion and dignity – are animated by folks who believe their diminished over representation in all spheres of life is the existential injustice of the moment.”
Each and every one of the graduands, said Crenshaw should hold onto their resolve and fight the “because we said so moments,” which she said may be disguised as a precedent, budget cut or feigned acceptance. “If one thing is abundantly clear, this world will not fix itself. We need good, questioning, and committed lawyers,” she said.
“In those times it may seem easier not to question, not to prod, not to get out of line, not to swim upstream. But then I want you to reach back to this day, to that picture you stored in your mind’s eye, of you brimming with excitement. I want you to recapture that ball of energy in your soul, and look squarely into the face of that authoritative no, and say, ‘Well, who says so?’ In fact, let’s make it our class motto – can we? Who says so?”
In response, graduands, faculty and the audience stood, roared their approval and applauded.