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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Jason A. Gillmer: On the urgency of intersectionality

Jason A. Gillmer

The term “intersectionality” is not a word that most of us use in everyday conversations. But it is a concept that impacts many people in ways that, unfortunately, routinely escalates injustice and inequality in everyday lives. Intersectionality refers to the notion that a person’s identity is often shaped by multiple constructs – race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and so forth – yet rarely does life or the law account for the complexities of these overlapping experiences.

Last month, Gonzaga University welcomed famed legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to give the law school’s inaugural Center for Civil and Human Rights annual lecture. Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University and UCLA, is the leading authority on intersectionality, having coined the term roughly 30 years ago to describe the unique way African-American women experience the law. Black women, she argues, often experience intersecting patterns of racism and sexism in ways that cannot be wholly captured by looking at race and gender separately. Yet our legal regime, along with our antiracist and feminist discourse, seems incapable of recognizing how multiple forms of discrimination can combine to impact people, further marginalizing those already on the margins.

Crenshaw’s case in point: in 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman, accused General Motors of employment discrimination. At the time, GM employed black men (along with white men) on the factory floor and white women as secretaries and administrative assistants. Black women, however, routinely were denied opportunities in both positions. When DeGraffenreid sued, she alleged that the discrimination was not about race or sex, but about race and sex. Unable to comprehend how the two separate identities could combine into one, the court dismissed her claim, leaving DeGraffenreid without a job and countless other black women without a voice.

Crenshaw further developed her theory in the shadow of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill conflict, in 1991. As a member of Hill’s support team, Crenshaw witnessed how white feminists rallied to Hill’s defense when she alleged that Thomas sexually harassed her, seemingly unaware of – and hence unprepared to address – society’s long-held views about the sexual myths of black women as overly lascivious and incapable of being raped. At the same time, Thomas’ supporters, including many people fighting for racial justice, failed to take the claim against Thomas seriously, dismissing Hill’s claim as the latest spin on the stereotype of the hypersexualized black male. The end result – a stoic Hill standing alone in front of a largely white male audience and an angry Thomas complaining of a “high tech lynching” – left us without any meaningful opportunity to engage in a nuanced discussion of sexual violence and its impact on women of color.

Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has only grown in salience in the 30 years since she first gave it a name. People are coming to understand more and more that invisible intersections often compound bias and discrimination. Last week, in her discussion at Gonzaga, Crenshaw also made clear it is not just about black women. Sexual orientation, class, religion, immigration status, disability – in addition to race and gender – all shape individual experience. What is important, she has said, is that we use intersectionality theory to “see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” By shining a light onto these intersections, we can better address instances of injustice and inequality for traditionally marginalized and underrepresented people.

Crenshaw’s lecture was a fitting start to the law school’s Center for Civil and Human Rights annual speaker series. Her talk came at a time when Gonzaga University and the larger Spokane community are working toward creating a more diverse, inclusive and culturally competent environment. Overall, in the Spokane school district, students speak 56 different languages, 24 percent identify as children of color, and 57 percent qualify for federal free/reduced meals. At Gonzaga University, 27 percent identify as students of color, and at Eastern Washington University (the area’s most diverse university), 32 percent of students identify as diverse. Unfortunately, our region has struggled with acceptance of people who reflect our nation’s changing demographics. Crenshaw’s presence on campus hopefully is a step in the right direction in raising awareness of the work to be done.

Jason A. Gillmer is the Hemmingson Chair in Civil Liberties and Professor of Law at Gonzaga University School of Law. He is also the Director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily the views of Gonzaga University.

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