Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown.
Kimberlé Crenshaw showed their familiar images to a packed audience at Cubberley Auditorium early last October at the annual Jing Lyman Lecture. The crowd was told to “stay standing” if they knew the person behind the name.
However, when the first image of a black woman—Michelle Cusseaux—flashed on screen, the composition of those standing drastically changed. The sound of seats unfolding nearly drowned out Crenshaw’s voice. Only a handful remained standing by the time Crenshaw finished saying two female names.
For women who live at the intersection of multiple identities, it is far too easy for them to be omitted from critical conversations affecting their lives.
“Alright, I thought I would get to four names or so, but I see I won’t get that far,” Crenshaw commented.
The point hit home.
Crenshaw’s exercise served as a revelatory moment that exposed a gap in the audience’s knowledge about the place of black women in society—and not only in the context of police brutality. For women who live at the intersection of multiple identities, it is far too easy for them to be omitted from critical conversations affecting their lives.
While police violence against black men is well known and covered quite visibly in the media, black female victims have fallen between the cracks. Their stories, and their tragic deaths, are erased from our cultural memory and from discussions about police brutality against the black community. This elision speaks to the critical significance of Crenshaw’s groundbreaking concept “intersectionality,” which describes the interlocking systems of oppression that result in the marginalization and erasure of women of color from discussions of gender and race. Through an intersectional gender lens, Crenshaw analyzed how this erasure occurs. She spoke passionately about how using an intersectional framework allows people to examine how their work and actions can inadvertently leave more marginalized people out of key decision-making processes.
The glaring disparity between public recognition of black men and black women is why Crenshaw advocates us to “Say Her Name.” An initiative of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) popularized by the viral hashtag #SayHerName, the social justice campaign puts Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality into action by making visible black women’s experiences with police brutality and other forms of violence through protest and performance.
“[I]nclusion of black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives, and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for black communities and other communities of color.”
Crenshaw brought her concept of intersectionality to life by showing how black women specifically are rendered invisible through a systemic cycle of exclusion. Women whose identities lie at the intersections of race and gender are relegated to the margins, overlooked, and forgotten. “Although black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality,” Crenshaw, who is the AAPF's co-founder and current executive director, said in a statement published on the AAPF's website. “Yet, inclusion of black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives, and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for black communities and other communities of color.”
Throughout her lecture, Crenshaw explained the complex and systemic ways that black women’s names, experiences, and lives have failed to reach the public eye, and the gender-specific ways in which police brutality and anti-black violence disproportionately affect black women. As a compelling illustration of the racist culture of sexual assault that affects black women, Crenshaw highlighted the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma police officer who was convicted of targeting, sexually assaulting and raping black women while on duty. His reprehensible actions are not an aberration, Crenshaw explained. In the face of perpetual state-based and sexual violence, the #SayHerName campaign offers a kind of counter-narrative by bestowing visibility and humanity to the numerous black women who have been its victims.
Just as in the beginning of the lecture, Crenshaw solicited audience participation at the close of her talk—this time with another purpose: to show the power of the #SayHerName campaign by putting it into practice. Crenshaw played a video that allowed the audience to bear witness to the female victims of police violence. The names of dozens of black women who have died at the hands of the police were projected for all to see, and audience members were encouraged to say each woman's name as it flashed on screen. As hundreds of those in attendance spoke the names of the fallen women, the amplification of many voices combined as one produced a moment in time when these women's lives were not forgotten.