A flight of butterflies

A flight of butterflies

I met Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw at Columbia University in 2012. She was introduced to me by a friend and colleague who had previously studied with her shortly before I flew to New York to embark on a research stay as Visiting Scholar. I planned my project meticulously: I had already registered for the courses I would take, the conceptual and analytical framework of my PhD thesis had already been drafted, and I had confirmed the timeline with my supervisor at Columbia University. All my plans were turned upside down after meeting with Kimberlé Crenshaw. I instantly decided to dive in head first in the new theoretical path that was opening up to me.

Prof. Crenshaw accepted to become my supervisor and I dropped all the other classes I had registered for to devote my full time and attention—and heart and soul—to the two courses taught by her in the Fall Semester of 2012: “Intersectionalities” and “Critical Race Theory”. I was immediately spellbound by the readings and my curiosity transformed into an insatiable urge to untangle, uncover, and unravel all the knots and puzzles that my mind had been grappling with. The white Eurocentric curriculum I had been studying in German, British and French universities had not provided the answers I was looking for, at best making me feel inappropriate, at worst triggering deep discomfort. As a student of law and public policy, I hadn’t been exposed to postcolonial, feminist and other critical studies. The several months leading up to the research stay had paved the way for Prof. Crenshaw’s classes. I had started to get acquainted with decolonial thought, queer feminism and critical legal studies. I had read the seminal works of Prof. Crenshaw prior to my stay at Columbia but I could not have anticipated the profound impact it would have on my personal and professional life. This decision fundamentally changed the course of my research and enriched it to an extent I could not have imagined. It enhanced my critical thinking, strengthened my theoretical arguments, deepened my academic knowledge on feminism, anti-racism, intersectionality and—most importantly— provided an analytical framework to understand and articulate my political identity. Born in the suburbs of Paris to a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jew from Algeria and a Martinican mother, and adding my queerness to the mix, my ambiguous identity has never neatly fitted anywhere. Finally, there was a word for it: intersectionality. Beyond the individual level, the concept unleashed tremendous possibilities on a political-structural level: all of us located at the intersections of several systems of inequality and oppression could be made visible and finally emerge from a legal and discursive vacuum.

I had religiously studied the syllabus and entered the classroom eager to discuss the introductory text, when, for the first time in my life, I sat across a majority of other women of color and we were taught by an incredibly charismatic and inspiring Black woman. I have a hard time describing the strong empowering effect it had on me, but Rupi Kaur does it well:

“representation

is vital

otherwise the butterfly

surrounded by a group of moths

unable to see itself

will keep trying to become the moth—representation”

— Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers

I was surrounded by butterflies and the experience was powerful. Beyond the content of the classes, which—needless to say—were fascinating, the atmosphere, where the lines between the personal and the political were blurred, allowed for eye-opening and mind-expanding conversations between people living at the intersections of multiple identities.

The research stay at Columbia marked a decisive shift in my dissertation and in my life. I had stepped out of the matrix and stepping back in had become impossible. Though uncomfortable it may be, my position at the margins also carries its gifts: the privilege to deconstruct the tightly knit fabric of imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy—to borrow from bell hooks—; the capacity to articulate a different narrative that reflects my existence and perspective; the ability to rethink existing frameworks and create new ones; and the sheer luck of belonging to a global community of activists, thinkers, artists and believers in a world free of systemic oppression.

Four years after having met Kimberlé Crenshaw for the first time, we met again in Paris in November 2016. As fate has it, we were speaking at the same conference at Sciences Po Paris. A seed had been planted in my head a few weeks before: I was going to found an advocacy organization meant to bring the concept of intersectionality forward in Europe. Over dinner, I brought up the idea and bluntly asked Kimberlé Crenshaw if she would accept to become the President of this yet-to-be organization, whose name hadn’t been found at the time. She said yes.v

Aware of the incredible privilege it was to have Kimberlé Crenshaw on board, I quit my job and launched myself passionately into it. Six months later, the Center for Intersectional Justice (CIJ) was born. It was an instinctive and easy birth, the natural outcome of my political awakening. A place to assert our vision of intersectionality was 56 created, where it would be possible to reinvest the concept, rebuild its subversive potential through insurgent practice, and refill the gaping holes that have weakened intersectionality on its way from North America to Europe. And maybe we’ll be audacious enough to reinvent parts of the concept. Therein lies the gift of Kimberlé Crenshaw: giving people at the margins a tool that can be collectively nurtured, adapted, remodeled, and imagined.

Through her complete trust, sensible advice and subtle guidance, Kim has been a mentor and an incredible source of inspiration since the beginning.

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