The German make-a-wish discourse

10 years ago, at the 20th anniversary of intersectionality theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw was invited to participate in a lecture series in Berlin. She was to give a lecture entitled, The Curious Resurrection of First Wave Feminism in the US Presidential Elections: An Intersectional Critique of the Rhetoric of Solidarity and Betrayal in a large lecture hall. Afterwards, a fancy dinner with Crenshaw and a small group of people was on the internal agenda. This was a great opportunity for a hand-picked group of doctoral students and professors to chat with the “inventor” of intersectionality in private. I, and a small BPoC group who had gotten together to form a kind of “activist reading group” some time before, were of course not invited. But we had a plan, an “inside man”, and we were determined to get Kimberlé to join our BPoC group.

2009 was also the year in which I completed my sociology degree. I never fully warmed to the social sciences, even though I was not always quite sure why. We were such a good match after all! But still, it always let me know unequivocally: none of this has anything to do with you.

On the day of her guest lecture, the lecture hall was jam-packed. Many high-profile lawyers, sociologists and professors of gender studies, who had all contributed to the expansion, supplementation, distancing and potentiation of the intersectionality concept in their publications, were present. I expected a lecture peppered with legal terms, multi-level dilemmas and internal constitutional matters. Looking back, I can say with certainty that on that evening I listened to one of the most entertaining and informative lectures of my time at university. It was one of a few lectures that I understood in its entirety, even though it was held in English and it was not a sociological topic, but a juridical one.

To see Kimberlé Crenshaw live was a great highlight for me, because her work provided a solid foundation to our political, academic and activist battles. And that was what was needed in 2009, when the already tense situation between queer autonomous migrant organizations (and allied ASOs) and white, primarily gay associations in Berlin further boiled up. The latter regularly organized demonstrations, kiss-ins and press campaigns to point to a supposedly inherent conflict between migrants and homosexuals. Their demands, in addition to marriage equality, above all included harsher penalties for “homophobic assaults” in the context of hate crime legislation and stronger cooperation between the police and LGBTI organizations. Needless to say, the attempt to introduce a queer BPoC perspective failed due to a lack of intersectional awareness.

Crenshaw’s talk, which was renamed Historicizing Intersectionality. A Disciplinary Tale on relatively short notice, started at the primordial soup. She shared with us her famous crossroad analogy, where race and gender are thought of as roads each with their own structures and isms. If an accident occurs at the point at which the two roads intersect, rescue attempts often fail. The ambulance only sets off if the injury clearly occurred either on the race or on the gender road.

Crenshaw illustrated her analogy using the real-life legal battle of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors. Then there were a few questions from the audience and that was it.

Bam. What was that? Had she just explained the periodic table at a quantum physics conference? Yes.

Around the year 2009, white power of definition defended with tooth and nail, not only at the activist level, but especially in the context of university. At my university, too, the concept of intersectionality had taken hold, but people were not quite sure how to use it for their own benefit.

My diploma thesis on intersectional approaches in the political work of FLTI* of color only just survived the advice of the professors to also examine the “critical sides” of internationality and to juxtapose it with the supposedly more comprehensive multi-level analysis of two white German academics. The unhelpful comments about the structure of my lead questions were as follows: “Who chooses the relevant categories?” “Is racism even relevant in Germany?”

The oral part of my final exam was a major disaster as well. In the field of cultural sociology I wanted to examine the term “community”. According to the examiner, however, the term was not sociological enough, and should have been “ethnic segregation”. The content, he promised me, was the same. As a tidbit aside: my oral exam exceeded by 60 minutes because the secretary experienced a total breakdown when I proposed whiteness as a relevant category within the discourse on privilege.

By starting at the primordial soup, Kimberlé Crenshaw staged an intervention that was urgently needed in the German discourse on intersectionality in 2009. She unambiguously shifted the focus to the position of Black wom*n. She highlighted the untenable, contradictory ongoing reality of Black FLTI and FLTI of color. By speaking so clearly, she took intersectionality away from the “German make-a-wish Discourse” and forced her audience to confront racism and Black people at the center of the theory formation.

And finally, our intervention did not quite go as planned. In any case, Kimberlé did not let us take her to a different restaurant, as we had intended. Instead, we crashed the elite bubble with a surprise performance and later “kidnapped” her and took her to Kreuzberg to drink Tequila.