Where are the Black female professors in Europe?

When she penned her now infamous article on intersectionality for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review in 1989, it is unlikely that Kim Crenshaw imagined the impact that her words would have around the world. Since then, the idea of intersectionality has crossed territorial borders and disciplinary boundaries to become one of the most successful and well-travelled theories exported from the USA. Crenshaw will forever be linked with this powerful and evocative idea, making her also one of the most influential black academics in the world and no doubt in history. The ideas of black women rarely spread so far and wide, although recent films such as ‘Hidden Figures’ are revealing that ideas which have changed history do in fact emanate from black women more regularly than may be imagined.

My engagement with the theory of intersectionality began when I was a junior academic, the only black woman teaching in a regional university in the UK, a country that in 2018 has fewer than 30 female professors of African-Caribbean heritage out of a total of 18,000. In my precarious position—Black, British, female, junior, visible yet invisible— her article had a significant impact. From my location in the overwhelmingly white and male environment of the legal academy in Britain, it was inspiring to know that this theory, articulated by somebody who looked like me, had been so well received and applied by academics in diverse fields around the world.

However, while I was overjoyed by the reception of intersectionality in Europe, the more I read, the more I became dismayed by its evident transformation. Here was a concept—developed by black women to improve the legal situation of black women—and yet this origin and objective were hardly visible in the works on the concept written by European scholars and researchers. Much was written about ‘multiple discrimination’ but nothing on critical race theory or critical race feminism. I found little on the role of black women workers in global capitalism, and missed any appreciation of the idea of synergy central to the theory.

The lack of depth afforded to the theory in its European formulation taught me two very important lessons: first, on the power of the Academy in its role as creator of contemporary knowledge, and second—related to the first—on the dangers of homogeneity in the Academy as it fulfils this important public service. Universities and research institutions have an important role to play not only in education but also in creation of the knowledge and theories that inform everyday life. This is true of intersectionality: the theory was created by academics in the USA to highlight a social and legal phenomenon and has travelled through institutions of higher education to exert its influence on the world. Bilge has argued that the silence on its origins was the key to its success—it is why intersectionality was so widely accepted. However, the transformation was a high price to pay: the lack of deep engagement with the theory took it towards becoming the ‘many headed hydra’ mentioned in Degraffenreid. It was reduced to another theory of identity and dismissed, instead of raised as a philosophy of global inequality. Black women were de-centred as it was brought within the fold of anti-discrimination law.

Re-marginalisation of black women in intersectionality theory in Europe can be attributed to the absence of black scholars in higher education. There are few black professors or post-graduate researchers in the UK, and even fewer in the rest of Europe. This made a difference to the understanding and development of intersectionality in Europe. The hollowing out of intersectionality was only possible because of the absence of a critical mass of Black professors conducting research from the perspective of and on the experiences of Black Europeans in the places where the theory took root—universities and research institutions across Europe. Sadly, in the UK and Europe we are yet to fully appreciate the need for critical mass in academia.

Coupled with this is the fact that the idea of race remains a taboo in many European countries. Discussion of race is treated as racism, even though the objectification of the black female body—for example as a bare-breasted cake filled with a blood-red sponge[1]—is acceptable. Where race is rejected as a meaningful socio-political category, black women workers remain marginalised and their specific experiences are invisible in law and politics. To remove race from intersectionality is therefore to re-marginalize the very voices and experiences that the concept was created to centralize. Prevention of a public discussion of race both creates the conditions for perpetuation of racism and prevents an effective remedy for intersectionality.

Identification of this re-marginalisation in intersectionality theory in Europe and understanding why it was possible had a profound impact: from doubting my position and value as an academic, I saw that as one of few black female academics in the UK, I had an important role—to ensure that plural worldviews are given voice and visibility in the Academy. I channelled this into a responsibility to retrieve intersectionality from the discourse of identity into which it had been casually thrown. I wanted to liberate it from the mis-understandings which seemed to surround it, locate it in the history and thought of black women from slavery onwards and operationalise it so that it could provide a legal remedy for all caught in situations at the blind spots of anti-discrimination law. I was determined that the world would know and appreciate the full value of intersectionality and the important intellectual contribution of black female scholars to knowledge and understanding.

This determination culminated in a piece accepted for publication by a prestigious legal journal, the Modern Law Review, entitled ‘Putting Race and Gender Together: A New Approach to Intersectionality’. As a result of that piece, I was invited to write another, for the highly regarded Industrial Law Journal, on the intersectional provision inserted into the Equality Act 2010. Over the years, I have tried to make a contribution to the theory of intersectionality and raise awareness of the social dangers of homogeneity in higher education. I now regularly speak about the need to nurture black female and male academics in the UK, not only those already working as academics but also those currently in doctoral programmes.

So, although the theory of intersectionality is not about identity, it helped me to find and assert my academic identity. Without Crenshaw’s work, I may never have fully understood the value of my presence in academia. While others gave me the tools to enter academia, she gave me the courage to stay in the profession and assert my presence in both research and teaching, regardless of the extent to which the academic environment welcomes this.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/17/sweden-europe-news; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17749533 [accessed Nov 24th 2018]. See also Ruble, Kayla, 2014. Sweden Plans to Thwart Racism By Eliminating the Mention of Race From Its Laws. Online at https://news.vice.com/article/sweden-plans-to-thwart-racism-by-eliminat… [accessed Nov 24th 2018]