When Kimberlé Crenshaw came to Paris…

Intersectionality in academic spaces - "Thanks to intersectionality, I realized how much I had tamed myself to fit in places where I was never expected nor wanted."

…it was like watching an oasis rise in my desert. For so long, I had lacked the language to break apart the shackles of French universalism that had imprisoned my sense of self as a Black woman. I was elated not only to see a Black woman give a lecture for the first time but also to hear about intersectionality in the midst of the French academic sphere where air quotes are still used around the word race. The suppression of the R-word is aggressively promoted as a kind of moral imperative. Her regular interventions were awash with so many fresh ideas that opened me to the Black radical tradition I did not know existed and connected me to Black feminists all over the world. I learned about my foremothers and met many other sisters. Intersectionality theory enabled me to access transformative educational experiences that are rarely made possible in French universities. Thanks to this community of judgement, I felt validated in my intellectual pursuits like never before.

Professor Crenshaw unapologetically anchored intersectionality in her personal experiences. She weaved her personal narratives into critical explanations for the persistence of injustice in a post-civil rights society and highlighted how contemporary inequalities are connected to historical practices of marginalization. When she legitimized this way of knowing, I discovered how putting my own voice at the centre of analysis could be a powerful instrument to resolve contradictions between my reality and my own hope in liberal positivist narratives. To me, social progress seemed irresistible. Everyday brought its share of stories and anecdotes that countered this belief and made it hard to sustain on the long term. By lending credence to marginalised narratives, including my own, I recognized how acting on dominant discourses upholds the status quo, and thus contributes to the systematic disempowerment of a large population. Intersectionality theory helped me acknowledge and frame what I perceived to be only prejudice. I shifted away from liberal narratives to finally understand the structural aspect of discrimination. It was about discarding the narrow paradigm that sees discrimination as an isolated occurrence caused by a bad actor at best and at worst as oversensitivity. Looking for racist intent was not a requisite anymore. The moment I understood oppression was not unusual but ubiquitous, the scope of my actions irrevocably changed.

Thanks to intersectionality, I realized how much I had tamed myself to fit in places where I was never expected nor wanted. Liberal narratives define inequalities as defects of the oppressed and put the onus on them to change. When locating injustice in the room, I observed how the controlling image of the angry Black woman could be used to police my tone and my views anywhere anytime by almost anybody. Speaking up, staying quiet, smiling to death, I tried to cope the best I could. But time and again, I dwelled on what I thought were missed opportunities to teach, I dwelled on what I should have said or not. Most times, I had to face the visceral dismissal rejection of my words, I was ‘un-heard’, despised. I understood better why my analyses had been characterized as essentialist, overly passionate, and theoretically unsophisticated. Intersectionality kept me from further internalizing my presumed incompetence and shielded me from the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical suffering caused by the ubiquity of discrimination.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s daring stances have encouraged me to question “accepted” positivist approaches that objectify the oppressed, leaving them voiceless and ensuring the liberal status quo. Their historical conditions of emergence are linked to colonialism which is often framed as a past phenomenon and not as a continuing process that still influence methodologies repeatedly reinvented as traditional. Intersectionality sharpened my sight to track the ever-changing coordinates of power and make these exclusions visible. Positivist approaches can hardly account for the intersecting character of oppression. When I relied solely on them, I used to treat racism and sexism separately. After reading “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”, I started to grasp how gender and race are intrinsically tethered to each other and to class, sexuality, disability. I could never distinguish between these axes of oppression in my mind nor in my lived reality. They structure inequality together at the same time. Intersectionality led me to the path where I could historically elucidate the stereotyping of Black people in the French public sphere. It made me able to excavate the intertwinement of gender, capital, white supremacy, and empire. I eventually reconsidered concepts like colorblindness or migration. I understood how the French ideal of a universal citizen was rooted in colonialism and still shapes these guiding principles for policies that routinely place people of African descent outside the scope of France’s imagined community.

Intersectionality work became a precious route to the contemporary Black diaspora. When in Europe, Professor Crenshaw acknowledges the need for coalitions between Black women globally. I remember her asking the audience “When did you know you were Black?” and offered us the space to hear our different voices across the diaspora on common issues such as institutionalized racism, structural inequalities and violence. Intersectionality helped us find the histories of our anger and pain. Although we felt linked in some sort of kinship and solidarity, probably mediated by the transnational influence of North America, we became aware of how being Black differed from place to place. Intersecting oppressions driven by colonialism led to various ways of organizing and resisting that sometimes seem at odds. Local specificities can mask commonalities while making divergences visible is a necessary condition for any lasting alliance. Coalitions are never obvious; they need to be built day after day. This is how intersectionality inspires courage to fight for just futures.