Dissenting Opinions

Liberation Isn't a Zero-Sum Game

Episode Summary

In episode 4 of Deep Dive into Critical Race Theory, Will and Khiara discuss intersectionality, how we can focus on more than one injustice at time, and how the lens of intersectionality lets us examine the connections between different injustices.

Episode Transcription

[Dissenting Opinions theme]

Will: Welcome to Season 2 of Dissenting Opinions, a podcast by the Constitutional Law Institute at the University of Chicago Law School. I'm your host, Will Baude and you're listening to a special series, we're calling Deep Dive, where a guest and I will take a deep dive into a legal topic. This series will be me and Berkeley Law Professor, Khiara Bridges talking about critical race theory. Without further ado, let's deep dive into critical race theory. 

All right, I have one more term I want to learn about, intersectionality.

Khiara: Mm-hmm.

Will: All right. I know this was coined by Kim Crenshaw, I think. 

Khiara: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Will: Maybe even the pages of a University of Chicago journal, well, [crosstalk] University of Chicago Legal Forum. 

Khiara: Yes, yes, yes. 

Will: I either do or don't know what it is. 


Khiara: Yeah, So, again, Kim Crenshaw is a master of coining terms.

Will: [laughs]

Khiara: Not only did she they come up with critical race theory, but she also came up with intersectionality. But more important than the term is the concept, I think.

Will: Yeah.

Khiara: Intersectionality. Also, it's important for me to say that although Kim Crenshaw came up with the term 'intersectionality', the concept that she was gesturing towards predates her. Scholars before her had articulated the idea that racism and sexism, certain people's experiences are prioritized in those concepts. For example, when we think of racism, we think of police violence. Police pulling somebody over for no good reason, brutalizing them, throwing them in jail, that's racism. When we think of racism, we think mass incarceration, millions of people in jails and prisons today, disproportionately people of color. What we're not thinking of is what I do some of the time, which is you go to a labor and delivery ward and black women who are laboring are treated so poorly there, like their basic humanity is being denied. When you think of racism, you don't think of someone, a black woman, being told that her hairstyle is unprofessional and that she needs to get something that's something more acceptable for her job. And I can also give examples for sexism. Sexism is perhaps abortion restrictions. Sexism is having your child taken away from you, because somebody thinks that you're a bad mother.

The idea that racism indexes are experiences that are had by black men or at least, we identify them with black men, police violence, mass incarceration, the experiences that we think of as sexism are the ones that white women tend to have abortion restrictions might be one. Black women, black parents are the ones who are struggling to keep custody of their kids, because the state thinks that they're bad mothers. 

So, intersectionality is supposed to index the fact that racism interacts with sexism interacts with classism interacts with ableism interacts with xenophobia, what have you, and it produces different experiences. And so, when we have one group as the model for an experience, we're going to miss all the other experiences. And then, our approaches to dealing with racism, or sexism, or ableism will be impoverished as a result, because we have one group standing in for everybody. That's what intersectionality is. [laughs] 

Will: Well, I guess one way to take this, I don't think is where it's supposed to go, would be we care too much about police brutality and prison abolition, because we don't pay enough attention intersectionality. Again, we should care about everything, but in a world of tradeoffs, we're too likely to index on racism that happens to black men and not likely enough to do it on racism against black women. So, we're using our racism energy, which we don't have enough. We need more of it. 

Khiara: [laughs] 

Will: We're using too much of it on abolishing the police and not enough of it on de-racing hospitals. Is that--?

Khiara: Yeah. I think that's definitely one logical pathway from the claim.

Will: Yeah.

Khiara: Also, I have to just say that Kim Crenshaw has also spent a lot of time bringing attention to police violence against black women and women of color. We all knew about George Floyd, but Sandra Bland-- I'm sorry. Well, Sandra Bland also happened.

Will: Yeah.

Khiara: But Breonna Taylor didn't get as much energy. So, our focus on black men obscures the violence that's happening against women, women of color. So, yeah, one of the logical conclusions to claim is we're spending all of our racism energy on one group or missing other groups. I think another logical conclusion from the claim is okay, so, what happens when we attempt to dismantle racism in the model of black men, then we leave in place racisms that affects women of color? We spent all of our energies and they were like, “Yay, guys, we got rid of the prisons and jails.” Meanwhile-- and everybody goes home too, because it's such an amazing victory. We go, we-

Will: [laughs] 

Khiara: -celebrate for six years. But meanwhile, the child welfare system, the family regulation system is still in place, still taking away kids, because their mothers are not good mothers. So, we celebrate victories, and we miss that there are other injustices that are happening.

Will: Yeah. Okay, that makes sense. I guess this is the line of thought you're talking about. You could imagine that recognizing these kinds of things has some-- It was important. It's true what the world it highlights groups are missing. You could imagine though that could be again weaponized almost to turn groups against themselves, to generate infighting among African Americans about whose problems are bigger or flipside, break up the feminist movement by pitting the white feminists against black feminists. Is there a way to stop that? [crosstalk] 

Khiara: [crosstalk] [laughs] Yeah, and that is exactly what Kim Crenshaw worried about and responded to not, in the Chicago one, but in the Stanford one, when [laughs] she wrote another article. 

Will: Yeah. What's the answer? How does that work? 

Khiara: Yeah, what’s the answer? I think the answer is to be sensitive to the possibility, but also direct in countering the view that this is a zero-sum game. Dorothy Roberts tells a story about how she was supposed to give this talk. The title of the lecture was “Civil Rights Under Attack.” And so, she started talking about reproductive rights being whittled away by the court, and a black man stood up at the end of her talk and was like, “You need to focus on Affirmative Action. You need to focus police violence, you need to focus--” Because talking about reproductive rights, that is divisive. We, black people, we need to be focused.

I think that position results from a feeling that this is zero sum, [laughs] that if we fight for reproductive rights or we fight against the child welfare system, dismantling families, then somehow, we lose in the battle against mass incarceration. I've seen more and more recently explicit attestations that these systems are linked. The other examples I just gave, it's a carceral logic. There is a logic of punishment that unites both prisons, and jails, and child welfare system. You're punishing people for not being who you think they should be to their kids. And so, if those struggles are in fact linked, then when we pull it one thread over here, then the other thread is loosened. So, our struggles are all linked.

Will: Yeah. Okay, this actually goes to something else I've-- this is beyond critical race theory, but sometimes, it seems you should think of them as zero sum and sometimes, it seems the opposite. Sometimes, the model of, "We only have so much racism energy to go around, we've got to figure out what to spend it."

Khiara: Right. [laughs] 

Will: I think that feels true, to say, “Look, this is the way I want to fight.” But then other times, the model of more like, “No, we win this battle and that'll give us precedent, or resources, or whatever to help with the next battle.” That seems right. I've never had a good model for thinking about which one is true when or-- So, I kind of get it when you can come up with this core link. "Okay, these two systems are linked with the carceral logic, but then there going to be lots of things that aren't necessarily like that."

Khiara: Yeah, agreed. Yeah, so, I think that sometimes, the things are linked. Sometimes, they're not. It's interesting since you're giving me a platform. [chuckles] I talked about environmental injustice, and I've seen more scholarship linking environmental injustice to prisons. A lot of the people who are imprisoned come from these communities that are sites of incredible environmental injustice. Moreover, the prisons themselves are toxic spaces. You pull on the thread of environments when justice in it, you might see a give over at the site of prisons and jails. 

Yeah, sometimes, they're linked, maybe more often than not. They're not, but I still don't think-- I don't know, I don't think that to use a Berkeley term, liberation [laughs] is zero sum. Let's say that black women are actually a discrete group from black men. Hypothetical, let's say that those are actual discrete groups. If black women win some kind of justice, even if it has no effect on black men, how is that a bad thing? [laughs] Zero sum is like I win, you lose, I think. And so, black women win, I don't see necessarily how black men lose.

Will: You are right. It's more like limited resources. 

Khiara: I think it’s limited resources. 

Will: It’s more like how do we decide whether Dorothy Roberts or how does Dorothy Roberts decide, she gets to decide for herself and I don't decide for her. How does she decide whether to give a talk about reproductive rights or whether to give a talk about Affirmative Action?

Khiara: Right. Yeah, agreed. That's a-- [chuckles] [crosstalk] 

Will: That’s a professional choice we all wrestle with it all the time, I know. [laughs] 

Khiara: Exactly. Yeah, I can say today, I hope more people find these struggles. [laughs] These are not harder choices to make. We can do them all, but we also live in a world of limited resources. And so, some people have to prioritize, but yeah, I hope there's room for all. [chuckles] 

Will: Also, this is more of the-- We did race and sex and obviously, the intersection. But you briefly mentioned, I take it, you can have intersectionality with other identities. So, is there a similar story for our paradigm case of disabled rights is missing some other category or class, or is that--? [crosstalk] 

Khiara: Yeah, I think you can do it all. There's disability rights and then there's intellectual formation called disability justice, which said that in that case, white people with disabilities are the paradigm. There's also within disability justice, folks who say people with physical disabilities are prioritized. And so, mental disabilities are made invisible. And it's not just two intersections. It's not just race and class, race and ability, or class and ability, or class and sexuality. But there are multiple intersections which leads to a critique, which is how many intersections are we talking here?

Will: [laughs] Yeah.

Khiara: At some point, you lose coherence. Yeah, it becomes impossible to hold together when we think about all the intersections that people have. I think Crenshaw would say something along the lines of the idea here is to recognize difference. When I do my work-- In my previous work, I was working with women of color who were poor. I have to recognize that that's an intersectional category and some things were being obscured. All of the women that I worked with were citizens, all of the women I worked with were cisgender, all of the women I worked with, to my knowledge, did not have disabilities. So, there were other categories or stratifications that were made invisible in my work and I have to recognize that someone with a disability, somebody who's transgender, somebody who's not a citizen would have different experiences than the group that I centered in my work. I think that is the intersectionality insight.

Will: And what's the payoff for you from recognizing that? If you say that, you say, “Okay, I now realize that's something that your work was omitting.” I don't know. Then what? Does that make you want to go back and do it over this time making sure--? 

Khiara: No.

Will: No. [crosstalk] 

Khiara: Yeah, I wouldn't want to do it over. That just gives me my next research agenda for the next 20 years. In my previous working, I talked about labor and delivery and black women who are poor, my God, the injustices that you see, but there's a certain privilege there. Among the people who I worked with was one they were entitled to Medicaid. They lived in New York state. They have Medicaid throughout their entire pregnancies. If they lived in another state, not so generous, not as wealthy perhaps as New York. If they're undocumented, no luck. They were all cisgender, which meant that though they had the organs that could allow them to reproduce, so if they're a trans person and desired parenthood, there's a whole bunch of obstacles that they face and very little healthcare to help them overcome those obstacles. So, the insight of intersectionality is just to observe difference of experience and to recognize that we're not speaking for everyone, even when we say something like, “Oh, we're going to work with poor black women who are on Medicaid.”

Will: Yeah. 

Khiara: It gives me an opportunity also to say that a lot of people who misunderstand intersectionality say that intersectionality is about ranking disadvantage.

Will: This is the next thing I was going to ask you.


Khiara: I read your mind. Well, I read it, I read it. Yeah.

Will: I'm worried about that.

Khiara: [laughs] No, the critique is like, “Oh, intersectionality says that black woman's experience is harder than a white woman's experience. Black woman with a disability, her experience is harder than a black woman without disability. Then a black woman with a disability who is not a citizen, her experience is--" then you go down the rabbit hole.

Will: I've heard this. There's a hierarchy of the [crosstalk]. You are trying to get to the bottom or the top, or I don't know.

Khiara: Right. Whoever the winner is in that situation and the biggest loser. But that's not what intersectionality is. In my classes, I call it the Oppression Olympics. 

Will: Yes-- [crosstalk] 

Khiara: We're not trying to win the Oppression Olympics, that's not what intersectionality is about. It's not to help you identify the winner of the Oppression Olympics. It's about difference as opposed to better or worse than. And especially, if you go back to feminism 101, white women's experience has been different from black women's experience, but it's hard to say it's better than. It's different forms of coercion. As a reproductive justice scholar, white women were coerced into motherhood, while black women were coerced out of motherhood. It's hard to say, well, you know what, being forced to become a mother is better than being denied. They're both awful. So, I think that we mis-describe what intersectionality is all about when we think about ranking oppressions. Instead, it's about observing difference.

Will: Yeah. I guess, if we take it to its logical extreme, does it just give us individualism? It sounds like we can come up with these labels to separate the undocumented from the not, the black from the white. But at some point, it's just everybody's different for everybody, even two trans, black, non-citizen women are different. 

Khiara: Right. Absolutely. 

Will: So, does that where it just ultimately bottoms out, it's like-- 

Khiara: Yeah, that was definitely one of the critiques, [laughs] which says that-

Will: We are all-- [crosstalk] 

Khiara: - alongside that critique of like, it leads to inviting-- it makes coalition's impossible. But ultimately, it just leads to atomism. Everybody's divided from everybody else. I think Kim Crenshaw [laughs] would say something along the lines of, "Yeah, but we should pay attention to the systems that stratify." So, even though two black, trans non-citizen women are different from one another, we can pay attention to perhaps need to critique the system that renders them illegal immigrants. We might pay attention to and perhaps critique the system that makes their transness matter, and so on, and so forth. So, I think that would back up from the radical individualizing conclusion that intersectionality might lead to and observe the systems that produce the categories that people inhabit.

Will: Okay. Yeah. This maybe is also answering the question I was going to ask, which is what's the relationship between intersectionality and critical race theory? Can you believe in intersectionality and not be critical race theorist? Can you be a critical race theorist and not think intersectionality is a useful concept or are they [crosstalk] those?

Khiara: Yeah, that’s interesting. Interesting question. I would say that intersectionality has escaped. [laughs] 

Will: [laughs] 

Khiara: It's escaped critical race theory.

Will: It’s gone native. 

Khiara: Yeah, it really has. It's escaped the US. When I was writing my chapter on intersectionality in my primer, a lot of the hits were from journals that were not published in the US, were not about the US. Yeah, I think it's fair to say that you can do intersectionality, you can use it in your scholarship and not self-identify as critical race theorists or even due scholarship that could comfortably be called critical race theory. The opposite is likely true as well. Thinking about some of the self-identified critical race theory that I have read, a lot of it isn't explicitly attentive to difference in experience. So, yeah, I think you can do one without the other for sure. Yeah, I think so. [chuckles] 

Will: Yeah. I was struck, because once you explain that part of the reason of picking these categories of these eight categories, look at the intersections is because those are the categories law is using to divide people, then I see the connection that intersectionality is motivated by the critical project. But it seems you could imagine somebody who was a critical race theorist but thought that race was really the thing that was really important, and then all the other things were true.

Khiara: Yeah.

Will: I think the person in the audience said, Dorothy Roberts talk. 

Khiara: Right.

Will: Could be a critical race theorist. I said, “No, race, critical race theorist.”

Khiara: Right. It’s called critical race theory. You have to pay attention to words-- [crosstalk] 

Will: We put it into the title for a reason.

Khiara: [laughs] Yeah. I don't know. I'm judgmental at that point, because then I would say things like, "Well, they're doing critical race theory, but it's not particularly good critical race theory." 

Will: [laughs] 

Khiara: Yeah, but it reminds me to respond to something that I've seen a lot, actually, I’ve even said it that the caricature of critical race theory was that it teaches that one race is the oppressor race and the other is the oppressed race, so it's like this very--

Will: Yeah. 

Khiara: Yeah. But I think that the concept of intersectionality defeats that claim. It's just wrong, because the concept of intersectionality says that you're going to be privileged along some lines and unprivileged along other lines, and actually context matters. Darren Hutchinson wrote about how maleness might actually be disadvantaging for black men in some respects, because when we do look at prisons and jails, it's mostly black men in there. So, maleness invites you into certain, I don't know, punishing institutions and excludes you from those same institutions if you are not male. So, it turns on its head, which is being a male as the privileged position and being female as the unprivileged position.

Same thing with whiteness. An article recently was trying to make sense of the fact that most of the people who are being arrested and prosecuted for drug use during pregnancy now are white. We first started prosecuting people for drug use during pregnancy during the crack cocaine scare in the 1980s. All of the people prosecuted back then were black, because crack had hit black communities particularly hard. We're in the throes still of the opioid epidemic and the opioid epidemic has hit white communities particularly hard, for very interesting reasons. So, now, the people who are being arrested and prosecuted for drug use during pregnancy, a lot of them are white. What does that mean? That's the critical race theory question. What is that?

I conclude that whiteness might be like a site of disadvantage when it comes to reproducing if we value white lives, if we want to save white lives and these pregnant people are endangering, harming, or imagined to at least hurting innocent white lives, and we turn our carceral attention to them, throw them in jail. So, whiteness in that sense might be a site of unprivileged. All that to say it's complicated. This simple rendering, it's like white people are the oppressor race, black people are the oppressed race is just a caricature of what critical race theorists are actually doing and thinking about race.

Will: What is the opposite of the Oppression Olympics are, you do still sometimes hear people describing the intersection of white male, cis, able, rich. I'm sure there are few other more-- Hetero, as still the oppressor intersection, the one-- [crosstalk]

Khiara: Yeah, I hear that in my class too. Students saying, this cis, hetero, white, rich--

Will: People won’t say it to my face. 

Khiara: [laughs] 

Will: But I know they say it. 

Khiara: It's said outside of earshot. 

Will: Yeah. 

Khiara: I think that it will be interesting. Maybe that's my next project.

Will: [laughs] 

Khiara: Number three on the list to investigate how privileged and underprivileged is operating in that intersection. I think that feminists particularly have done beautiful work around how masculinity is a trap. [laughs] Boys aren't supposed to cry. They're not supposed to be interested in, I don’t know, art. So, to be a cis, hetero, male, abled, la, la, la, la, who wants to cry and look at a beautiful piece of art, one of your categories is trapping you, the cis, hetero, male part. So, yeah, I think that instead of offering it as that is the intersection of privilege, I think what critical race theory does as a body of literature that just questions assumptions would be to investigate, “Well, is it true?” 

Will: Yeah.

Khiara: "Is it true that that intersection is the oppressor category?"

Will: It’s the pinnacle. You finally-- [crosstalk] 

Khiara: Right. It’s the pinnacle, the opposite of the Oppression Olympics. In what ways are those strata of privilege, in fact, constraining?

Will: Yeah.

Khiara: I think that will be an interesting project.

Will: Yeah, that's interesting. Yeah, I'm very interested that. I won't make too many confessions.


Khiara: You can tell me later. [laughs] 

Will: I'm hoping soon and next time we sit down, we can walk through some applications in various places-- how does this cash out in various places, but I don't think we should do that now. But is there anything else you want to tell me while you've got the platform?

Khiara: No, this has been such a great conversation. I really appreciate your openness to it. Yeah.

Will: My mind has been blown. I've got to tell you.

Khiara: [laughs] Yeah, I think the most important takeaway is that critical race theory offers more questions than answers and anything that suggests that it is dogma, it's not true. [laughs]

Will: [laughs] Yeah, well, this is really useful. I'm embarrassed by how much I now understand that didn't understand a few hours ago. 

Khiara: [laughs] Thank you. Thank you for the conversation. Clearly, I very much enjoy talking about this stuff. 

Will: [laughs] 


Will: Thanks, Khiara. For updates on future episodes, follow us on Twitter @uchicagoconlaw. Make sure to subscribe, rate, and comment wherever you get your podcasts. This Deep Dive into Critical Race Theory was recorded in one big session. So, if the conversation jumps quickly, that's why. Stay tuned for new episodes out every Monday and Thursday.


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