Civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw spoke to a full house on “Race, Diversity, and Education” Tuesday night, as a speaker for both the 2016 Honors Colloquium and the 20th anniversary of The University of Rhode Island’s Diversity Week.
The opening remarks for the evening were made by Melvin Wade, Director of the Multicultural Student Services Center and the organizer of Diversity Week. He spoke of the many people that have helped make the yearly event possible and highlighted the importance of diversity in the collegiate community.
“I’m proud to say that Diversity Week is now the largest diversity co-curricular program in New England higher education,” Wade announced, referencing the success of this year’s program.
Upon taking the stage, Crenshaw was greeted by applause from students, faculty and local residents in the packed house of Edwards Auditorium. She opened her presentation with mention of Monday night’s Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
“There are so many things to talk about at this particular moment that I could just throw the speech away and talk about last night,” Crenshaw joked. “I hope to be provocative enough so that we can have a talk that builds on what I know folks must be thinking about and worrying about for the next course of presidential history and American history.”
She went on to talk about presidential history and civil rights and called to mind the comparisons that were drawn between Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the election of President Barack Obama.
“This was the beginning of a new era,” Crenshaw said. “People were so excited about this new era that they framed it in terms of fulfilling the ‘Dream’.”
She went on to what would become the crux of her message, in which she outlined three important points, which included post-racialism, white fragility, and intersectional erasure.
Post-racialism, in the context Crenshaw brought up, involves the belief that discussions about race can exist without discussing racism. Her second point, about white fragility, delved into a discussion about white privilege, as well as an outline of problems with Affirmative Action policies.
Crenshaw then showed a video animation her team had created of a race that involved a white man, white woman, a Latino man, and a black woman all running around a track. It then showed the numerous roadblocks and obstacles that the people of color face on the road to college and wealth, and the easy path that the white man had built for him.
“This video got itself into some hot water,” Crenshaw explained. “Some of the parents who saw that video felt it created ‘white guilt’. On the part of those who watched it, it encouraged a discourse of discrimination, effectively telling white students they should feel guilty for some of the issues presented. This brings us to the question: Can you talk about structural inequality without talking about privilege?”
Crenshaw continued on with this point, further highlighting some of the issues with affirmative action, before moving on to her final point of intersectional erasure. Crenshaw herself is the creator of intersectional theory, which examines how different minority identities overlap. She went on to discuss the issues that black women tend to face, as they fall within the intersection of both black and women, which are groups each with long standing issues.
Crenshaw concluded her presentation with an activity in which the entire audience stood. As she read off names to the crowd, those unfamiliar with the names were to sit down. She did this until only one person was left. These names, a majority of which were men, were names of black people that have been killed by police violence in recent years. Her point however, was the blind indifference and ignorance of these issues as they relate to women killed the same way.
Crenshaw presented a gut and heart-wrenching video of black women being brutalized during arrests and while in police custody, to the audible groans of disgust from the audience. The video concluded with a photo montage of each of these women highlighted, with their ages ranging from 7 to 92 years old. As the creator of the “Say Her Name” campaign, Crenshaw urged the audience to take notice of these crimes against women, and to remember the names and faces of the women shown.
Crenshaw was met with a standing ovation upon the conclusion of her presentation. The next Honors Colloquium will be on Oct. 4, presented by Jefferson Cowie on the subject of “Historical Perspectives.”