Academic Conferences, Afrocentricity, bell hooks, CMU, Critical Race Theory, Diversity, Elsa Barkley Brown, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Intersectionality, Kimberlè Crenshaw, Marginalization, Misogyny, Multiculturalism, OAH, Organization of American Historians, Patricia J. Williams, Paula Giddings, Pitt, Presidential Classroom, Racism, Sexism, Tera Hunter
In truth, I’ve considered the issue of intersectionality as a historian and writer since 1993, when I wrote my quantitative methods requirement-fulfilling paper, “The Dying of Black Women’s Children.” Except that, for me and for most of my colleagues, the term was barely in use. Matter of fact, in five and half years of graduate school and in my first three years after finishing the doctorate, I may have heard the term used only once or twice. It’s not like I didn’t think about the unique issues facing women of color — especially Black women — in the context of US history and African American history. Sometimes as a historian, how leading Black men and White women marginalized African American women in education movements, in the suffrage movement, and in the Civil Rights Movement was all I could think about. In the context of understanding American education and the role of Black women as teachers and education, it made me reconsider the notion of education as a form of social control versus it as a form of social liberation as an and-both, and not an either-or proposition.
But, as with all other issues, I’m not perfect. I remember getting into an argument with an African American women at a joint Carnegie Mellon-University of Pittsburgh conference on diversity in 1992. She was a second-year master’s student in the public policy program at CMU’s Heinz School (now Heinz College) to my second year as a grad student and first as a PhD student. I had talked about my initial research on multiculturalism and Black education, and what that research could mean in terms of diversity in higher education. Over lunch, I barely got three sentences out about the implications before this student pounced on me for not taking a more Afrocentric approach to my research, all but calling me an Uncle Tom. She also pointed out that while I had accounted for race and gender in my work, I hadn’t accounted for them together. I was already used to middle class Black folk who only radicalized at the ripe young age of twenty-two telling me that my research was too conservative and too White. But on the second part, not accounting enough for Black women in my research, I did take to heart.
In 1999, at my “Black Brahmins” presentation on W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain Locke and their ideas around multiculturalism and connections to Harvard at the Organization of American Historians conference in Toronto, I got a cold shoulder from the panel’s moderator, Stephanie Shaw. She barely said a word to me the entire time, and barely commented on my paper. I figured that Shaw thought I should’ve found a way to make the paper more inclusive of Black women graduates of Harvard and multiculturalism, even though Harvard didn’t allow any women to attend. I could’ve included Black women who attended Radcliffe College around the turn of the twentieth century, but even then, those women did not earn graduate degrees or become proponents of pluralism or what we’d call multiculturalism today. I followed up at OAH in Los Angeles in 2001 with my “Multicultural Sisters” paper, but by then, I no longer had an interest in multiculturalism as a historian.
On this day and date in 2000, though, was the argument I had with a colleague at Presidential Classroom, one that would keep me conscious about intersectionality and womanism from that point on. Sev had been brought on by my racist boss Jay Wickliff to help out with the international recruitment for the weekly civic education programs we had for high school juniors and seniors. Sev was Canadian, had been an intern with the program the summer before, and had recently finished up a master’s in history. She had stopped by my office to ask about some revisions I’d been making to parts of our upcoming summer programs, especially the one on media and democracy, which was a new program for Presidential Classroom. Somehow the conversation swung toward women’s rights and issues that Sev thought were important to women. I kept correcting her, saying that some of these issues were “only important to White women.” She took offense, telling me that I shouldn’t be correcting her, that her master’s made her as much an expert on the topic as me. I remember actually chuckling at that assertion, which miffed Sev even more. The common refrain, “Just because you have a PhD…,” was how she responded.
But I did take a few minutes to break down the differences between second-wave and third-wave feminism (or womanism). I went on about the history of exclusion that Black women in particular had faced from Black men in civil rights movements and White women around suffrage and reproductive rights. I said, “maybe it’s because you’re Canadian, but here in the US, these issues you’re bringing up mostly concern middle class White women.” She didn’t like that at all. Before Sev responded, Wickliff, having overheard our argument, came by and said, “Slavery was a hoax” as a joke. That was the moment I knew my days working for this group of Whiteness folks were numbered.
A few months later, in my new job at AED with New Voices, I picked up and read Kimberlè Crenshaw’s essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” (1989) for the first time. I knew that I already understood intersectionality for Black women, how misogyny, sexism, and racism constantly confer a double marginalization, discrimination, and violation on Black women. Now, between Crenshaw and my own experiences, I also realized that I could experience intersectionality as a Black man, between White men and White women. Especially middle class ones, where their well-meaning color-blind racism had served to put me in a box as well. It was an and-both box, where I was a historian who didn’t write about intersectionality enough and a professional who had also experienced race and gender-based marginalization, albeit differently from women or color. What I did learn, finally, was that the intersection of race, class, and gender made Times Square look like Walden Pond by comparison.