On intersectionality and street harassment

Lena Wånggren


The last few weeks we have seen much writing in the media on a specific term: intersectionality. After Caitlin Moran’s tweet in which she stated that she ‘literally couldn’t give a shit about’ the representation of black women in media, a debate started regarding what feminism is and how we can live it. Many feminists (Laurie Penny, Ray Filar, Bim Adewunmi, blackfeminists.org) have criticised Moran, arguing that we need to take into account various kinds of structures in society – not just gender structures – in order to achieve social justice (this is what the term ‘intersectionality’ means: taking into account various kinds of oppression, not only sexism but also for example racism and class issues). However, a few feminists have also defended Moran’s ignorance, stating that feminism needs to be not intersectional (that would be ‘too academic’) but ‘comprehensible’.


For us at Hollaback! Edinburgh, the call for a ‘comprehensible’ struggle for gender equality (gender equality would probably, after all, be the simplest definition of feminism) seems very unhelpful. What is incomprehensible about including also issues of class, race, ethnicity, able-bodiedness, sexuality, gender identity, and so on? What many privileged people (some of them feminists) don’t realise is that intersectionality is not a choice – it is a necessity and a part of life. If we ignore, devalue, and silence issues of race, class, sexuality and other aspects of our lives, the struggle for gender equality becomes a homogenous elitist struggle without much anchoring in the real lives and experiences of many feminists and other people working for social justice.


Importantly, since intersectionality has been criticised for being ‘incomprehensible’ or ‘too academic’: the concept of intersectionality did not come from the universities, it grew out of the struggles of black feminists, in order to describe the intersecting oppressions facing black women. Black feminism can be said to have grown out of the civil rights movements and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States: having been discriminated against within the women’s movement because of the white norm, and at the same time having been discriminated against within the black liberation movement because of the masculine norm, many black women now started to organise separately, refusing to separate the politics of race, class and gender. One of the several black women’s groups and feminist organisations started at this time was the Combahee River Collective, a group of young African American women who organised study groups and retreats where they not only proposed a ‘combined antiracist and antisexist’ politics but also addressed ‘heterosexism and economic oppression under capitalism’. The realisation of the interconnectedness of various forms of oppression came about from the everyday experiences of black working class women.


Only later were these struggles taken up in universities by black feminists who tried to theorise or make models of the intersections – that is to say, the interactions or crossing points – of sexism and racism in people’s everyday lives. The term itself, ‘intersectionality’, was formulated first in an 1989 article by legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, in which she uses the analogy of traffic in an intersection to describe the existence of intersecting oppressions – like traffic in an intersection, discrimination can come from various directions simultaneously.


In terms of street harassment, intersectionality is a crucial concept. If one gets harassed or abused in the street, is it because of their gender, race, class, or sexuality? Or because of several of these aspects combined? As Laura’s recent post illustrates, street harassment can manifest in various different ways depending on in which category you are perceived as ‘deviating’ from the norm. Many of the catcalling names that we hear devalue us not only as women, or as LGBT people, but as combinations of these and other categories. As the short film Black Woman Walking (2007) demonstrates, questions of race also play into the appearance and experience of street harassment.


For some people, intersectionality might not seem to matter – simply because if one is located in a place of privilege (be it white privilege, male privilege, class privilege) one often does not notice oppression. If you have never experienced sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, or abuse because of your sexuality, perhaps you don’t realise that these issues surround us and inflect on our daily lives. We cannot simply choose one oppression to fight, but we need to take account of the various kinds of structures that surround us.


So, along with Flavia Dzodan, we say: our fight against street harassment will be intersectional!


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