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Failing at Intersectionality: Why We Need To Do Better

The following is a guest blog post by Tess Koenigsmark. Tess is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut, where she double majored in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Political Science. She was heavily involved in sexual assault prevention and reproductive justice activism and hopes to build on those experiences by pursuing a career in social justice.

Please note that views expressed by guest bloggers represent solely their own. CT NOW believes in open dialogue and multiple perspectives and welcomes (civilly worded) thoughts different from our own, but we do not necessarily endorse any writing done by the author elsewhere.

Failing at Intersectionality: Why We Need To Do Better

By Tess Koenigsmark

There’s been a fair amount of discussion happening recently, especially on Twitter, about intersectionality in our movements, both feminist and others. While many feminists have realized that intersectionality- the idea that oppressions such as racism, sexism, classism and others are not separate, but overlapping – is essential and continue to give lip service to the idea, as a movement we often fail to walk the talk. A perfect example of this is the recent collaboration between Christine Quinn, New York City’s Council Speaker and a mayoral candidate, and Hollaback!. Hollaback! is a non-profit organization that describes itself as “a movement to end street harassment powered by a network of local activists around the world”.  Their popular smart phone app allows victims of street harassment to instantly share their experiences online. They’ve now partnered with Quinn to release an app that collects information about incidents of street harassment, including location, in a systematic fashion. Users also have the option to send their reports directly to the New York City Council.

The issue with this partnership is that Quinn is also in favor of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy. Stop-and-frisk, which gives police the right to stop and search anyone without a warrant, is a type of street harassment itself; it’s just performed by police instead of civilians. Worse, it’s typically black and Latino men who are targeted. Since 2003, over 80 percent of the people stopped each year have been black or Latino (and many years it’s closer to 90 percent). By partnering with Quinn, who will likely use this collaboration to court the female vote in her campaign, Hollaback! is putting the safety of white women before that of women of color and their families.

This latest example of feminist failures in intersectionality comes hot on the heels of the controversial #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag started to protest the continued support by many white feminists of Hugo Schwyzer, an academic regularly commissioned to write for feminist websites despite a shady history that included using his position to harass women of color feminists. On the thread, many women of color expressed their frustration at what they felt was a continued lack of support from white feminists for racial issues. The news about Hollaback! is a stinging reminder that they’re right.

If we truly want feminism to be inclusive of all women, we have to acknowledge that gender discrimination is not the only, nor even necessarily the most salient, oppression that many women face. And this isn’t just about race.

In discussions about the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, I also read comments from disabled women who questioned why they should care about racial issues when feminists of any race don’t care about disability issues. We all have to make a commitment to intersectionality, to sticking our necks out on issues where we may not speak from first-hand experience (while still deferring to those who do). Of course, there’s a lot more to be said on how to do this effectively, and many others have covered it better then I can. The important thing to keep in mind is that as awkward and forced as those attempts may feel at first, they’re critical to the success of our movements.

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