In a touching speech on her experience as a trans woman of colour, actress Laverene Cox reveals a personal incident of street harassment. She describes an instance where two men cat-called her and then proceeded to argue over whether she was a “b-word” or an “n-word”. In this moment, Cox experienced the very real interlocking oppressions of racism, sexism, and transphobia. In this blog post, I will use the case of Laverene Cox argue that the utility of feminist intersectional analysis is grounded in its ability to apply to lived experiences. First, I will analyze what is meant by the term “intersectional analysis”. Next, I will examine how that theory applies specifically to the case of Laverne Cox. Moreover, I will discuss how the systemic violence faced by trans women of colour requires an urgent solution, specifically the role that theoretical frameworks can play. I will conclude by exploring the compassion exhibited by Cox with a view to future solutions for violence against trans women of colour.
The term intersectional analysis came into popular use by feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins in her book “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment”. In another work entitled “Toward a new vision: race, class and gender as categories of analysis and connection”, Hill-Collins calls the reader to consider that “race, class and gender are all present in any given setting, even if one appears more visible and salient than the others.” (Hill-Collins 29). For example, academic Harold Garfinkle claimed that gender is omnirelevant; that is, regardless of the context, gender is always significant (Aulette and Wittner 71). This relevance can also be extended to factors such as race, class, sexuality, ability, and so on. An intersectional approach to feminist theory helps to negotiate the numerous, and often conflicting, privileges and oppressions that individuals can experience. It also is a useful tool in unsettling much of the privilege of second wave white feminism, that emphasized shared victimhood rather than engaging self-reflexive analysis on the roles white women play in white supremacy and settler colonialism.
The individual experiences of Laverene Cox provide an excellent example of how privileges and oppressions can intersect in complex ways. As a trans woman of colour, Cox is subject to oppression in many forms. The systemic power structures of the Global North privileges white, heterosexual, men over individuals who fall outside of these socially constructed identities. The essentialism of gender (the expectation that gender match the identity assigned at birth on the basis of unrelated biology) is an oppressive force for Cox as a gender non-conforming individual. Moreover, her identity as a woman of colour, puts Cox at a substantially higher risk of violence (Cox) than her white counterparts. Cox’s gender expression make her vulnerable to aggressive street harassment. In all of these situations, though one social identity may seem more relevant at the time than others, her race gender identity and gender expression contribute to the way Cox experiences the world. The anecdote relayed above makes this abundantly clear.
As a normative project, feminist theory aims to unsettle the systemic power structures that oppress huge segments of the population along arbitrary lines. Because of this aim, feminist theory is only significant if it is relevant to lived experiences. Intersectional analysis then can be said to hold significant value; as the case of Laverene Cox aptly demonstrates, social identities form interlocking systems that dictate her experiences. If one tried to analyze the cat-calling incident using a solely gender-centered framework, they would entirely miss the role that transphobia played in the encounter. Intersectional analysis helps to explain the way oppression and privilege are manifested, therefore facilitating the breaking down of these structures.
While intersectional analysis can provide valuable insights into systemic oppression, Laverne Cox provides a simple yet profound way forward: “love is the answer.” (Cox). Cox does not just tell us what the answer is, she shows us what it looks like in action. Cox explains how the majority of the harassment she has faced has come from black communities. However rather than criticize these communities, Cox shows remarkable love and compassion. She draws on the concept of collective trauma, in particular the hypersexualization and fetishization of African American men, to explain the resistance to MTF transitions. In these words of compassion, Cox is turning intersectional theory into feminist praxis, recognizing the role that race can play in perpetuating systemic gendered violence. It is true what Cox says: loving trans people would be “a revolutionary act” (Cox).
Aulette, Judy Root, and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Cox, Laverne. ” Laverne Cox Explains the Intersection of Transphobia, Racism, and Misogyny (And What to Do About It).” Everyday Feminism. 7 Dec. 2014. Web. 9 March 2015. http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/laverne-cox-intersection-what-to-do/
Hill-Collins, Patricia. “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection.” Race, Sex and Class. 1st ed. Vol. 1. 1993. 25-45.