Feminism & Race

Racism is a feminist issue.


Racism is a feminist issue –just as much as sexism, homophobia, and any other type of discrimination. Many newcomers to feminism don’t know this; many veterans forget about it. In battling for contraceptives, petitioning against politicians who don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose, arguing over the wage gap, and so many other urgent popular issues, those that are specific to women of color and other minorities are often overlooked. Media and bloggers alike often ignore how these things affect women of color differently than they affect white women. It’s often said that the gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, income and race of an individual are not important and that we should all be treated equally, but oftentimes discrimination is a thing that happens subconsciously and prevents us from truly treating everyone equally.

Feminism needs to be intersectional.


If feminism is about equality, then we have to remember that not all women are white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and cis-gendered. The radical idea of intersectionality is taking these classifications and applying them to your thinking and taking time to consider how your language might be erasing identities and harming others.

Be aware of what privilege you may have.


This is often difficult and uncomfortable. At some basic level, most people do hold privilege above someone else. If you’re straight, you’ve historically had more power over non-heterosexual people, and that’s still generally true today. If you’re white, white people have benefited–and still do–from the color of their skin in really subtle (or really obvious) ways. Just because you have privilege does not automatically make you a bad person, but denying it and actively harming others through your words and actions might.

Exclusion of Women of Color.


In early feminist movements, exclusion of women of color was done to try to get the approval of a wider audience. In the U.S. women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African-American women were often marginalized due to both the very prominent institutionalized sexism and racism of the time. The National American Woman Suffrage Association purposefully sought to exclude African-American women in the hopes of gaining support with possible backers who held the common, racists beliefs at the time. Though not every women’s suffrage group in the U.S. operated this way in such a manner, many did, and the repercussions were long-lasting. While there were some that were very inclusive of rights for all women, this was an archetype of acceptance for the early women’s rights movement.

All feminist issues affect different types of women differently.


Intersectionality is not impossible, even with a history of exclusion and modern examples of racism in actions that are supposed to be positive for all women. When discussing issues that affect women, consider all types of women, not just white ones. Feel free to mention that white women make 77 cents to a white man’s dollar, but don’t forget touch upon the fact that black women make 69 cents for that same dollar, and that Latinas make a mere 59 cents in comparison. Remember that all feminist issues affect different types of women differently, and that white is not the “default.”


Intersectional feminism means that while we work to destroy male privilege and smash patriarchy, we remain not only aware of, but vigilant about crushing racism, homophobia, transmisogny, classism, and other forms of marginalization, too.

Ending racism is pertinent to achieving gender justice for women of color, who experience oppression simultaneously because of their gender and race.


It’s rarely possible to parse out racism and sexism in the experiences of people living at those intersections of oppression. Many women, for example, are impacted by the wage gap. But for Latina women, who make even less than white women as compared to white men, it’s a matter of both race and gender. And where one begins and the other ends is impossible to pinpoint. If ending wage inequality means examining the racist structures that enable them to earn only 53 cents on every white man’s dollar — as opposed to a white woman’s 77 cents — then we need to do it.


A feminism that only serves white women is a feminism that has failed. A feminism in which only white women feel safe from sexual violence is a feminism that has a failed. A feminism in which only white women only achieve prominence across industries is a feminism that has failed. A feminism in which only white girls feel liberated from gender stereotypes is a feminism that has a failed.

Women of color have never had the luxury of simply focusing on women’s issues.


Considerations of race, racism, and economic and social injustices have always intertwined with issues of patriarchy and sexism. Women of color who also hold feminist beliefs are also acutely aware of how their communities, broadly defined, are affected by outside forces. Even with the advent of the fully-formed feminist movement in the post-civil-rights-movement 1970s, Black women and other women of color were relegated to the sidelines, while white women became the face of feminism. Without a position of privilege to call on, it is even harder as a woman of color to fight for issues that are important for every woman, but especially for women of color. Not recognizing that privilege of whiteness or class hampers the ability of feminists across ethnic lines to join together for common causes.

The Rise of Womanism


In the 1980s, the advent of womanist and mujerista (derived from the Spanish word mujer, or “woman” in English) movements and theologies spoke to African-American and Latina women who did not find their issues were being addressed within the feminist movement. The term womanism arose from Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, in which she described a womanist as a Black feminist or feminist of color. Shortly thereafter, Latinas embraced mujerista as a way to claim their space over white feminists. Both groups created a space for themselves in reaction to white feminism, which they believed held no room for them because of classism and racial issues that at best white feminists did not understand, and at worst used against women of color.


White feminists must come to grips with their own internalized structures of racism, classism, and even sexism that prevent them from seeing other feminists of color. It is also important to understand women of color may not be comfortable calling themselves feminists. Understand that this reticence stems from both historical constructs of feminism and structures of communities and beliefs that may not want to call ourselves feminists.

There Is A Lot Of Racism In The History Of Feminism


Some of America’s most well-known feminists were unfortunately racist. In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leader of the American suffrage movement, expressed anger over the fact that white women were denied the right to vote while “degraded black men” were given the opportunity to line up at the polls. Moreover, white women leading equality campaigns in Washington, D.C. blatantly requested that black suffragists walk at the back of their parades. As a result, some black women chose not to march at all, refusing to participate in yet another form of segregation.

White Feminism Is Very Real


White Feminism marginalizes women of color. White Feminism fails to give feminists of color a platform to discuss how racial inequality relates to gender inequality. It consistently reminds us that the beauty standard in our culture remains thin, blonde, and white. White Feminism is present in academia, Hollywood, our government, and the Internet. In addition to excluding women of color from feminism, it excludes women who aren’t straight or able-bodied as well.

We’re All Responsible For Making Feminism More Inclusive


It’s easy to accuse women like Miley Cyrus and Lena Dunham of promoting White Feminism in the media, but pointing fingers won’t help the feminist movement progress. A more useful way for feminists to spend their time is to collectively strive for intersectionality. Often, women of privilege don’t even realize that they’re excluding other marginalized groups. This isn’t an excuse for their behavior, but it is a chance for women of color to honestly tell feminists of privilege how their lack of self-awareness affects other women. By helping each other recognize that women of different races, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses experience gender inequality differently, we can all become more inclusive feminists.

Some Women Of Color Don’t Feel Comfortable Calling Themselves Feminists


Because of the tension between themselves and White Feminism, it’s no surprise that many women of color are uneasy identifying as feminists. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t lobbying for equal rights across the board; we just can’t ignore the racism in the movement’s history. More importantly, we’re hyper-aware of the harmful discourse that has been developed in mainstream feminism, and we’re rightfully upset about the fact that our disenfranchisement is largely ignored. These feelings aren’t new. In the 1980s — when pale, blonde Gloria Steinem was the poster child for mainstream feminism — women of color were birthing the womanist and mujerista movements in response to being left out. In her book In Search Of Our Mothers’ Garden, Alice Walker defined a “womanist” as a black feminist or feminist of color. Then, mujerista (developed from the Spanish word for woman, mujer) was seized by Latinas to “claim their space over white feminists.” Both of these movements still have their followers today. However, many feminists of color don’t identify with these groups either, so they simply don’t feel like they have a place in the feminist movement at all.

Our Struggle Is Different Than Yours


The plight of a middle-class, straight, white, American woman is not the same as that of an uneducated, gay, American woman of color. While the former fights for equal pay and paid maternity leave, the latter is more concerned with stopping race-related police brutality, acquiring better funding for inner-city public schools, and developing more comprehensive treatment programs for HIV. In an essay for Salon, Brittney Cooper, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, puts it into perspective. She points out that feminists are concerned with equality, while feminists of color (especially black feminists) are battling injustice. She says, “One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” Until we can all understand this difference and find a way to bridge these two goals, many women of color will refuse to identify themselves as feminists.

We Want To Be Heard


As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in a thought-provoking piece for Ravishly, when women of color speak up truthfully about race and feminism, we’re either dismissed or “told that our complaints are ‘divisive,’ and that we should be focusing on the ‘real enemy.’” In other words, we shouldn’t talk about how racial inequality and gender inequality intersect. For example, when Nicki Minaj used Twitter as a platform to shed light on the lack of representation of black women in the 2015 VMA nominations, Miley Cyrus told The New York Times that she was “not very polite.” Even more troubling than how women of color are underrepresented in the media, though, is the fact that black and Latina women are disproportionately poor and receive very little public aid, and that black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Asking women of color to keep quiet about how racial inequality affects them will keep the feminist movement divided.

We Don’t Want To Be Spoken For


The overwhelming majority of writers, activists, and celebrities representing feminism are white women of privilege. Think of Patricia Arquette’s infamous speech at last year’s Oscars ceremony, or Emma Watson’s status as ambassador for the He for She campaign. It’s not that these women aren’t doing good things, but that women of color can no longer disregard the fact that we aren’t properly represented in our society or in the feminist movement. In a memorable debate about the whiteness of feminism between Rebecca Traister and Judith Shulevitz, two senior editors of the New Republic, Traister brought up how ironic it was that both participants were white, educated women from New York City. Regardless of their good intentions, white feminists should not be the only feminists speaking for women of color. We deserve a platform from which we can discuss how our race impacts our feminism, and we deserve to be included in the mainstream feminist movement. Period.

Further Reading

“Race is a feminist issue”
“If We Divide, We Don’t Conquer: 3 Reasons Why Feminists Need to Talk About Race”
“Women of Color and Feminism: A History Lesson and Way Forward”
“7 Things Feminists Of Color Want White Feminists To Know”