By Shavon L. McKinstry
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 often times 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. Being an intersectional feminist can be really easy once you consider that we are not all simply just social activists. We all come from different backgrounds. We come from all around the world, have had different experiences, and have different identities. Not everybody is concerned about contraceptives; some social activists are worried about that their sexual orientation or gender will become illegal and ultimately fatal; others that their race and ethnicity will automatically set them back in life statistically.
In early feminist movements, exclusion of women of color was done to try to get the approval of a wider audience. In the American 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 America 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.
Just two years ago, American magazine Vanity Fair received backlash when their annual “Young Hollywood” issue featured an all-white, all-thin cast of actresses meant to represent the up-and-coming actresses of the year. This was notably the same year that the film Precious, swept the Academy Awards in nominations, including one for Best Actress for Gabourey Sidibe as the titular character. It’s not that there were no actresses that did not fit the type that Vanity Fair promoted, it’s not that there was only one, it’s simply that this was the face and body that the magazine wanted to promote.
Another issue often overlooked is the idea of forcing people of color to conform to white beauty ideals. Gabourey Sidibe was featured on the October 2010 cover of Elle magazine with a digitally altered complexion to make her appear whiter. Far from an isolated event, this seems to be common practice in the fashion world and magazine industry. Colombian actress Sofía Vergara has been white washed numerous times in her ads for CoverGirl in early 2012 and in her Diet Pepsi print ads. This is not just a matter of unfortunate lighting or creative decisions: this is usually an intentional decision to make women of color more “appealing” by making them appear more white.
The exclusion of women of color in feminist discourses is also prevalent in the discussion of rape and sexual assault. According to statistics from the United States Department of Justice, for every white woman who reports a rape, there are at least five black women who are raped but do not report it. For every black woman who reports her rape, at least 15 black women’s sexual assaults go unreported. One of the many reasons for unreported assaults may be mistrust of authorities, among other possible causes.
Another problematic issue is that many times, federal reports (from the U.S.) only categorize race by White, Black and “other” in their data. This leaves out other ethnicities, including Native American women, one of the most vulnerable groups for sexual assault, with one in three being victims of rape. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), implemented into U.S. legislature in 1994 and subsequently reauthorized every time it has been challenged or amended. However, it has recently been left in the air because of a new clause that would include additional protections to Native, LGBT and undocumented immigrant women. VAWA is a feminist issue, and the new, courageous measures to extend additional provisions for Native, LGBT and undocumented immigrant women are feminist issues that are not frequently discussed.
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.”