I am a woman of color, and I am an intersectional feminist. These terms of identity were both coined by black women.
“Intersectionality theory” is a concept named by scholar and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, first discussed in her 1989 treatise “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” In it, Crenshaw talks about the “problematic consequence of the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.” In reality, anti-oppression work must be addressed from multiple axes. Of course, this truth is powerfully important to women of color, who must deal with discrimination both as women and as people of color.
According to activist Loretta Ross of the Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, the term “women of color” as we use it comes from a specific point in history. Ross explains:
In 1977, a group of Black women from Washington, DC, went to the National Women’s Conference, that Jimmy Carter gave $5 million to have as part of the World Decade for Women. There was a conference in Houston, TX. This group of Black women carried into that conference something called The Black Women’s Agenda because the organizers of the conference—Bella Abzug, Ellie Smeal, and what have you—had put together a three-page Minority Women’s Plank in a 200-page document that these Black women thought was somewhat inadequate. So they actually formed a group called Black Women’s Agenda to come to Houston with a Black women’s plan of action that they wanted the delegates to vote to substitute for the Minority Women’s Plank that was in the proposed plan of action. Well, a funny thing happened in Houston: when they took the Black Women’s Agenda to Houston, then all the rest of the ‘minority’ women of color wanted to be included in the Black Women’s Agenda. Okay? Well, they agreed… but you could no longer call it the Black Women’s Agenda. And it was in those negotiations in Houston the term ‘women of color’ was created. Okay? And they didn’t see it as a biological designation—you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever—but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been minoritized. (emphasis added)
“Women of color” is a deliberate political designation, not a biological or genetic term. The term has great power because, as Loretta Ross says, we “self-named ourselves.” We use it to recognize solidarity among ourselves and to honor our matriarchs.
My fellow women of color and I stand on the shoulders of greats like Crenshaw, Ross, and other black women revolutionaries. We non-black women of color owe this term to black women. We must acknowledge that and remember that. When non-black women of color claim this identity, we also have to acknowledge that our issues are different. Despite the umbrella of our common struggles — fetishization, otherization, dehumanization — we cannot think of “women of color issues” as universal amongst us. The specific intersection of racism and sexism that black women face was termed misogynoir by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey (yet another brilliant black woman paving the road for us).
As an Asian American woman, I do not face brutalization from institutions like the police or the military. I do not have to deal with respectability politics in the same way. I am not attacked by white supremacy in the same way. As activist and writer Soya Jung puts it:
I do not move through the world in the crosshairs of a policing system that has its roots in slave patrols, or in a nation that has used me as an ‘object of fear’ to justify state repression and public disinvestment from the infrastructure on which my community relies. I am not public enemy number one in the ongoing U.S. domestic war over power and resources that has systematically denied black humanity. Yet as an Asian American, black rage occupies an important and intimate place in my heart and mind.
We cannot use the term “women of color” when we mean “black women.” It is erasure.
Self-naming is powerful, but it doesn’t automatically create solidarity. We must be deliberate and conscientious when claiming identities. My resilience and resolve as a feminist comes from all of my women of color forebears, but my terms of identity specifically come from black women scholars. All women of color should understand this history and origin.
I am a woman of color. I am an intersectional feminist. It was when I began to claim these terms that I truly began to feel deeply empowered. Before that, I only had the labels of others. Minority. Immigrant. Asian-American. I lived hesitantly on the edge of the hyphen.
Before I was a “woman of color,” I only had language that served to marginalize me. Before I had the strength and the vocabulary to declare who I am, I only had others’ imprecise categories. These terms at first seemed like the truth, but they actually distorted the truth. Their purpose was to sustain my oppression.
Why am I called a “minority” when I am a member of the largest ethnic group in the world? Why am I called an “immigrant” when white people who move to new countries are called “expats”? Why is my nationality always qualified, my belonging always questioned? Where do I belong?
Thanks to our foremothers, the radiant radicals that began our movements, we can linguistically evolve beyond these questions. Yet, we must be careful with talk of “belonging.” Terminology can be the beginning of solidarity, but it is the work that we put into our movements that is truly meaningful. As Loretta Ross said, “When you choose to work with other people who are minoritized by oppression, you’ve lifted yourself out of that basic identity into another political being and another political space.”
[Headline image: The photograph features a group of women standing together. The woman on the left has short black hair. All the rest have long dark hair. Their skin ranges in color from light to dark skinned. They are smiling.]