Gender, Race, Social Justice

Calling yourself a “woman of color” erases groups of people – so what does it really mean?

Can my experience really mirror that of all other women of color?

“Hi my name is Grace and I identify as a female and Asian-American.”

I am introducing myself for the first time to my “family group.” I am at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, the largest student conference in the country to address diversity and inclusion within nationally-accredited independent, private schools. My family group is the group of eight or so other students from around the country who will be by my side for the next few days as we explore our identifiers, diversity and inclusion in education, and reflect upon how we can contribute to broader social and racial justice movements.

 I am called to speak as a “woman of color” on my lived experiences at a primarily white, majority upper-middle class, private school. And I think to myself: Could I really have a shared experience with all other women of color? What does “woman of color” really mean?

The first wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1980s was largely centered around white middle-class women. 

One prominent concept from the first wave was universal women, which argued that all women had a similar experience, without taking into consideration cultural and socio-economic differences. The term “women of color” emerged in the 1980s, to address the unique experiences of women based on race, culture, political differences, and socioeconomic status.

More recently, “women of color” or “woman of color” has been used within racial and social justice movements. It is used as an identifier to talk about systemic oppression that is unique to people who identify as both a woman and a person of color. 

Yet the perspectives and lived experiences of women of color vary widely despite all being grouped under this big tent term.

The phrase “women of color” implies that all non-white women have some sort of shared experience because they are of color, which isn’t necessarily true. 

The implication that all people who identify as both a person of color and as a woman have some sort of shared experience brings together have an enormous group of people from a multitude of backgrounds. Further, many women of color feel left out under the big tent of women of color. 

Countless stories of Asian, Latinx, Middle Eastern, and Native American women have built a narrative of exclusion and uncertainty around the term.

Women everywhere experience a multitude of diverse experiences. 

Yet, there are similar patterns of oppression faced by all women on a variety of grounds like sexism in the workplace targeted at women. But when you look further at issues like the wage gap, you’ll see that white women are paid 80 cents to a man’s dollar where black women are only paid 63 cents to the dollar and Latinx women are paid 54 cents to the dollar. 

Clearly, all women experience some form of a wage gap, yet women who identify as a racial minorities experience it to varying degrees. Due to our big tent approach, the term “women of color” fails to recognize the diversity of experience within cultural, socio-economic, religious, and racial backgrounds.

I first became uncomfortable with the term a couple of years ago when reflecting on my own experiences. While I am a woman of color, I also have a lot of unique privileges. 

For example, I got an incredible education going to a private school from kindergarten through 12th grade and am currently studying at a prestigious college. My educational background will give me a higher chance of success. In reflecting on my own privileges, I sometimes don’t feel as if my experiences match that of all other women of color. 

And I don’t feel as if I can speak on behalf of all women of color. Nor do I feel that I should have to.

Instead, I feel that we should highlight how the intersectionality of our identifier ultimately contributes to our everyday lived experiences. Therefore, we must always consider our race, class, and gender and how that affects our perspective on the world. 

The term “women of color” helps us identify two broad aspects of intersectionality, but lacks specificity. To continue the conversation, we must also reflect and speak on our unique privileges and identities.

Despite my reservations, I still identify as a woman of color. 

I recognize that there are problems with the word, yet find it helpful to convey to others my position in society and the perspective that I bring to a conversation based on my identity. 

By understanding both that we have multiple identities within us and that we also broadly share identities with others we can build empathy and understanding. 

And ultimately, our diverse backgrounds and perspectives can build a more inclusive, equal world.