Sex & Gender

what does race have to do with feminism?

March 19, 2013

The term “feminism,” in our society, is one that is often misinterpreted, understood only by way of pop cultural references that serve to mock and berate the movement and its ideologies. When many people hear “feminism,” they think of overzealous, hyper-aggressive women that despise all men. When many people hear “feminism,” they often imagine said women as cisgender lesbians, and even more often, they imagine said women as white.

Words by Justin Allen*

This isn’t to suggest that white, cisgender lesbians are not or should not be feminists, but rather to suggest that they are not the only voices within the feminist movement. To address this issue of misinterpretation, I will first provide a very brief rundown of the ideological history of feminism. Feminism, as it exists today, has undergone two waves and is currently in its third wave. First-wave feminism, spanning from the 19th to early 20th century, focused on officially mandated inequalities, primarily the right for women to vote which was later granted with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The second wave, extending from the 60s through the 80s, addressed de facto inequalities such as those in the workplace regarding equal pay and hiring, abortion laws and interrogated socially constructed concepts such as gender roles and heteronormativity. The third wave is characterized by multiplicity—of experiences, socio-political identities, perspectives and ideologies.

So feminism, at its root, is the assertion that women are equal and the fight against sexist inequalities. However, it is important not to confuse a concise definition for a quick solution. Such inequalities, whether officially mandated or de facto, are produced by a society in which we are often blind to them in such a manner that we perpetuate them. So what does this mean? In relation to feminism, it means that sexism did not end as soon as women were granted the right to vote.


Our society systematically hates femininity. This is evident in such phrases as “running” or “throwing like a girl,” the objectification of women as either sexual objects or emblems of purity meant for preservation, the deplorable way our country deals with issues pertaining to rape, Seth MacFarlane’s sexists jokes at the Oscars and numerous other examples. For the benefit of all genders, it is important to consider gender inequality beyond what laws we hear have passed on the evening news. This is not enough. We must consider our interpersonal relationships, or preconceived ideas of gender, the ways in which we interact with these ideas and how these ideas affect our world and the people in it.

Where many theorists of all ideologies pertaining to identity politics misstep is the lack of attention given to intersectionality, or the intersection of different minorities and thus multiple forms of oppression. When intersectionality is disregarded, posters like that below are produced:

Similarly, I’ve cringed at hearing queer people, often white, use phrases such as “Gay is the new black” and refer to marriage equality as the “civil rights movement of our time.” Such assertions disregard people that are both queer and black, disregard our experiences and forgo a deeper analysis of how we interact with the world. Women of color face different challenges than those of white women, existing at an intersection at which they experience not only sexism, but racism, and quite commonly they experience this racism from other feminists. What is often the case in movements dominated by white liberal voices is the tendency to attempt to disregard race so not to deter from the unifying cause. This, however, only silences voices. When women of color critique the racism or their lack of inclusion within feminism, they are often met with animosity, a disturbance to white feminists who must confront the truth that they are not the least privileged and face less barriers than others within the fight for gender equality.
Despite its length, this is an extremely brief summary of the topics addressed. I strongly suggest researching these issues beyond what you’ve read here. I leave with a quote by Black feminist bell hooks:
“It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist–the potential victim within that we must rescue–otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.”

* Justin Allen is an undergraduate writing student at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. He currently works as a contributing writer for AFROPUNK as well as writes for a zine, BAD GRAMMAR, that he produces in collaboration with friends Yulan Grant and Brandon Owens.