When San Jose State University senior Erika Jackson tried to recruit fellow women of color for a new feminist group on campus, the overwhelming reply was the sneer: “white women.” Those words were code for another term: racist.
Many women of color, like their Anglo counterparts, eschew the term “feminism” while agreeing with its goals (the right to an abortion, equality in job hiring, girls’ soccer teams). But women of color also dismiss the label because the feminist movement has largely focused on the concerns of middle-class white women. This has been a loss for people of color. Likewise, it’s a loss for the movement if it expects to grow: the U.S. Census projects that the Latino and Asian- American population is expected to triple by 2050.
The “browning” of America has yet to serve as a wakeup call for feminist organizers. Attempts to address the racism of the feminist movement have largely been token efforts without lasting effects. Many young women of color still feel alienated from a mainstream feminism that doesn’t explicitly address race. One woman of color, who wishes not to be identified and is working with the March for Women’s Lives, put it this way: “We’re more than your nannies and outreach workers. We’re your future.”
Progressive movements have a long history of internal debates, but for feminists of color the question of racism and feminism isn’t about theories. It’s about determining our place in the movement. As the daughters of both the civil rights and feminist movements, we were bred on grrlpower, identity politics, and the emotional and often financial ties to our brothers, fathers, aunties, and moms back home, back South, back in Pakistan, Mexico or other homelands. We live at the intersections of identities, the places where social movements meet, and it’s here that our feminism begins.
Organizations as obstacles
Feminism in the United States has stagnated in part because it has largely neglected a class and race analysis. Feminism can’t survive by helping women climb the corporate ladder while ignoring cuts to welfare. Family and medical leave only matter if we have jobs with benefits. Feminism has to recruit beyond college campuses.
“If the message doesn’t get broader, [communities of color] aren’t going to open their arms,” says Sang Hee Won of Family Planning Advocates in Albany, New York. “These issues don’t resonate with an immigrant woman on the streets of New York City. I’m first generation. When I think of my parents, they have so many other things to think about. People are struggling with daily lives and it’s especially hard to connect [traditional feminist] issues with their situation.”
The priorities of national feminist organizations often are secondary to our daily struggles. Reproductive freedom has to include access to affordable healthcare and the economic opportunities to provide for the children some of us do want to have. Likewise, it’s jarring to see the word “policing” on a feminist Web site and be directed to information on gender equity in police departments without mention of police brutality.
For feminists of color to identify with the mainstream movement, national organizations need to address race explicitly. Women of color always have participated but largely have remained ignored. Organizations purport to be aware but don’t hire, promote, or recognize women of color as leaders. Affinity groups and special projects remain ghettoized add-ons.
“[Feminist organizations] try and are well-intentioned,” says Lauren Martin, a New York activist. “They talk a lot but don’t do a lot. Organizations I’ve worked with talk a lot about being anti-racist. [There would be] lots of trainings and in-services, but [racist] incidents that occurred would be brushed under the rug.”
“Their attitude is, ‘I’m going to empower you. I’m going to teach you,’ ” says Alma Avila-Peilchman, program manager at ACCESS, a reproductive rights organization in Oakland, California. “When the truth is we already have that power. We need to use it. We need to be listened to.”
Change in leadership
The young feminists of color we interviewed called for the inclusion of women of color and low-income women in national campaigns — when the agenda is being set.
“Forming a real coalition means starting from the very beginning rather than the ‘add and stir’ approach,” Martin says. “The beginning is when issues are defined. It doesn’t work to tack our perspective on at the end and call it ‘outreach.’”
Khadine Bennett, a board member of Third Wave Foundation, which supports the activism of young women, says that feminist organizations need to share their power. “Sometimes your organization is not the best one to carry out the work,” she says. “Part of the mandate from funders should be to work with people of color organizations.”
More than 30 years after the first charges of racism against the movement, these young feminists believe progressive women of color need to be the leaders of national feminist groups. That the executive directors of these organizations and senior staff still are overwhelmingly white testifies to the movement’s division. The professionalization of the nonprofit world has deepened this divide by internalizing corporate expectations and marginalizing the involvement of women who can’t afford to work for free. In pursuit of mainstream acceptance, organizations are losing touch with the grassroots that could revive feminism. There needs to be a commitment to leadership development among women of color and low-income women that includes mentoring and training.
Seeking Common Cause
The movement also should consider models already practiced by younger activists who actively seek out coalitions. “The people I know are working around anti-violence including sexuality and anti-war work and anti-globalization,” says Mina Trudeau, of Hampshire College’s Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program. “Our feminism is about social justice.”
Election years are good moments to broaden an organization’s agenda. Last fall, Erika Jackson’s feminist campus group organized against Proposition 54, which would have eliminated racial classifications in California. They were the first student organization to tackle the issue, and they didn’t debate whether it was a feminist issue.
“Like with public health, we talked about how it affects women of color,” she says. A lack of racial classifications would hide the higher rate of low birth weight babies born to women of color. The measure was defeated in the November 2003 state election.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a Toronto-based spoken-word artist, sees race as a central part of the work she did in counseling women who have suffered from sexual abuse and racism. “You can’t deal with the abuse and not the colonialism,” she says of her work with Native American women. Healing, she adds, can often mean reconnecting to cultural pride.
Avila-Peilchman has talked to women of color “who’ve given up on working with white women.” However, she doesn’t fall into that category. “I don’t think that all white women don’t want to work with us. I can’t think that. But how is it going to happen? When?”
These are questions the mainstream feminist movement must answer, and some are hopeful.
Trudeau observes, “There is new visioning. Maybe this happens at all different points but at this time, we’re conscious of our history and of where we want to go. I think there’s some back and forth, an internal dialogue that will hopefully take us to a better place.”