‘Women of color.’ Why not simply ‘women’?
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
By Ancella Bickley Livers
I can’t wait for women of
color to become, you know, women. Currently, we are very clear when we refer to
non-white women. We call them African-American women, Latinas or Hispanic
women, Asian women, Native American women and sometimes Immigrant women, but by
themselves, they’re never just women.
White women, though, are
usually just referred to as women and are rarely tagged with a racial
identifier. It’s as if they embody all of womanhood. The rest of us,
apparently, are more like bargain brands that need to be called out lest we get
confused for the real item.
Of course, this use of
language causes some confusion because it can be contradictory. Sometimes when
people say "women” they only mean white women and at other times when they say
"women” they mean all women. The only thing we can be sure of is that when the
term "women” is used a majority of white women are involved. This is not an
idle point because our language helps us to understand how we see ourselves and
our worlds. And let’s be clear, our language suggests that women of color are
hangers-on in the women category.
For example, let’s take the
oft-use phrase "women and people of color.” Hmmm. In this instance, the term
"women” would seem to be an all-inclusive term. And yet it’s followed by that
pesky "people of color.” So does "people” include women of color? And, if
that’s the case, to whom does the word "women” refer?
Let’s look at another
example. In marking Pay Equity Day, a recent article makes the point that the
wage gap between men and women in the United States is still very real.
The article says, "Women on
average earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns for comparable work —a
gender wage gap of 23 percent. Women of color suffer from an even more severe
If read from a literal
perspective, readers don’t know if the wages of women of color are or are not
reflected in the original 23 percent gap. Perhaps the term "women” was actually
an unconscious short hand for white women. On the other hand, if the term
"women” was inclusive, then readers still don’t know what the wage gap is
between white women and women of color. Consequently, readers never know how
the salaries of women of color compare to salaries of white women nor do they
know how well or poorly white women as a group are doing as compared to men.
I’m every woman?
More often than not,
researchers, statisticians and writers don’t break out white women as a racial
group. That’s confusing and keeps us all ill-informed. On one hand, it’s as if
people are suggesting that white women’s experiences are the same as everyone
else’s, or close enough that it doesn’t matter ― or they’re suggesting we don’t
really need to know much about the details of white women’s working lives. Consequently,
by conflating the term "white women” to "women,” we get your basic twofer.
Statisticians can both discount women of color and make it more difficult for
users to know what’s going on with white women.
So why should we care?
Because our language speaks volumes about our actions. Women of color are, for
example, generally paid less than white women. They do not hold as many senior
positions as white women. They do not serve on as many boards. And this holds
true even when comparing apples to apples.
By using the term "women” as
both an inclusive term to refer to all women and an exclusive term to refer to
just white women, it becomes more difficult to actually know what’s going on
with all women and to make comparisons within the U.S. female population. It
makes it hard to determine how much the simple fact of being white positively
impacts the quality of a woman’s life.
There are clearly legitimate
reasons for talking about women of color and the issues they face. It is also
legitimate — I would say critical — to understand that white women are just
that, and that they alone do not represent all women.
Sojourner Truth once asked, "Ain’t
I a woman?” I find it kind of depressing to realize that more than 150 years later,
women of color are still asking the same question.
As senior faculty for the Center for Creative
Leadership (CCL), Ancella Bickley Livers works with Fortune 500 companies,
government agencies and nonprofit organizations to design and deliver leadership
solutions. She has interacted with thousands of managers and executives over
the past 18 years, fine-tuning her expertise on diversity issues, particularly
those focusing on African Americans and women.
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