‘Women of color.’ Why not simply ‘women’?

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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 gap.”

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.

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Ancella Livers is senior faculty member and executive coach at the Center for Creative Leadership. The author and leadership development professional has worked with thousands of managers and executives.

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