reconsidering the use of “women and people of color”

One of my most strongly-held positions is that language matters. It gives voice and form to our ideas and thoughts, and in turn it shapes those ideas and thoughts as well.

So I appreciated when Daniel Laurison recently asked this question on twitter

especially since it was a question I’d found myself asking a little while ago too

Despite my strong feelings about the use of language, I don’t have particularly strong feelings about the phrase “women and people of color.” But especially as a Black woman, “listen to Black women” is a guiding ethos for me, so I take seriously when Black women say they don’t like the phrase.

I get why — in the way so many discussions of racial and gendered marginalization are framed, “all the women are white, all the blacks are men” still holds. But as Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith reminded the world, “some of us are brave.” For many black women, the phrase “women and people of color” constitutes an act of erasure, or at least a lack of attention to the intersection of racial and gendered disenfranchisement that we experience.

So what phrase are we to use? I tweeted that I think part of the reason I don’t have a problem with “women and people of color” is because intersectionality is so central to my lens on the world that I read that phrase and automatically supply “and of course some people are both and therefore are multiply marginalized.”

I’ve seen it proposed that we should say “white women and people of color” in lieu of “women and people of color,” which is perceived by some to be more specific. But personally, that framing grates too; to my mind, perhaps even more so than “women and people of color,” “white women and people of color” renders less visible the intersection of womanhood and racial marginalization. At least with “women and people of color,” both of these important aspects of my identity are named, if not the intersection of the two. But with “white women and people of color,” I feel even less seen and represented. It feels like all the women are white and all the people of color are men, all over again.

I think part of what’s going on is that “women and people of color” gestures to two social categories that each come with their own forms of marginalization, and often, when the phrase is invoked, it’s not clear what kind of disadvantage is really being pointed to. In many cases, we might really be trying to speak broadly to people who are marginalized by interlocking systems of oppression — not just sexism and racism, but cisheteronormativity and classism and ableism as well. So in some cases, perhaps “marginalized” is the better term to use.

But if we’re trying to point clearly to those impacted by racism and sexism, would not the more specific “women and people of color” be better than “marginalized people”? Maybe, but it still falls short. I propose a reframing: “people marginalized by racism and/or sexism.”

It’s a little longer, but I think there’s a couple things that work about this reframing. For one, it points to systems rather than identities, implicating the way that structural forces shape the experience of certain social positions. That point is very much in line with Crenshaw’s formulation of intersectionality, which contrary to popular use in the twitterverse, is about how certain social locations render people more vulnerable within a matrix of domination, not a cumulative stack of identities. and second, as Dan Hirschman pointed out, “people marginalized by racism and/or sexism” also achieves another valuable reframing:


For me, getting rid of racism and sexism is the endgame. Maybe language that helps keep that goal — and the necessity of attending to structural forces — top of mind is a good (albeit small) step in the right direction.

Author: nadirah

nadirah farah foley — PhD student, disciplined dreamer, black girl with a well-trained sociological imagination. usually thinking about merit, race, inequality, culture, and education. also frequently spotted milly-rockin scoopin all the blessings out my lap.

2 thoughts on “reconsidering the use of “women and people of color””

  1. I appreciate this essay. Thank you for writing it.

    FWIW as a White woman, I don’t think I use that phrase at all. Partly this is because I think of gender oppression as having a different social organization than racial/ethnic oppression or class oppression. I am also concerned that the phrase “people marginalized by racism and/or sexism” lets White women off the hook as perpetrators of oppression. And also leaves out class.

    I think when I want an umbrella term I just go with “marginalized people” or sometimes “underrepresented groups.” I agree it isn’t specific, but it has the advantage of leaving open the question of who is marginalized or underrepresented in a particular context.

    On the other hand, I do think I am at risk of failing to acknowledge intersectional issues when I write about race & ethnicity. But it seem that if I want to refer specifically to the oppression of women of color (or even more specifically to Black women), it might make sense to say that. Or, to pick up the language of Incite! (which I just happen to have been reading about), women, transpeople, and gender non-conforming people of color.

    Again, thank you for raising this issue. It is worth talking bout because the language matters.


  2. Hi Nadirah, thank your for this post. It was helpful as I don’t currently have strong opinions, just questions. I wanted to know if you have had any recent developments of this or conversations that have made you more “pro” your proposal or “not-pro”. Essentially, just want to see if there is an update to this. No worries if not. Thanks again.


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