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
Serious question about thoughtful language for talking about the set of people who are not white men. I’ve seen compelling critiques of phrasing like “women and people of color” on the basis that it syntactically (grammatically? linguistically?) implies that those don’t overlap.
— Daniel Laurison (@Daniel_Laurison) October 21, 2018
especially since it was a question I’d found myself asking a little while ago too
I’m also trying to think through why I don’t have strong feelings about the phrasing “women and people of color.”
I don’t use it, because I hear and want to respect the thoughts of people who find that phrasing erasing. but I don’t totally get it, tbh.
— meritocracy killjoy (@polumechanos) January 26, 2018
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:
The implicit counter factual changes: it’s not “what if they were white men?” But “what if we got rid of racism and sexism?”
— Dan Hirschman (@asociologist) October 22, 2018
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.