Where do “women of color” fit in movements?

By Zakiya Luna

photo-3_woc-feminism_credit-valentin-brown-2013
Artist: Valentin Brown

When you hear the phrase “women of color,” who do you imagine? In my research on a women-of-color reproductive justice coalition I noticed the many ways speakers at events I attended used the phrase “women of color,” assuming that the audience understood what they meant.

There is a small, but robust literature of the ways that racial minority women have engaged with white-dominated feminist movements and male-dominated nationalist movements (Falcon 2016, Roth 2004, Thompson 2002). Thus, I was surprised to find little empirical analysis on the promises and perils of women of color coming together across their differences. At the individual, organizational and movement level, identities, such as “woman of color,” are being negotiated. My research finds this is the case even within spaces specifically designated by and for “women of color” who are seeking a space that provides refuge from other movements.  This is important because these organizations negotiate providing a space for their members to feel comfortable, while also making practical tactical decision that may not fit neatly with longer-term goals of inclusivity. To sum up my findings, becoming “women of color” is a continual process, not a fixed accomplishment that sometime emphasizes commonalities and other times emphasizes difference.

Future research could consider other places seemingly emphasizing intersectionality and how debates about “women of color” inform these processes whether in social movements or the elsewhere. For example, as difficult as social movement actors find integrating intersectional analysis and challenge to power dynamics into their work, attempts to do so in the formal political process are fraught due to pressure to conceptualize minority groups in binary terms  and advocate for relatively advantaged groups. Future research may examine possibilities for mobilization of women of color in formal politics. Other research may consider strategies found in other sites that emphasize “women of color” such as retention programs at educational institutions, social organizations, and even federal health agencies.

When presenting drafts of this article in other venues, audience members would respond by nodding their head and remark on similarities challenges in their movements. Another noted that at her educational institution that boasted initiatives for “women of color,” the scope of inclusion was a continual point of tension.  Clearly, there are many spaces for fruitful discussion and action in representing and becoming women of color.

Zakiya Luna is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a faculty affiliate of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law. Her research examines social movements, reproductive politics, human rights and health. Her article, “Truly a Women of Color Organization”: Negotiating Sameness and Difference in Pursuit of Intersectionality,  can be found in the October 2016; 30 (5) issue of Gender & Society here

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