I recently came back from a weeklong camping retreat for Christian faculty and their families in beautiful Catalina (an island an hour’s boat ride away from the Southern Californian mainland). This year’s conference theme was “Power Revealed: Gifts, Dangers, and Possibilities.” Not surprisingly, the topics of race, race relations, and institutional racism came-up repeatedly in sessions and informal conversations.
As they had last year, the conference organizers again provided an optional time/space for faculty women of color to gather together for a luncheon. Last year’s meeting (which I also attended) had been so successful that an assemblage of faculty women of color in the greater LA-area have been getting together periodically ever since for networking, mutual encouragement, and fun.
Without betraying the confidentiality of what was disclosed in our luncheon, something that surprised me was the ambivalence that a few attendees expressed about the very term “women of color.”
I also became privy to some confusion—and even discomfort—that some other folks (outside of the luncheon) felt about the term. For example, one Asian American woman had not thought that the term “women of color” included her since she had assumed that the phrase was simply the newest (perhaps politically correct?) way of referring to black or African American women. And one white guy told me that he had long found the phrase “[X] of color” (e.g., “communities of color,” “people of color”) odd, because wasn’t it simply a reversal of the antiquated and maligned term “colored people”?
The ambivalence, confusion, and discomfort I encountered at the conference about “women of color” was something I hadn’t anticipated. For in the academic and professor circles I frequent, the descriptor “[X] of color” is commonly used without comment (e.g., I’m on the steering committee of the Women of Color Scholarship, Teaching, and Activism group of my professional organization and arguably the most-respected leadership/professional development organization for Christian ministers and scholars in my field provides substantial grant and fellowship opportunities for students “of color,” by which they mean persons of African, Latino/a, Asian, and First Nations descent.)
I have since done a quick internet search to see if the hints of dissonance I heard at the conference were echoed elsewhere. Sure enough, questioning the purpose, scope, and desirability of the term is a “thing.”
Here are three examples:
- DiversityInc’s popular “Ask the White Guy” column has provided a response to the question “Is ‘People of Color’ Offensive?” (Short answer: no, “it’s a respectful-sounding phrase…in common use” that is reminiscent of “Dr. Martin Luther King[‘s] us[e] [of] the phrase ‘citizens of color’ in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech”).
- The NPR program “Code Switch” did a piece a few years back entitled “Feminism and Race: Just Who Counts as a ‘Woman of Color’”? (Short answer: the term is inclusive of Asians and Latinas, among others).
- The feminist digital media site Everyday Feminism recently introduced a video clip (reproduced below) about the origins of “women of color” with this lead-in: “Have you ever wondered where the term ‘women of color’ came from? Have you mistakenly assumed that it was created by white people? Are you unsure about how you feel about it?”
I was heartened to see several sites pointing to well-known human rights and feminist activist Loretta Ross’s mini-history lesson of how the term came to be. Methinks the three minutes it’ll take to watch it will be well worth your time.
For those wanting these ideas to simmer, gratefully Andrea (AJ) Plaid of Racialicious, has provided a transcript:
Loretta Ross: Y’all know where the term “women of color” came from? Who can say that? See, we’re bad at transmitting history.
In 1977, a group of Black women from Washington, DC, went to the National Women’s Conference, that [former President] Jimmy Carter gave $5 million to have as part of the World Decade for Women. There was a conference in Houston, TX.
This group of Black women carried into that conference something called “The Black Women’s Agenda” because the organizers of the conference—Bella Abzug, Ellie Smeal, and what have you—had put together a three-page “Minority Women’s Plank” in a 200-page document that these Black women thought was somewhat inadequate.
(Giggles in background)
So they actually formed a group called Black Women’s Agenda to come [sic] to Houston with a Black women’s plan of action that they wanted the delegates to vote to substitute for the “Minority Women’s Plank that was in the proposed plan of action.
Well, a funny thing happened in Houston: when they took the Black Women’s Agenda to Houston, then all the rest of the “minority” women of color wanted to be included in the “Black Women’s Agenda.” Okay?
Well, [the Black women] agreed…but you could no longer call it the “Black Women’s Agenda.” And it was in those negotiations in Houston [that] the term “women of color” was created. Okay?
And they didn’t see it as a biological designation—you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever—but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been “minoritized.”
Now, what’s happened in the 30 years since then is that people see it as biology now.
(Murmurs of understanding, agreement)
You know? Like, “Okay…” And people are saying they don’t want to be defined as a woman of color: “I am Black, “I am Asian American”…and that’s fine. But why are you reducing a political designation to a biological destiny?
(Murmurs of agreement)
That’s what white supremacy wants you to do. And I think it’s a setback when we disintegrate as people of color around primitive ethnic claiming. Yes, we are Asian American, Native American, whatever, but the point is, when you choose to work with other people who are minoritized by oppression, you’ve lifted yourself out of that basic identity into another political being and another political space. And, unfortunately, so many times, people of color hear the term “people of color” from other white people that [PoCs] think white people created it instead of understanding that we self-named ourselves. This is term that has a lot of power for us.
But we’ve done a poor-ass job of communicating that history so that people understand that power.
Thank you, Loretta Ross! I am constantly learning from you! While I didn’t before know this birthing story, I have long intuited Ross’s basic point that the term “women of color” is political, not merely factual. In using and self-identifying with this term, we women of color need not assume that our stories are the same (since they aren’t). Instead, we can willfully employ it in solidarity with others who live and struggle and move embodied in the world at the intersections of gender and race, along other factors (e.g., class, religion, sexuality/marital status).
Did you previously know the origins of the term “women of color” (or, like me, are you just now learning about this particular moment in history)? What now do you think of it? If the term still unsettles you, would you care to explain why and what might you offer in its stead? If you support the (continued) use of this term, how can we do better than a “poor-ass job” of communicating its history and intended (activist) meaning?
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and co-editor (with Ilsup Ahn) of Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press, 2015-forthcoming). She especially cherishes her friendships with her two faculty women of color colleagues (pictured below).