Women of color

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Women of color (singular: woman of color, sometimes abbreviated as WOC) is a phrase used to describe female persons of color. The political term "women of color" surfaced in the violence against women movement. In the late seventies it unified all women experiencing multiple layers of marginalization with race, and ethnicity as a common issue.[1]


Although similar to the term "person of color," the history of the term women of color has political roots, as explained by Loretta Ross. During the 1977 National Women's Conference, a group of African American women created the Black Women's Agenda to work with the conference. They aimed to substitute the proposed "Minority Women's Plank", which was included in the documentation for the conference. When other minority women wanted to be included in the agenda, negotiations to rename the group lead to the creation of the term "women of color"; therefore, encompassing all minority women. Although it seems to have a biological connotations, the term "women of color" is a unifying term that also addresses the political and social issues.[2]

Influential women of color[edit]

Michelle Obama was the United States' First Lady from 2009 to 2017. While in school at Princeton, she ran a literacy program for local neighborhood children. She also wrote her senior sociology thesis on "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community". Obama also protested the institution's lack of minority students and professors when she attended Harvard Law School. After law school, she practiced law at the Chicago offices of the law firm, Sidley Austin, and then worked as the vice president of Community Relations for the University of Chicago Hospitals, before becoming the First Lady of the United States.[3]

Feminist movement[edit]

The first wave of the feminist movement, primarily between 1960 and 1980, did not deal with the issues that women of color faced. This wave used the term "universal woman", attempting to speak for the overall oppression faced by all women. Many involved in the first wave of feminism spoke from the white middle class female perspective and concluded that gender was the main site of their oppression. Nevertheless, feminism slowly began to address cultural inequalities, especially after the influence of the civil rights movement. Women of color, noting the range of economic, social, and political differences between women, thus sought to address the unique experiences of non-white women, generally excluded from the term "feminism".[4] In the 1980s Africana womanism was created to practice Afrocentricism due to the fact that in America, many things were from a Eurocentric stand point. The mujerista movement also came about during this time to battle the issues that Latina women were facing. The term is derived from the Spanish word mujer, or "woman" in English; it was a name for oppressed colored women who did not find their issues were being addressed within the white feminist movement.[5]

The struggles of women of color needed to be better publicized and addressed, and with this ideology, the black women of color let their voices be heard. Intersectionality—the idea that includes the effects from experiences based off age, sex, race, gender, sexuality, and disability, among many others—is vital when studying the contributions women of color had to the feminist movement. It is important to also focus on issues specific to women of color because they all have unique struggles that only pertain to them. Women of color had to not only deal with the problems of being a woman, but they had to deal with the fact that they were marginalized as people of color. For example, a great percentage of women of color were of lower socio-economic status due to economic discrimination. This experience often goes unacknowledged or ignored in mainstream feminist movement. Maylei Blackwell discusses this historical silencing of "other" aspects of feminisms in her book ¡Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement and the need for what she calls retrofitted memory.[6] Retrofitted memory is a form of countermemory against privileged readings of history that allows marginalized perspectives to be recognized.

Media representation[edit]

Unfair media representation of women of color has been present in the United States for over 50 years. The Kerner Commission released a report in 1968 of its investigation into 1967 race riots in the United States. The report was highly critical of the way race was being treated in the media. Starting in 1971, the FCC required stations to implement EEO programs, which specifically focused on helping racial minorities and women. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that after 6 years of starting these programs, minorities and women still remained discriminated against in this industry. They were considered as window-dressing or a misleading representation of something, to create a positive impression.[7]

The manner in which media represents women of color has been an issue throughout most of television and film history. White-washing women of color in television and film is the most prominent example of these issues. Time and time again, people see roles that should have been given to women of color being given to white actors and actresses. In many contemporary and past films, such as Aloha and Breakfast at Tiffany's, directors have replaced traditional Asian roles with actors/actresses of non-Asian descent. "Yellow Facing" has even been present in plays and musicals such as Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen. In this example, "the role of a Japanese man, Sakini, was given to a white actor named Kenneth Nelson, a decision that aligned with all the previous white actors who had played the role, including Marlon Brando".[8] According to Esther Kim Lee, "popular representation of Asians in mainstream theater are actually stereotypical and overtly mocking of Asian culture, furthermore, most Asian roles were given to white actors".[8] Not only has there been public outcry and protests over these issues, but these harmful representations of Asian women are everywhere and possible future opportunities for these women may have been tarnished in the process. According to Lori Kido Lopez, many Asian American actors and actresses have been told by producers and directors that they were not 'real' as 'orientals' or Asians. "As a result of decades of Asian representation being commandeered by white actors in yellowface, the idea of "Asianness" had been reduced to an image of prosthetic eyepieces and heavy accents—so much so that it was not even considered realistic for an actual Asian actor to play such a role".[8] Although white-washing is a topic that has been pushed aside over the years, it is one that severely impacts opportunities for many women of color and to the diversification of races in media.

Because of these many pre-existing stereotypes of Asian women set forth by early Hollywood, Western culture oftentimes associate them with concepts such as the dragon lady, the femme fatale or a devious seducer. According to Sharad Rajgopal, "Eastern cultures have been represented in Western mainstream cinema as dangerous, devious and evil; all characteristics that represent the mythical Asian Dragon".[9] Although the image of the dragon lady was more popular in early cinema and television, many people still hold that belief to be true today. According to Sharad Rajgopal, "the femme fatale is also present among Asian women, for example, in the 1931 film Daughter of the Dragon Anna May Wong is portrayed as a dangerous threat not because of her strength, but because of her "mythical" beauty and seduction".[9] This image of the femme fatale can be seen in more contemporary films as well, such as Lucy Liu's role in Quentin Tarentino's Kill Bill series. The constant association of Asian women with dangerousness due to their exotic and seducing looks is harmful for most Asian women everywhere. Adding to the stereotype of seduction, "Asians have also appeared in scenes carrying strong sexual overtones, or involving sexual acts, such as the film Call Girl II: Modern Call Girls".[10] With the multiple stereotypical portrayals of Asian women being seen through film and television everywhere, they may continue to face issues that are difficult to resolve due to the harmful, pre-existing images of themselves set forth by media.

It is normal for programmers to focus on representing their consumers, and because the majority of the people who watch television are white, most of the media is white-washed. In its history, when Fox wished to appeal to young audiences, it aired shows about young people, and Ladies Night on television was intended to draw a female audience. These patterns are given the term "externalities" by economists. They are caused by rational profit seeking behavior of media organizations facing competition for the positive attention of White-dominated mass audiences. When advertisers want to show things such as vacations, cute couples, luxurious or family scenes, most of the time they automatically think White. Thomas Ransaw states, "According to the world of TV advertising, Whites are the ones who occupy the realm of ideal humanity, of human warmth and connection".[11] Because of this, the media tends to broadcast women with Eurocentric, thin features. Women of color are underrepresented in the media, but when they are shown, they are often depicted in racially biased ways. Analyses have showed that people of color have historically been portrayed as athletes, or in lower class occupations such as fast-food workers and in minor, non speaking roles.[11] Black and Latina women are often portrayed as either one of two things; slaves/maids, or poor, working-class women with too many children to take care of. Women of color are lightened by different companies, stripped of their heritage and pride, or photoshopped to appear slimmer and more suitable for television.[12] Women of color also face dehumanization by the media. The white women are usually portrayed as angelic and innocent. When a woman of color gets cast on a TV show, they are often portrayed with having an attitude, or are very sexual. These women also face lower body satisfaction, because they either have two options: be slim, or be curvy. Women of color are forced to try to live up to a standard that is set by white women, which in most cases is unreachable.

In television[edit]

Minorities are typically underrepresented on television despite making up approximately 40% of the United States population as of 2014.[13] The first woman of color leading a television show was Teresa Graves starred in Get Christie Love!, a 1974 series on ABC that marked the first African American woman to star in an hour-long drama.[14] There would not be a woman of color leading a television show until 2012, when Kerry Washington starred in Shonda Rimes' Scandal on ABC.[citation needed] Due to Washington's work, for "the second season of Scandal, Washington was nominated for an Emmy at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards and 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, becoming the first African-American woman to be nominated in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 18 years."[15]


African American women typically have been negatively stereotyped in television. In his 2010 Journal of African American Studies article "But She's Not Black!" author Philip Kretsedemas examined stereotypes of American American women in television and noted that three stereotypes were most common: the mammy stereotype, the jezebel stereotype, and the sapphire stereotype, also known as the angry black woman stereotype. The mammy stereotype creates a view of an African American woman as a caregiver, who is loyal and often sassy. The jezebel stereotype portrays African American women as seductive, alluring, aggressive, and overtly sexualized. The sapphire stereotype displays African American women as sassy, rude, loud, and angry, but also comical and status-climbing.[16]

Asian and Asian American Women are typically given specific stereotypes in television as well. Two common stereotypes of Asian and Asian American women are described by Hemant Shah in his 2003 article "'Asian culture' and Asian American identities in the television and film industries of the United States" as the Dragon Lady stereotype and the Lotus Blossom stereotype. The Dragon Lady stereotype portrays Asian and Asian American women as sneaky, evil, and malicious, but also promiscuous and alluring—working to seduce men and manipulate them. Another common stereotype is the Lotus Blossom stereotype. This stereotype, also known as the "China Doll", portrays Asian and Asian American women as loyal and good women, but also submissive and hypersexualized.[17]

Latinas, or women with roots in Latin America, are viewed through stereotypes in television as well. In her article "Three Faces of Eva: Perpetuation of The Hot-Latina Stereotype in Desperate Housewives", within the Howard Journal of Communications, Debra Hoskins discusses these common portrayals of Latinas. She finds that within Anglo and Hispanic television and film, there are three notable stereotypes of Latinas. The first listed stereotype is the Cantina Girl stereotype, which is characterized by a Latina having "great sexual allure", and being represented as a sexual object. The next stereotype described is the "Faithful, self-sacrificing senorita". This stereotype includes a Latina starting off as a good character, but then turning evil later on in the show/film. She then makes a sacrifice, often death, to save a man and show that she realized she was wrong. Lastly, there is the Vamp stereotype, which portrays Latinas as women who use both intellect and sexual desire to manipulate a man and get what she wants.[18]

Arab and Arab American women are portrayed in television and film in a stereotypical way as well. Jennifer Bing-Canar and Mary Zerkel explore these portrayals in their article, "Reading the Media and Myself: Experiences in Critical Media Literacy with Young Arab-American Women". In this article, it is noted that Arab women are typically seen as either promiscuous, belly-dancing, hypersexualized women, or as persecuted women wearing the hijab. In both of these portrayals, women are being objectified or oppressed by men. There is also a less frequent stereotype that portrays Arab women as terrorists, although this is more commonly seen in Arab men.[19]

Native American women are not often included in film and television, but when they are, they usually fall under certain stereotypes. In the article "The YouTube Indian: Portrayals of Native Americans on a viral video site", Maria Kopacz and Bessie Lee Lawton examined these depictions. One of these portrayals is the negative stereotype of the Squaw. The Squaw stereotype depicts Native American women as promiscuous and abused servants, who are inferior to whites. The other stereotype used to represent Native American women is the Indian Princess stereotype. This depiction includes a chief's daughter who is beautiful, but also rebellious, as she sacrifices her culture to adopt American culture and to live happily in relation with a white man. According to Kopacz and Lawton, one good example of this Indian Princess stereotype is the main character and storyline in Disney's movie, Pocahontas.[20]

Structural intersectionality and rape[edit]

Women of color are oftentimes isolated when it comes to economic, social, and political status. They are less likely to have their needs ads problems taken care of, than women who are racially privileged. Even though, there are plenty of rape centers available to women, women of color still get discriminated against. For example, counselors for rape victims often report that a big portion of the resources given to them must be spent handling problems other than rape.[21]

Violence against women of color[edit]

Domestic violence is a reoccurring problem that greatly affects women of color around the world. Examples of violence against women of color include physical violence, emotional abuse, victimization, economic abuse, intimidation, oppression, and threats. The violence against women of color directly correlates to high rates of poverty, poor education, limited job resources, language barriers, fear of deportation, and lack of knowledge in finding support. Many women of color accept a lifetime of abuse because they have a robust, personal, and familial identification with a certain community, they are submissive to religious beliefs, they have fear of alienation and estrangement from their daily lives, or they have skepticism of the helpfulness of intervention services. As of today, women of color are the most violently targeted community of persons in the world.[22]

According to Thompson Lee, "African American females are more likely to be victimized, raped, or assaulted by an intimate partner in their lifetimes".[23] Black women experience higher rates of intimate partner homicide when compared to the statistical analysis of violence against white women. The modern racism in the word is a direct cause of violence against African American women; a black woman would be less likely to report her situation or to seek help because of blatant discrimination.[24] Black stereotypes often amplify the female convolutions in regards to violence. "Myths that African American women are dominant figures that require control or are exceptionally strong under stress increase their vulnerability and discourage most from speaking out about abuse."[25] Nonetheless, Black women are often more likely to obtain help from authority than black men.

Asian and Pacific Islander women also experience many forms of domestic violence. "41-60 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander women have reported experiencing domestic violence during their lifetimes in a survey conducted by the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute."[26] The labels placed in Asian and Pacific Islander communities such as emotional control, authoritative respect, submissiveness, and other highly valued traits contribute to this group's reluctance to express or share their abuses.

In a survey put out by the National Violence Against Women organization, about 24 percent of Hispanic and Latina women are abused domestically by an intimate partner during their lifetimes. Upon the topic of immigration, "48 percent of Latinas reported that their partner's violence increased since immigrating to the United States".[27] Latina and Hispanic culture is a large factor that contains significant influence in the actions that women take when dealing with violence. "In the Latino culture, women are often designated to the roles of wife and mother. It is socially unacceptable to be divorced, to marry several times, or to remain single and have children out of wedlock. For these reasons, it may take some time for battered women to consider leaving their partners".[26] Similarly, religious beliefs and inaccessibility to resourceful information prevent many Hispanic and Latina women from seeking help and aid. Latina and Hispanic women are often "concentrated in low-paying, semiskilled occupations than the overall workforce, therefore, limited financial and proficient supplies serve as barriers for women trying to escape abuse and obtain legal assistance".

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was implemented to protect women against men's violence. Communities of color that are referred to as the "tribal land" were out of proportion impacted by the criminal justice system. However, cases of violence against indigenous women living on tribal land in the U.S. often went ignored or unnoticed because the closest federal police station would be far away from the land and there were not enough resources to send officers. As a result, men who were U.S. citizens would specifically target women and girls on tribal land because those men knew it would be near impossible to be prosecuted. In these situations, VAWA failed to protect women living on tribal land. However, in 2013 a renewal was passed that addressed these issues, although many say that there needs to be further legislation.

The patriarchy[edit]

"Patriarchy, the System," by Allan G. Johnson defines the term "patriarchy" as a set of symbols and ideas that make up a culture embodied by everything from the content of everyday conversation to literature and film. Johnson continues by discussing how the patriarchy regulates the way social life is expected to be and what it is about: male centered character, male-identified and male dominance. Women of color are the majority of those who are oppressed by this system. Johnson notes that we all participate in the system and will always be a part of it. We can only control how we participate in the patriarchy. The common picture of someone with power is a white, heterosexual male. The structure of the patriarchy exists in the unequal distributions of power, opportunities, resources, and rewards. This is what makes male dominance possible. When we assess the social norms around us, the involvement of the patriarchy becomes clear. Johnson gives excellent examples: the standards of feminine beauty and masculine toughness, the media portrayal of feminine vulnerability and masculine protectiveness, acceptance of older men involved with younger women and elderly women alone, a career as primary for a husband, childcare being a priority of women and secondary for men, defining men and women as opposites, the acceptance of male aggression as naturalness but not for women, and the devaluing of femininity and being female. Although all women are affected, women of color suffer more than anyone else within this system.

In business[edit]

According to numerous studies, women of color encounter different experiences in business and the work force than Caucasian women. A study by Boyd suggests that when looking for jobs, women of color have a less chance of acquiring a job than other groups. Furthermore, finding a job is even more difficult for women of color when there are fewer jobs available or when the economy is not doing well. For example, during The Great Depression, a time of immense economic struggle in the United States, vast numbers of black women were let go from their professions at a higher rate proportionally to white women. This in turn affects the families and livelihoods of the women of color as income becomes harder to obtain. The lack of availability of jobs and discrimination against these women has forced this group of people into unemployment at a greater number than even men of color. But, when the resources and opportunities are present, women of color have found solace in building their own businesses and becoming entrepreneurs.[28]

However, Loscocco and Robinson claim that when these women open their small businesses, their chances of success are much slimmer than when men open a business. People usually open their own businesses due to losing their jobs or due to annoyance with their prior professional positions in which they could have encountered discrimination, sexual harassment, and other disturbances. There has been an increase in the number of women pursuing self-employment within businesses of their own in recent decades. But, although having similar motives and displaying comparable skill sets as men, women have had less success within their businesses. Women are also subjected to opening a business within a limited number of fields and cannot usually venture into areas deemed as more masculine such as construction or carpentry, or else they face the risk of great failure. In their study of women's business ventures, Loscocco and Robinson note that "while gender segregation explains a large part of women's disadvantage, as expected, we find that U.S. women fare less well even when they operate businesses in the same industry categories and subcategories as men."[29] Accordingly, women of color have had an even higher incidence of failure within their businesses. Mora and Davila find that "minority- and female-owned new firms thus had a higher risk of closing down within one year than those owned by non-Hispanic white men; being a female entrepreneur of color exacerbated this risk."[30] Women of color confront even more challenges because they face both gender and race discrimination. Bell finds that "racism and sexism are forces that serve to heighten black women's psychological anxiety. Due to the contemporary socio-psychological forces and the historical legacy of slavery, it is extremely complicated for black women to separate the subtleties of sexism and racism."[31] Women of color are thus confronted with the difficulties that their gender and races bring them and are often questioned of their abilities because of those attributes.[31]

Consequently, the intersectionality of the identities of women of color plays a grand role in their presence in business and the workforce. In Adia Harvey's study, she observes that "the intersection of race, gender, and class often leaves minority women with limited occupational opportunities (Ammott and Matthei 1997; Browne 1999; Browne and Misra 2003; England 1992; Higginbotham and Romero 1997). Minority women, particularly African American women, are disproportionately concentrated in the service industry as cooks, janitors, and cashiers (Hesse-Biber and Carter 2000). Institutional discrimination, widespread acceptance of stereotypes, glass ceilings, and poverty are all structural causes that lead to the occupational segregation of working-class Black women (Browne and Kennelly 1999; Browne 1999). The dual influence of race and gender means that African American women generally trail Black men, white women, and white men in earnings, prestige, and power in the workplace. Many studies draw attention to the institutionalized racial- and gender-based barriers in the labor force that shape Black women's occupational patterns and experiences. Browne and Kennelly (1999) argue that stereotypes of Black women as irresponsible single mothers can cloud employers' treatment of Black women workers. Similarly, St. Jean and Feagin (1998) assert that while some employers view Black women as less threatening than Black men, this does not translate into a perception that Black women are competent, professional, adept workers. Instead, they must prove their capabilities repeatedly and are routinely subjected to racist and sexist hostilities, lack of mentoring opportunities, and discriminatory treatment in the workplace. Still other researchers argue that Black women workers are likely to experience feelings of marginalization, dissonance, and alienation in predominantly white male workplaces (Alfred 1999; Bell and Nokomo 2001; Bonner 2004)."[32]


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"Beauty Whitewashed: How white ideals exclude women of color". Beauty Refined Blogs. Retrieved 7 December 2015.