On the Term “Woman of Color”

Why it Matters

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The Cut, in a September 2018 article claimed that a vast majority of celebrities dance around and call themselves feminists when in reality, they significantly mince the term. The statement may result in a reminiscence of a pre-Reputation time for Taylor Swift, in which she was attacked for exemplifying white feminism. 

Before beginning the discussion, let the goals of feminism be clearly defined. Feminism is about equality. Feminists look to fight misogyny not with the counter of misandry, but with the symbiosis of equality, working to a time where all women can enjoy the same benefits as other women and men without having to carry the burden of society’s toxic expectations, prejudice, or double standards. 

In the same token, as Kimberlé Crenshaw so eloquently introduced in the eighties, the road to equality means something different for each woman, because not all women are exposed to the same struggle. Yes, in many ways, women can relate to each other because they share the same gender experience, but in even more ways, the color of a woman’s skin, or where she comes from, or where she lives, shapes her experience just as impactfully as the implications of simply being a woman and these things are not universal. The idea is known as intersectionality, and it is the key to development from the collective “we” of second-wave feminism. Not all women experience the same struggle, and the “I” of fourth-wave feminism has brought that to light so the struggles of minority women are not overlooked, as they have consistently been throughout history. 

To ignore the struggles of women that are considered a minority is white feminism. In the United States, these minority women are typically women who are not white, or women of color. 

Now, in the article published by The Cut, celebrities that “dance around identifying as feminists” are called out but Priyanka Chopra is clearly indicated as exempt from that group. While this is a statement many can agree with it is also important to remember that white feminists are still titled feminists, and a key argument white feminists repeatedly bring up in an effort to survive the threat of extinction is that we must look past color and focus on humanity. 

“I know everything is about diversity right now. But I think it should be about humanity. It’s 2016. It’s so easy to separate ourselves and become smaller and smaller pieces of humanity. I don’t like the phrase ‘woman of color’. I feel like that puts women in a box. I’m a woman, whether I’m white, black, brown, green, blue, or pink—whatever. I think we need to start looking beyond that.”  

Interestingly enough, these words were said by a South Asian woman. 

So here is the beginning of a breakdown about the term “woman of color.” The term is about recognition. It is about taking ownership of an identity and even an appearance that has been oppressed by men and white women alike. Society has consistently held European behaviors and appearances to a higher standard and hence given European culture far more respect than Asian culture. Perhaps the term “woman of color” implies an exception to the term “woman”, suggesting that “woman” is meant for white women only, but the take-back of the identity has to start somewhere and that somewhere is not in looking past the color of a woman’s skin and the struggles she must endure as a result. 

In an earlier April interview with Teen Vogue, Chopra stated that her identity was not limited to the title of “woman of color” and that being a woman of color should not be a cause for limitation, which is surely a relatable and widespread emotion for women of darker skin around the world. As Chopra pointed out, countless actresses have been told they are not the “right physicality,” meaning they are not white enough. In fact, this bias in casting can be seen in the controversy over Scarlet Johanasson being selected for the role of “Mulan” before widespread backlash resulted in an Asian actress rightfully taking her place. 

As an Indian actress that started out in Bollywood and came to the significantly whiter world of Hollywood, Priyanka Chopra is easily a role model for girls in India as well as Indian-American women, both who live in very different contexts. As part of the majority in India, there is a definite difference in the way Priyanka Chopra may see minority struggle, especially in coming to the United States as an already-established name. The term “woman of color” is not necessarily popular in India because it is not non-white women who are the majority. In another light, in an environment that has dealt with a white majority for nearly all of its history, the term “woman of color” allows minority women who have been looped in with the majority to bring attention to their identity and how their experience differs from that of the majority, meaning that for the equality that feminism fights for will have to adhere to their needs as well. 

Being a woman of color is part of an identity, it is not the whole identity, and while many discriminatory practices boil women to just their skin color, it is for that very reason that we cannot just “look beyond’ the color of a woman’s skin.

In bringing her influence to Hollywood and becoming an icon for South Asian women in the United States, Priyanka Chopra is a representation for the experience of Asian girls that grew up in America watching her Bollywood movies and gradually maturing to find her, a face of their own ethnicity, being so highly valued in Hollywood, an industry that has historically only valued whiteness until very recently. Rejecting a chance to speak their identity as South Asian women in the United States by rejecting the term “woman of color” only pushes them toward doing what society has been encouraging them to do growing up and not consider what gaining true equality as a South Asian woman in the United States entails.

We will never be “past” race, and we cannot choose to ignore the implications of skin color especially in a fight for equality. While Priyanka Chopra is entering a racial scape far different than the one she built an illustrious career in, it is essential for her and for those applauding her to remember just how complicated race relations are in the United States, especially in this time of rapid change and controversy. Terms that add to an individual’s identity and give platform to struggles overlooked cannot be so easily dismissed and while those stating we must “look past” color believe they are transcending the construct of race, it is this so-called “transcendence” that paves the way to once again glossing over the added struggles that allwomen of color face for simply not emulating the standard for a European physicality. 

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