The oppression of women of color
Published 06 Jul 2017
Race and gender are important identities for women of color. The intersection of race and gender can have important ramifications for individual identity and self-identification while racism and sexism can also have repercussions in a variety of social spheres. American society has a shameful legacy of slavery and is a country stratified by race, gender and class. For some, like renowned African American author, scholar and social activist, bell hooks, the United States is a country with a strong tradition of institutionalized racism which permeates all aspects of modern America society (see hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, 1981). For many in America, racism is an ever-present aspect of the social condition and is built upon a rigid social code, a white/black binary which has its roots in early American settlement and the shameful tradition of slavery in the New World. In addition to the white/black binary, another binary exists.
The sexual binary, which is heavily engrained in our society and has been responsible for persistent inequality between the sexes as well as the historical division of labor, coexists alongside the racial binary in modern American society. When the racial binary meets the sexual binary and the two meet, what are the implications? Why is it important to analyze race and gender together and not separately? What is the impact of racism and sexism on the lives of Americans today? What proposals can be put forth to change social attitudes towards women of color?
Racial and Sexual Binaries
The binary logic of race is inherently hierarchical and in modern American society, white people are perceived of as being superior compared to people of color, according to this subjective racial hierarchy. This hierarchy has important ramifications in the social, cultural, economic and political realms as access to social services, jobs, and political office are presumably easier for white Americans rather than black Americans. Similarly, the binary logic of sex and gender also represents a social hierarchy and postulates that men are superior to women with results in social, cultural, economic and political realms (Wellman 148-165).
The intersection of race and gender are very important for women of color who must deal with both the challenges of sexism and racism in modern American society. While race is a social construct, not a scientific one, sex has a biological basis and is usually determined at birth. Race and gender intersect with one another all the time in modern society, particularly when people of color face discrimination on account of both their gender as well as their racial background. This dual form of discrimination is particularly insidious since it further reinforces stereotypes based upon race and sex. Renowned, yet controversial, cultural theorist bell hooks discusses the intersection of patriarchy (discrimination based upon sex and gender) and racism and white supremacy (discrimination based upon the artificial constructions of race). According to bell hooks, we are socialized to think about race and gender through a hierarchical lens and accepted these hierarchies unflinchingly without questioning them. Accordingly, women of colour face additional hurdles to their full acceptance in modern American society and this intersectionality shapes their relations with others as well as their personal identification and self-identities (see hooks, 1981).
Effects of Racism and Sexism
What are the effects of racism and sexism on the lives of people today? In American society there is a definite health disparity in the country as non-whites report a lower level of overall health and access to healthcare. Poverty is also a feature of the social condition of many women of color in the United States today. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine undertook a substantial quantitative analysis of the infant mortality rates between black and white infants and found that a disparity in this important social indicator does in fact exist. Accordingly, this respected journal found that the black-white infant mortality ratio has persisted for decades and has even increased in recent times. In 1960, the black-white infant mortality ratio stood a 2.0, but twenty years later this figure had risen to 2.4. Why such a disparity? What are the causes of such dramatic differences in the likelihood that a newborn black child would not live to see his or her first birthday in comparison to a white child?
This study determined that while a variety of factors can account for this disparity, low birth weight remains the most prominent cause of a higher infant mortality rate amongst black babies. In fact, black babies in America have a 300% greater likelihood of being born with a low birthrate relative to their white counterparts. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention found a variety of socio-economic causes for the phenomenon of low birth weight, including poverty, poor nutrition, a lack of knowledge about pregnancy and the challenges associated with it, and access to proper medical facilities. The disparity in black-white successful birth ratios in America thus can be attributed to social forces and socio-economic differences amongst black and white Americans (Carmichal and Iyasu 220-277; Kogan 614)
Sexism is another scourge on American society which affects the overall quality of life for women today. Sexism is the belief that one sex is superior to the other and generally implies ideas about superiority and inferiority between sex and gender. While some societies are characterized as being matriarchal, much of Western society is patriarchal and the United States in no exception. The patriarchal nature of American society is explained by a variety of social and historical factors which are beyond the scope of this assignment. Nonetheless, while women in American have made incredible gains in the social, economic, cultural and political spheres over the past century, sexism remains a prevalent aspect of our society.
Sexism can be overt, latent or suppressed but it exists and has a variety of social repercussions. Accordingly, women in American earn less than their male counterparts and the employment mobility of women is often hindered by preconceived ideas about sexuality and the economic roles that women can play in the modern world. Anthropologists and cultural theorists have written for years about a “pink ghetto”, in which women are regulated to a sector of the labour market which is poorly remunerated and oftentimes unrewarding. Ideas about “women’s work” force women into so called female-ghettos in which women predominate and their upward social mobility is hindered by preconceived notions of what women can (and should) do. Accordingly, there is also an invisible “glass ceiling” which limits the future job prospects of women in American society and their future earning power. Looking at the medical sector again, a profession formerly limited to men, the New England Journal of Medicine reports that as in “young male physicians earned 41% more per year than young female physicians” (Baker, 960). Is this the result sexism, either latent or overt? Although it is difficult to say, it is important to remember that these disparities do in fact exist.
Social Attitudes and Attitudinal Change
As demonstrated above women of color must combat both the challenges of sexism and racism in American society today. Attitudes about women as well as about people of colour continue to impact the lives of women of colour. Social beliefs and values often misrepresent women of color as being uneducated, on welfare or poor working members of society. This is often in contradiction to the hard-working and responsible black mothers, sisters and caregivers in America today. Accordingly black women are disproportionately represented in underappreciated and under compensated employment categories like homecare worker or caregiver. These stereotypes do more to misrepresent the actual lives of women of color than to actually qualify their experiences.
While it is true that the opportunities for women of color have changed dramatically since 1900, attitudinal barriers remain. Social barriers are the product of people’s attitudes and these ideas about race and gender remain the most important impediments to the full inclusion of women of color in the wider society. Social programs which can work towards the further inclusion of women of color and against their oppression include Black History month courses in school, generous maternity leave programs for mothers and educational grants aimed at increasingly the post-secondary participation rates of young women of color (Baker 960-963).
While the sex of an individual is innate, determined at birth and not as fluid as race is in American society, our ideas about sex and gender are socially constructed and also have important social ramifications. Racism and sexism are insidious yet prevalent in society today. As we have seen, racism and sexism can important social ramifications on the lives of people today. Women of colour are thus in a unique position to reevaluate society’s conceptions of race, racial identity and sexism in American society. In a global world and in an era of multiculturalism, the rigid and constricting black/white duality is increasingly out of touch with reality and the lives of real people today. This hierarchical binary is being challenged on a daily basis by people like President-elect Barack Obama while the sexual binary is challenged by women who demand equal pay for equal work or who choose not to conform to traditional ideas about sex and gender in American society. Women of colour are thus in a unique position to tear down the socially constructed and inherently inhibiting walls of racial identity and sexism in America today. By navigating the artificial binaries of race and sex, women of colour are navigating and exploring new ideological terrain in an attempt to reconfigure our ideas about race, sex and sexuality (see Fredrickson 2002; hooks 33-47).
- Baker, Laurence C. Differences in Earnings between Male and Female Physicians. New England Journal of Medicine. 334.15 (1996): 960-964.
- Carmichael Suzan L. and Solomon Iyasu.. “Changes in the black-white infant mortality gap from 1983 to 1991 in the United States”, American Journal of Preventive Medicine 15.3 (1998): 220-227.
- Fredrickson, G.M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981.
- Kogan, M D. Social causes of low birth weight. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 88.11 (1997): 611–615.
- The Combahee River Collective Statement. Combahee River Collective, 1986.
- Wellman, D.T. Portraits of White Racism. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1993.