Until my mid-twenties, I did not identify as a feminist. Growing up as a person of color and the daughter of non-English speaking immigrants, the concept of “feminism” seemed foreign to me. I was fifteen when I first heard the term, and it appeared to me then that the only class of women who loudly self-identified as feminists were white women like Gloria Steinem. I did not see women of color jumping on the feminist bandwagon.
I have long been aware that feminists have always advocated for issues that directly affect me as a woman. But throughout my teens and my early twenties I became convinced that the issues of sexism and job pay inequality were white women’s issues. This impression was largely due to the fact that I felt a barrier separating white women and women of color like myself.
I did not feel that feminists were speaking about issues that women of color like me face every day. While women of color face sexism, we also face racism and are underrepresented in both higher education and professional jobs. Statistics show that Latinas and Black women are grossly underrepresented in higher education. Among females between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2010, 23% of Black women and 16% of Latinas had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 42% of white women.
In addition to this sense of a division among women based on race/ethnicity, I had also internalized messages from my culture that being a feminist was bad. Coming from a Latino background, I was taught to be conservative, quiet, and complacent. To my parents, the idea of me shaving my legs at the age of thirteen was ludicrous. I was accused of being too “liberal” like “las gabachas” (the white girls) at my school. The liberal label in my parent’s home was basically the equivalent of whore.
Moreover, the Latino media dubbed any women who spoke negatively about men as men-haters. The media criticized Latina women who expressed their negative experiences, thoughts, and feelings about men, including Mexican singer Paquita la del Barrio whose songs likened men to rats, for being too blunt and harsh. I had come to believe in the messages I received that being a feminist meant being a liberal man-hating woman.
It was not until I turned 24 that I began to change my views on the feminist movement and identify as a feminist. One instance was when, six months into a new job, I found out that my hourly pay was $2.00 less than a male co-worker who started working around the time I did. I felt it was really unfair, especially when this co-worker frequently missed work and I had not missed a day during that time period. From this and other experiences, I began to see how feminism was more about supporting all women across all racial and ethnic lines.
I feel that the feminist movement can be successful and increase its momentum if feminists become conscious that it is not a homogenous group. Racism is a factor among others that must also be addressed because it is intertwined with sexism.
Last year, when Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech addressed gender pay inequality, I felt she was brave to have used a public forum as the Academy Awards to draw attention to a persistent issue. But I quickly became disappointed in her later comments to the press when she said, “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.” For me it was a reminder of one of the many instances where women of color are forgotten as being part of the feminist movement. Where the face of feminist causes is still seen as primarily white.
My hope as a feminist is to have the opportunities to bring forth the perspectives of women of color when it comes to identifying and addressing women’s issues. After all, as women we all experience to a degree a form of discrimination. “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” (Quote from Malala Yousafzai's U.N. Speech on July 12, 2013).