- Photo by Mike Frieseman, courtesy of Ciarra Ross
By Ciarra Ross, Michigan in Color Writer
Published February 6, 2014
I am a Black woman who identifies as a woman of color, a solidarity term defined by a group of Black American women as a commitment to work in collaboration with other women who have been racially oppressed and minoritized. By definition, identifying as a woman of color is not a biological right but a political choice to build solidarity through a network of support, critical awareness, compassion, empathy, courage and above all, the highest frequency of love.
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Women of color are women from various racial backgrounds who seek refuge, safety and empowering liberation from the social injustice of our white patriarchal world. We come from a broad range of racialized identities and the destructive insistence and pervasiveness of racism and sexism construct and inform our lives in various ways. Therefore, the term “women of color” is not so much about political camaraderie around our similarities but much more about seeing, hearing and challenging our varying positions in the current hierarchical racial order. The various -isms that we face are not what form us, it is our audacity and agency to create and facilitate an active dialogue and practice that subvert oppressive institutions, such as, but not limited to, racism and sexism.
In my experience, the conversation on racial injustice amongst women of color most often takes the shape of discussing our sociopolitical positions and experiences in terms of our proximity — or lack thereof — to whiteness. The dialogue often lends itself to the ways we all have been oppressed by an unrelenting racist patriarchal society that overwhelmingly places social, economic and overall institutional power in the hands of white men. The framing of this discussion is important but it often leads to what I call a false sense of sisterhood. It says, “I see you and I hear you,” but in reality this framing has repeatedly rendered me mute and invisible.
An integral function in the current white supremacist model of race and racism that often goes unchecked is the diabolical, global persistence of anti-Blackness. Discussing white dominance in terms of capitalism, normativity, privilege and other forms of institutionalized racial oppression is largely incomplete without including all the ways that these systems are inherently anti-Black. But anti-Blackness is not a social justice term used in our so-called safe spaces. Instead, it is the term that drops with a heavy thud that reverberates throughout a silent room.
We tend to be comfortable with placing whiteness at the center of our conversation on race because whiteness is structured as the norm — everything else is “other.” As non-white women, we can all identify with this otherization and marginalization but we have yet to gain the understanding that whiteness itself is predicated on anti-Blackness. The silent resistance to engage ourselves in reflection and dialogue around anti-Blackness the ways we are ready and willing to check white privilege is a fear. This fear functions as a block from a necessary critical awareness of the ways anti-Blackness is the soil that the white racial order sits on. The conversation on race is complex but it is a complete disservice to not unpack the ways that racial oppression is not only pro-white but also anti-Black. Recognizing anti-Blackness does not negate the ways that racism exists as a detriment to other communities of color. On the contrary, raising our consciousness to identify and check anti-Blackness has the potential to reveal the ways we are all connected without making our struggles fungible.
The late Black lesbian feminist scholar Audre Lorde famously stated that there is no hierarchy of oppressions. We must be careful in using this quote to justify an unwillingness to understand the hierarchy in which racism functions. Within the context of the essay, Audre Lorde was directly referring to there being no hierarchy in the oppressions she experiences. She could not — as none of us can — choose at different times which identity to be and which to defend. She was Black, woman, lesbian and socialist simultaneously and therefore experienced racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism all at once.
Oppression is not dualistic.
To view it as such would be reductive, diminishing and dismissive to ourselves and others. Audre Lorde’s famous quote is often misused. To be clear, her quote does not negate the fact that Blackness is a premise that our white racial order positions itself against.
To consider Blackness as a potential center of the conversation on race and racism disrupts the ways we are conditioned to think about racism as “the white man’s” and “the white feminist’s” problem. Positioning anti-Blackness as an equally important gauge as pro-whiteness initiates a shift toward inner and outer transformation necessary for true solidarity to be manifested.