Women of Color and Feminism

Seal Studies


By Maythee Rojas

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In this Seal Studies title, author and professor Maythee Rojas offers a look at the intricate crossroads of being a woman of color. Women of Color and Feminism tackles the question of how women of color experience feminism, and how race and socioeconomics can alter this experience. Rojas explores the feminist woman of color’s identity and how it relates to mainstream culture and feminism. Featuring profiles of historical women of color (including Hottentot Venus, Josefa Loaiza, and Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash), a discussion of the arts, and a vision for developing a feminist movement built on love and community healing, Rojas examines the intersectional nature of being a woman of color and a feminist. Covering a range of topics, including sexuality, gender politics, violence, stereotypes, and reproductive rights, Women of Color and Feminism offers a far-reaching view of this multilayered identity.

This powerful study strives to rewrite race and feminism, encouraging women to “take back the body” in a world of new activism. Women of Color and Feminism encourages a broad conversation about race, class, and gender and creates a discourse that brings together feminism and racial justice movements.


To my friend and former student,
Roxana Rivera (1977-2003)

IN HER BOOK THE COLOR OF JEWS Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz shares an anecdote that I find particularly helpful in explaining why a book about women of color should be essential reading for everyone. Regularly teaching courses on topics such as racism, poverty, and anti-Semitism, she describes the inevitable moment when a student who has grown weary of discussing these issues raises her hand and asks, “Can’t we just be people?” Kaye/Kantrowitz’s response is blunt: “That’s what racism [or any other oppression] costs you. . . . You don’t get to just be a person.” What she means is that social injustice—whether we cause it, are hurt by it, or happen to benefit from its effects—dehumanizes all of us. Our constructed identities serve only to protect us from or expose us to oppression in different ways. Saying we do not support racism or sexism does not absolve us from the harm that these discriminations cause others. In fact, unless we actively disrupt the system daily and in radical ways, we can all become accomplices to oppression. Consequently, whether we choose to recognize it or not, at different times all of us give up the right to be considered “just people” as long as social injustice and inequality prevail. In the meantime, we must get in line with everyone else and pick up the baggage that comes with the category or identity that we have (usually unconsciously) agreed to assume.
In my own discussions with students, I like to tell them that no one leaps out of the womb claiming to be an oppressor. Yet from the moment we are born, opportunities and disadvantages are laid out based on our race/ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. When we choose not to critically analyze who we are or the paths that have gotten us to where we are today, we become less than whole. In particular, we relinquish part of our humanity because this process dissociates us from other human beings. We learn to forget that our actions are tied to the lives of others. In turn, others grow up suspicious of us because of what they learn to associate with the identities that we take on. As Kaye/Kantrowitz aptly puts it, “Mistrust poisons the air.”
If you do not identify as a woman of color, you might not initially see the point of picking up this book, but I urge you to read on. If you are a woman of color, I ask you to consider how your life histories are interconnected with someone else’s. How much do any of us really know about each other’s cultural pasts? In a wonderful essay about storytelling and the origins of our world, John Edgar Wideman writes, “Suddenly, the mist cleared. Below the people, the earth had changed. It had grown into the shape of the stories they’d told—a shape as wondrous and new and real as the words they’d spoken. But it was also a world unfinished, because not all the stories had been told.” This is how I imagine that learning about the lives and experiences of women of color can change everyone’s world and improve our individual lives. We have stories to hear that will in turn prompt us to share our own. We have stories to revisit because some aspects were previously left out. We have stories to go back and find before they are permanently lost, and we have stories we altogether need to forget. In short, we have a lot of talking and sharing to do.
This exchange can take place, however, only when we switch up the standard order in which we are used to receiving information. It’s what we in academia tend to call “decentering.” The “centers” of our society—the dominant stories that our culture tells—are so embedded in our minds that we take them as absolutes and have a hard time thinking around them without some external push to remind us that when we shift our perspective, we gain a whole new set of insights. In fact, amassing as much knowledge as we can about the world (and subsequently ourselves) should be ultimately one of our lifetime goals. It moves us toward wholeness, toward enlightenment. While we may never get there completely, it is the process of trying that becomes our self-realization.
Part of the project of feminism has been to put women’s stories at the center, to understand the world through the perspective of women. But often the generic “women” has meant white women. Consequently, feminism has not always been embraced by women of color, even those who in all other ways are already politicized individuals. As the chapters of this book will illustrate, there are many reasons for this alienation. I believe that this disjuncture is not irreparable; however, it does require some pause.
Every day it seems I am confronted with the dilemma of whether or not to publicly acknowledge that I am a feminist. The choice would appear easy enough given that I teach in a women’s studies department. However, as a Latina from a working-class background whose family and friends are still largely removed from the academic world, I often feel the tension that the word raises when it is brought up. Truthfully, it can be difficult enough just admitting I have a doctorate. When I share this struggle with my students, most of them readily confess to the same problem. Attending a highly diverse, working-class commuter campus, many of them are the first in their families to attend college. Or they are returning to school and have families at home that demand much of their attention. The intellectual work that they do at school frequently does not have a place in their lives outside of the campus. To introduce labels such as “feminist” into their day-to-day conversations, several admit, is just asking for trouble.
Similarly, the concept “women of color” is also one that raises questions for people. Most of my female students do not walk in thinking of themselves as women of color even though many identify as being part of a certain ethnicity, such as Peruvian or Vietnamese. Others tend to adopt a broader term such as “Latina” or “African American.” Again, there are several reasons why this may be the case, some of which are addressed in subsequent chapters. However, it is worth recognizing the general lack of exposure that people—even students—have to the term before entering a class such as mine. They initially share the same blank look I get whenever I mention the term “woman of color” to someone in passing. Why is this term not used more widely, at leastwithin the university system? The blank looks I receive when I use the term appear to point perhaps to the greater lack of attention given to the experiences and lives of women of color.
Literary scholar Rachel Lee argues that the marginalization of women of color within the field of women’s studies and the greater university structure is at least partially to blame. She describes how at her university the only course to collectively address women of color is set up to meet diversity requirements both within and outside the women’s studies major. Thus, it attracts students who have never been exposed to the issues raised, and it can leave them feeling as though the course is only a tacked-on attempt at political correctness and fulfills all that they will ever need to know about this subject matter. Students can then continue with the rest of their educations without ever returning to the issues addressed in the course.
Similarly, a singular course on women of color can marginalize the person teaching it. In particular, it depends on the instructor’s physical “body” to authenticate the course (and the department and university), as Lee argues. Ironically, she also notes, this process can distort the instructor’s actual identity with a constructed one. Instead of being a Latina scholar of American literature (as I am) or “an Asian American woman, an interpreter of literature, or even a professor of Women’s Studies” (as Lee describes herself), as professors who happen to be women of color, we are sometimes thrust into the role of teaching classes on women of color simply because of our perceived identities.
In fact, while incorporating women of color in the curriculum can present the opportunity to expose a great many people to new ideas, it is very difficult as an instructor to have to start from scratch with students and discuss topics and histories that are so complex and extensive within such a brief period as a semester or school quarter. The same might be said of a single book on the topic. The task of trying to provide readers an overview of how feminism and the issues facing women of color intersect has been a tremendous challenge to me. Narrowing down what to include as well as whomto talk about was overwhelmingly difficult. Ultimately, I decided to focus largely on the four major ethnic groups recognized in the United States (i.e., Native American, African American, Chicana/o and Latina/o, and Asian American), but this decision has never been an entirely satisfying one. So many other ethnic communities in the United States have had significant experiences here, and they share cross-cultural ties both with each other and with the groups I discuss. At the same time, I could not find room in the book for some of the important issues facing the communities that I do discuss.
Understandably, this book is meant to be only an introduction to and overview of the subject of women of color and feminism. I hope that you, reader, whoever you are, will find it informative, useful, and moving. More important, I hope that you will be encouraged to learn more about the people, issues, and communities mentioned as well as find yourself curious enough to investigate those that I could not fit into this book. In other words, I hope that you will in fact view this as only an introduction to what can become a lifetime of learning about your fellow sisters and brothers of the world. They have many, many stories to feed us and reshape how we think about the world.

LAST SUMMER, I SPENT TWO WEEKS caring for my sister and brother-in-law’s young daughter while they vacationed. Although I experienced a number of new things with my niece, Annika, the most unexpected one occurred when we visited a local park. While we were playing in the sandbox, a little boy and his mother approached us. The boy seemed eager to join my niece. His mother, however, appeared less enthusiastic. She prodded him to keep moving. In an attempt to be friendly, I asked her what his name was. She answered, “Fernando,” and then disapprovingly added, “Todos los negritos quieren las güeritas. Todos son igual.” Unsure of how to reply, I just gave her a sheepish grin and let them walk away. Despite the fact that I spend most of my days discussing issues of race and gender, I found myself at a loss for words.
“All little black boys want white girls. They are all the same.” As a Latina professor of women’s studies, I understood what the mother meant. Although Fernando’s ethnic origin was unclear, he was dark skinned. Annika is not. The terms “negra/o”and “güera/o”are frequently used among Latina/os to emphasize differences in skin hues, with preference usually given to those who are lighter. These racialized attitudes about skin tone often determine concepts of beauty and acceptance within the culture. When coupled with the historical prohibitions against interactions between black (and other dark-skinned) men and white women, Fernando’s interest in my light-skinned niece likely appeared suspicious to his mother. Viewing her son’s intention through the prism of racialized desire, she probably assumed her son would not escape its legacy. Intellectually, I understood all of this. However, emotionally, her words left me pained. Why couldn’t Fernando’s interest just be childhood curiosity? What about the fact that Annika isLatina?
A short time later, the park started to clear out and my niece and I made our way back to our car. Next to us, another Latino family was packing up, and their young son sat waiting in his stroller. I pointed at him and spoke to my niece in Spanish. His father stared at us for a moment and then hesitantly asked if she were my daughter. After I explained she was actually my niece, his facial expression left me feeling that he was unconvinced, so I reassuringly added that I recognized how güeritashe looked. He nodded with a quick smile and turned back to his family. However, as I drove away, I became upset. Within one brief outing, both my niece and I had been misread and our relationship misconstrued. Moreover, I was partially to blame.
My niece is the product of my sister, an olive-toned, dark-featured American of Costa Rican descent, and her husband, a blond, green-eyed American of mixed European descent. Most agree that Annika is a good combination of the two; however, I regularly see my sister in her, especially given Annika’s dark eyes. It had never crossed my mind that we might not look related. I also never considered that others might assume she was not Latina. Regularly surrounded by our side of the family, she hears Spanish as frequently as English (her first word was “gracias”). However, these two encounters, with those I like to think of as my own gente(i.e., other Latina/os), reminded me that we often fail to see people’s individuality because of the social expectations that we place on them.
During our brief excursion, my niece’s particularly light skin and hair color succeeded in darkening my own decisively “ethnic” features in the eyes of those observing us and recast our aunt/niece relationship into the common Latina nanny/white child one that pervades much of Los Angeles. This was why the father in the parking lot seemed confused when I claimed we were related. And this kind of assumption is also what makes the mother’s discomfort at her son’s interest understandable. The race and gender dimensions that Annika and Fernando likely faced as playmates are ones long ago established by histories of patriarchy and conquest, both within and outside the United States. These histories shape interactions not only between different ethnic groups, but also between men and women and between different classes. The mother’s resentment revealed her understanding (conscious or not) of a set of dialectics, or oppositional power relationships, frequently formed by the intersecting politics of race, class, and gender. In addition, her words underscored the sexual politics that lay trapped in between.

“Identity Is the Bane of Subjectivity’s Existence”

Our experience at the park echoes a frustration that Sidonie Smith, a feminist scholar of women’s autobiography, has described feeling when trying to make sense of her subjects’ lives. In her essay “Identity’s Body,” she notes that one of the biggest obstacles in accurately writing about her female subjects is that, too often, “identity is the bane of subjectivity’s existence.” Being able to consciously reflect on our lives and take control of our daily actions allows us to gain subjectivity, but it is easy to lose this sense of control in light of the myriad social identities that typically subsume us. Tied to identities that mark us as belonging to one group or another, each with a set of expected behaviors and actions, we find it difficult to be acknowledged or understood outside of such perimeters. Moreover, when multiple identities are intertwined, it can become nearly impossible to be seen underneath them. We become the Latina nanny. The black boy. The white girl. Each identity carries us along a predestined path where we are met with fixed assumptions, prejudices, and limitations. Ironically, often by the time we reach these moments of misunderstanding, we have absorbed so many of the same messages about ourselves and others that it is unlikely we will resist or challenge them—even when we know better. This is what nagged me the most about the park episode.
Did I make a point of speaking to my niece in Spanish as we were leaving the park in order to emphasize her ethnicity because I was still smarting from the assumption that she was not Latina? At the same time, why did I take up the very same oppressive language that set her apart by calling her a güerita? My own responses, as well as those we received, make me wonder what will happen when Annika, born from an ethnically mixed relationship, finds herself drawn to people from other ethnic communities, perhaps also mixed like her. How do we begin to form new conversations?
Examining the women of color whose histories, issues, and individual experiences are central to this book could offer a means of addressing some of these concerns. However, their stories also raise new ones. I teach a course on U.S. women of color and, on the first day of each semester, I routinely ask my students to consider the difficulty of learning about groups as diverse as Asian Americans or Native Americans in the span of one semester. How do we avoid generalizing within and between communities—of race, of class, of gender, and of sexuality? What moves us to identify one group as being “of color” and another not? Where do we start?
In response to these questions, my students often debate the purpose of our class. Some go as far as to claim that they are “over race” and wonder why we have not moved on. We are individuals, not categories, they argue. Besides, they insist, people in the United States no longer care about race. Questions and comments such as these get us talking about the construction of categories, specifically those surrounding race, class, gender, and sexuality. They also get us thinking about how, in our society, we create social hierarchies by ranking according to identity, which then leads to stereotypes and assumptions. Similarly, stereotypes and assumptions generally serve as tools for silencing and oppression. In turn, silence and oppression give way to mechanisms of inequality such as racism and sexism that become entrenched in our daily lives.
Once our conversations take this direction, my students tend to back off from their earlier statements. They remember incidents in which they were affected by what others assumed about them. They admit that they do not know much about other groups’ histories, or sometimes their own. They realize that they have lacked words to explain their experiences, and in some cases, were made to believe that they should not matter. Less willing then to uphold the belief that we are past the need for self-examination or that race does not matter, they begin to acknowledge the actual power that naming and identity markers hold and to understand why a class on the topic of women of color is a necessary step to discussing these integral issues. In this case, Smith’s observation that “identity is the bane of subjectivity’s existence” takes on a more nuanced meaning because recognizing and naming collective experiences can also provide the crucial steps needed to identify key factors of oppression. In other words, to gain autonomy, we often need to first identify struggles in our lives that are actually not about who we are as individuals, but about who we are assumed to be based on our race or class or our gender or sexuality.
Here is one example. In 1975, a class-action civil suit (Madrigal v. Quilligan)was filed against the University of Southern California-Los Angeles County Medical Center (LACMC) by a number of women of Mexican origin who had been coercively sterilized while they were patients at the hospital. During a period of at least three years, doctors routinely performed tubal ligations on countless Mexican female patients who were there to give birth. The procedures were done without their consent or the women were forced to sign their approval while they were still in labor. None of the women were fluent in English, and many lacked a thorough understanding of what “tying their tubes” meant.
The issue evolved into a legal matter because Chicana/o activists, hospital employees who recognized the misuse of power, and the women themselves were able to trace how the medical staff systematically treated pregnant female patients of Mexican origin. The common threads were the patients’ race, gender, and perceived economic status. The hospital’s unethical medical practices might have gone unchecked for much longer if no one had critically analyzed how the bodies and identities of Mexican women were being framed within the greater social context of female reproduction. Court evidence showed that some doctors believed Mexican women were “hyperfertile” and consequently had too many children. Others assumed these women were too poor to afford more children. Acting from their own gender and class status as economically well-to-do men, the doctors justified their abuse by stereotyping their patients. If these women’s medical histories had been reviewed solely on an individual basis, they might not have revealed the social factors that contributed to their sterilization. However, their common experience as poor women of color allowed critics to name the oppressive framework that violated them and, in turn, devise a plan of resistance.
While they vary widely in effect, both this grave example and the more innocuous one I experienced in the park illustrate the power of body politics. Bodily differences make identity a two-sided coin: Assumptions based on our physical features or appearances invariably work against our attempts at self-actualization; however, because we are subject to oppressions based on these assumptions, politically claiming certain identities can be our only means to gaining control over our lives.

“A Peculiar Sensation”

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois argues that African Americans are “gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Although DuBois’s discussion singles out the black male experience, the ambivalence he describes is resoundingly poignant for any who experience it. Living as a part of the overall society (i.e., “American”) and yet also remaining an outsider to it forces someone to regularly view and judge herself or himself from a marginalized position. At the same time, it positions the dominant group as the norm. It is from this group that the marginalized receive cues about how to behave or fit in. It is also herein where the struggle for subjectivity begins.
In her essay “Not You/Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference,” filmmaker and essayist Trinh T. Minh-ha describes identity as a dividing line that is created between those who have the power to define a person’s or group’s characteristics and those who are pressured into upholding the dominant group’s features despite being expected to embody the opposite of them. She refers to this type of dysfunctional relationship as the “I and not-I.” Take, for instance, how men and women are situated in oppositional terms. The pronoun “he” becomes defined and legitimized against everything that “she” is not. This traps men and women in a dualistic relationship and forces those in the “not” category into the position of the Other. If you are not a man, you are other than a man. Neither party fares well in this kind of relationship. Men become fixed to an essence that presumably represents them (e.g., you are a man so you must be tough) and women are either subjected to exist in the shadow of this essence (e.g., you are not a man, so you cannot be tough, but you want to be legitimized so you keep trying to act tough) or they are altogether erased by it (e.g., you are not a man and not tough, so you are destined to invisibility). For those who cannot comfortably or willingly take up either gendered position (e.g., you are queer or transgendered, so popular logic would dictate that there is no way you can ever be tough or, instead, that your toughness makes your gender identity suspect), there is no choice, just erasure. Unless you take a different approach to the concept of difference, that is.
Hegemony, the monster mechanism that holds most forms of oppression in place, works to ensure that we accept binary relationships and buy into the concept of sameness. As feminist theorist Audre Lorde suggests, our many social and state institutions support hegemony by teaching us to strive for uniformity, to see difference as a threat, and to demean or ignore what the majority does not support. In school, that can mean giving preference to one form of writing, one group’s history, one type of speech, and one set of ideas. Throughout our legal system, hegemony can make certain inequalities seem just, such as punishing street crimes such as burglary and drug abuse more severely than white-collar crimes such as insider trading or encouraging special tax breaks for corporations but not the average taxpayer. Likewise, cultural outlets such as the media, religion, and even sports can all gear us toward specific notions about what is considered normal or acceptable.
Ever listen to the radio and count how many songs in a row are about heterosexual love? Wonder why there are references to a Christian God in our currency system, our pledge of allegiance, and our Constitution? Why is it usually easier to name ten African American male athletes than it is five politicians? These are just a few examples of how we are socialized to imagine others and ourselves in specific ways. Hegemony operates at both the macrostructural level and the everyday commonplace to support a dominant set of ideologies and practices. Moreover, those who are the most disempowered by hegemonic norms are often the same ones who unknowingly promote them in an attempt to belong. Consider, for instance, the amount of money spent every year to support hegemonic standards of beauty (for example, hair dye, colored contacts, surgical implants, fake tanning) that clearly do not reflect how the majority of people naturally look. Nevertheless, people buy these items in an attempt to transform themselves into who they believe represent ideals of beauty and success. Hegemony convinces them that what they are not is what they should become.
Yet subverting hegemony is not a hopeless prospect. For DuBois, a double consciousness meant forcibly adopting a perspective that left him less than whole. His divided identity kept the hope of being recognized as a fully actualized individual out of reach. He could learn to function within the dominant system, but he was kept from ever escaping its control. However, having a “second sight” also stands to be useful in subverting oppression. The key lies in an active awareness of one’s situation and a strategic employment of what makes one different. In Sister Outsider, Lorde calls individuals who possess this ability “watchers,” those who are “familiar with the language and


  • "Using examples from history, pop culture, and the Internet Rojas-a professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies-offers insight into the experience of being both a feminist and racially othered."—Ms.

On Sale
Dec 29, 2009
Page Count
224 pages
Seal Press

Maythee Rojas

About the Author

Maythee Rojas is an associate professor in Women Studies at California State University, Long Beach. She received her Ph.D. in English from Arizona State University. Her research specializations include Chicana/o & Latina/o literature and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is currently completing a manuscript on the uses of the erotic in Chicana literature, entitled Following the Flesh: Embodied Transgressions in Chicana Literature. Dr. Rojas’s work has appeared in Frontiers, MELUS, Women’s Studies Quarterly and reference books such Notable American Women, Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture, and Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia. She also sits on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Ethnic Studies (NAES).

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