why do feminists care about racism, class-ism, and heterosexism?

I’ve received lots of great comments and questions about my feminism post. Several of these included surprise about my claim that feminists are primarily concerned (in addition to sexism) with issues like racism, class-ism, and heterosexism. Given that the term feminism seems to only indicate a concern for women, several people pointed out that if I am primarily concerned with all forms of exploitation/oppression then I may be more of a humanitarian or a proponent of equality in general than a feminist. These are good points, and a discussion of whether retaining the term feminism is more useful or harmful is definitely worth a post (coming soon!). For now, however, I would like to explain why feminists are concerned with these issues.

Third wave feminism contributed a great deal to feminist theory. It is the 3rd wavers who showed us that up to that point feminists had been using the experience of white women to stand in for the experience of all women. The 3rd wavers began to hear from Black women and lesbian women and poor women, and as a result they began to understand that women in different places in society experienced oppression in different ways. At first, feminists tried to understand these differences in experience as mathematic equations wherein you could say that a black woman is oppressed twice as much as a white woman because she is both a woman and black. These two forms of oppression were understood as separate and additive. However, this understand of multiple oppressions was really problematic because it still claimed that all women are oppressed (as women) in the same way… and again used the experience of some women to explain the experiences of all women. Unacceptable.

So, feminists started to rethink the concept of multiple oppressions. It was clear that Black women were oppressed in ways that were different from the ways that white women were oppressed. For example, while a white women may have experienced familial responsibilities as oppressive and the workplace as liberating, a Black woman may have experienced the workplace (perhaps a white woman’s home) as exploitative and oppressive, but her family life (while she controlled the finances, etc.) as empowering. In this way, it became clear that the Black woman was not oppressed as a woman and as a Black person. No, she was oppressed as a Black woman….and her oppression was unique and her goals for liberation were also unique.

This new perspective was helpful for a few important reasons. First, it acknowledged the real diversity of women’s lives and stopped assuming that white women’s lives could stand in for all women’s lives. Secondly, this approach took seriously the way that each group of women understood and expressed their experiences of oppression. Thirdly, it acknowledged that no person’s experiences are defined by one aspect of their personhood. This means that to understand and analyze a person’s experiences of oppression we must take into account not merely sex or gender, but also race, class, and sexual orientation (and perhaps other aspects of personhood, like nationality, geographic location, etc.). Broadly, this means that the more specific you can be about understand a person’s situation, the more helpfully you can understand their oppression and work for their liberation. Without this type of careful understanding of a person’s situation, you may think you are working for her liberation and empowerment but your actions only result in further harming her. Fourthly, this approach to multiple oppressions clearly demonstrated that in order for all women to be liberated and empowered, all forms of oppression must cease. A Black woman cannot be empowered as a woman, while Black people are still oppressed. If Black people are still oppressed, then empowering her “as a woman” doesn’t even make sense. Lastly, this approach avoided the trap of comparing oppressions or making them into a hierarchy. It is not at all helpful to say that women are more oppressed than Black people, nor does it make sense to say that women must be empowered before Black people can be. No, all forms of oppression are interlocking and simultaneous. If anyone anywhere is oppressed, then women are oppressed…. and more importantly, if anyone anywhere is oppressed, then none of us lives in equality.

For all these reasons, feminists are (and must be) concerned with opposing all forms of oppression. And we must not be primarily concerned with the oppression of women and secondarily concerned with other forms of oppression. No, feminists must be primarily concerned with all forms of oppression.

I assume that no further explanation is necessary for showing that racism is a form of oppression that must be opposed by feminists. If this needs more explanation, please let me know in the comments.

Class-ism may require a bit explanation. Class-ism is discrimination against the poor (or the rich, so we could discuss that at a later date). I think my post on economic inequality explains the necessity of opposing social structures that perpetuate historic differences in access to resources. Again, if this needs more explanation, let me know in the comments.

Hetero-sexism may also require some more explanation. Hetero-sexism is discrimination against anyone who does not meet society’s expectation of establishing heterosexual and monogamous romantic relationships. Heteronormativity is another important term that points to the way that society is built on and structured by this heterosexual expectation. So, feminists acknowledge that these expectations and this structure of society oppresses people, and that they therefore must be opposed. For example, a Black lesbian woman will never be fully liberated until Black people, lesbians, and women (and we might say all humans or even all life forms) are liberated (re: seen as equal in worth, given equal access to resources, treated with dignity, and encouraged to flourish). The topic of hetero-sexism may deserve its own post, so if you would like me to say more about this, again please let me know.

As always, thanks for reading…. and please let me know your thoughts:

Does this help clarify why feminists are concerned about these other forms of oppression? Did you understand the problems with the additive approach to multiple oppressions? Any other thoughts on these topics?

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3 Responses to why do feminists care about racism, class-ism, and heterosexism?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I have a couple thoughts about this. First, why do you capitalize Black and not white? I’m sure it’s intentional, but I don’t understand the reason for it. Second, I have never thought about multiple layers of oppression. It’s an interesting thought. Finally, I still don’t like the term feminist. There are two main reasons for this, though they are probably somehow connected. I don’t like the word feminist because it creates a hierarchy of inequality in my mind. Ending racism, classism, hetero-sexism isn’t a means to end the oppression of women. The oppression of women is just one of the many “isms” that we need to overcome. If I think about it, though, I realize the second reason is that I am a woman and I don’t feel particularly oppressed. Therefore the need to end the oppression of women is fairly low on my priority list. Of course I realize the hipocracy of that statement when I just got done saying that the term feminist creates a hierarchy. But I am what I am.

    I would really like to read about why you became a vegetarian, why you are not a vegan today, and why you are thinking about becoming a vegan.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      First, yes, I did specifically consider and purposefully capitalize Black and not white. When I was thinking about it as I wrote the post, I did that because I felt like it is the most common usage in feminist writing. I also was thinking those capitalizations were used because Black has come to replace and expand African American and seems to refer to people with a certain shared historical experience. On the other hand, white seems to really be a way of saying something like “lacking affiliation with an established minority identity” and also doesn’t really refer to people with a shared history (re: white includes Arab, Russian, and all different European ancestries)…. so it’s more like a category than a proper noun. Those are my initial thoughts…. but I will look into this more and get back to you.

      As for the term feminism suggesting a hierarchy…. do you mean that it suggests that the oppression of women is more important than the oppression of other groups? If so, that is exactly the hierarchy that I am saying 3rd and 4th (or whatever it will be called) wave feminisms are trying to reject. They are saying that we must be concerned primarily with ending all forms of oppression, not with women’s oppression first and others only in so far as eradicating them will help women. We must understand that all forms of oppression are related and interlocking…and therefore in order to liberate anyone/everyone, we must work to end ALL forms of oppression.

      As for not feeling oppressed as a woman, I understand that. But, if I may, I would like to point out that many people who are oppressed do not see themselves as oppressed. Defining oppression is very complicated and definitely deserves its own post, but for now, I’ll say that sometimes the most oppressive aspect of oppressive structures is that they render invisible the very oppression that they inaugurate and perpetuate. Sometimes oppression takes the shape of preventing us from even being able to imagine what liberation might look like.

      Lastly, I have already started composing a post on vegetarianism, so stay tuned. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth says:

    As for the term feminism suggesting a hierarchy…. do you mean that it suggests that the oppression of women is more important than the oppression of other groups?

    Yes, and while I understand that the new wavers are trying to reject the idea that women’s oppression comes first, the term feminist itself suggests that hierarchy to me.

    If ever you get time, I’d be interested in reading about some of the invisible oppressive structures.

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