I’m a woman, but I don’t always feel like I’m a part of a sisterhood. Instead, I often feel left out, alone and like my voice doesn’t matter, because I’m not the “right” kind of woman.
Why? Because I’m a woman of color.
In a society full of male privilege, women have long found strength and power by connecting with one another. When feeling excluded, talked down to and talked over, we link up, validating each other’s experiences and finding solidarity. Supposedly, we find sisterhood.
But it’s more complicated than that.
When we talk “sisterhood,” we like to do so in a way that makes it sound like all women are the same. But we aren’t.
There are many reasons why, but one major, glaringly obvious difference is race. We try to squash it out, saying we’re women first, and then we’re people of color, but that just isn’t how it works.
Like many women, deep friendships are my way of life. For my entire life, my friendships have been with other women, and many of these friendships have been with white women. I have treasured these friendships and held them dear because we love and care for each other in a way that is vulnerable and pure.
But my closest friendships with other women have been based on the understanding that we love each other not just because of our similarities, but because of our differences, too. My best friends and I have never erased or tried to transcend the identities that have made our experiences radically different from one another’s. Instead, we leave room for questions, and curiosity, and respect the moments when we just can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes.
When I was in college, it became more difficult for me to make friends with other women. I got involved, tried to meet other strong-willed women who wanted to relate to each other on that soul-level and really communicate, but something always got in the way, and that something was almost always race.
Within these friendships, I can’t count the number of times we ended up having to have uncomfortable dialogues about race. Some seemed completely disinterested, as if race didn’t have a place in our relationship, or in my life, because they felt it didn’t have an active role in theirs. It hurt to see them not care enough to really listen. And it made it hard to believe in sisterhood.
Many white women respond to criticism by saying women of color are being “mean” or “divisive” and distracting from the issues at hand — those facing women, as if women of color aren’t women at all. Both online and in my own life I’m been told I should just “calm down” — or, in one case, take a yoga class — to see that yeah, things are bad, but they aren’t that bad. But while white women are stressed about gender inequality, I have to think about race, too. There’s more to worry about, so of course I’m a little bit more frantic about the fight for equality than they think is “reasonable.”
It sucks. Whenever I’ve been in situations like this, with white women questioning my judgment and whether or not I was “dedicated enough to the cause,” I’ve been humiliated and frustrated. It’s hard to have your own experiences called into question by people who are supposed to get it. It’s the subtle things. For me, it looks like other feminists not wanting to be friends with me because they think I’m too aggressive in my feminism, and saying I should be nicer, while they rally around other outspoken feminists for challenging gender roles. It’s a room of silence when I want to talk about how race and gender intersect. Some white women I know who refuse to call out family members and partners who throw around racist statements are the first to call out any man who sex shames and perpetuates sexist stereotypes.
As extreme as it sounds, it happens, time and time again. I know it. I’ve experienced it—and many other women of color have, too. One classic example was during the Oscars last year when, during her acceptance speech, Patricia Arquette talked pay equity, saying, “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.” Many women of color were horrified by the statement because of how much it silences the very real racism that still exists today, but many white women jumped to Arquette’s defense, some boldly, and some hesitantly, as if to say, “Well, isn’t she right?” White women were moved by the display of feminism, while women of color were left, once again, wondering where we factor into the equation.
If you’re a woman who finds that confidence and that validation within spaces that promote and encourage sisterhood, and you’re a woman of color, it’s risky to decide to speak up about issues of racism from white feminists. People might not believe you, they might say you’re just being too sensitive, they might box you out of the space and decide you’re just not a good fit for the sisterhood, after all.
Basically, they treat you like men treat women.
Silencing difference does real damage. While white women make less than white men, women of color make even less. While many women are subject to sexual violence in some form during their lifetimes, whether that mean street harassment or rape, women of color face different and, in some cases, higher rates. Things take an even more extreme turn when you take factors like sexuality, gender identity, ability and class into account. When we erase racial difference from the discussion about women’s experiences, we miss out on a full understanding of our reality: All women are not the same.
But it’s okay.
That doesn’t make sisterhood any less real for those who seek it, need it and rely on it. All this means is that those who thrive on sisterhood need to be thoughtful and critical of who is being heard, and who is being silenced. It’s the only way to ensure that all voices are being included in the magic.