Multiracial Feminism

Women of color have always actively participated in women’s issues. However, their experience with  feminist work has often been overlooked and largely undocumented (Hurtado 1996). Multiracial feminism refers to the activist and scholarly work conducted by women of color and anti racist white allies to promote race, class, and gender equality. In comparison to the highly documented second wave white, middle class feminism, which centered on abolishing patriarchy and privileged patriarchy as an oppression over all others, women of color feminism resists separating oppression and insists on recognizing the intersectionality of race, class, and gender oppression.

A metaphor increasingly used to identify the various stages of feminism in the United States has been that of “waves.” The first wave denotes the period when white abolitionist women and free black women organized for the right to vote and won passage of the 19th Amendment. The second wave is identified as 1970s feminism, which challenged women’s exclusion from the public sphere of employment and politics. The third wave is ongoing and marks the ways in which young women manage some of the social and political freedoms gained from the previous generations. Multiracial feminist organizing and theory building can be identified throughout every historical period of these waves.

Multiracial feminism refers most often to the feminisms of Black/African American, Latina/ Chicana, Native American, and Asian American women; however, it includes the voices of anti racist white women and of all women of color including East Indian women, Arab women, mixed race women, and women of color not from the United States. Multiracial feminists have often identified themselves under the rubric of ”women of color.” The identification of women of color as a political, strategic, and subjective identity category is a relatively recent phenomenon. The term ”women of color” connotes both affinity and similarity of experience.

To demonstrate an alliance with women of color across the globe and a commitment to postcolonial struggles, in the early 1970s some feminist women of color in the US began claiming the term ”third world women” (Sandoval 1990; Mohanty et al. 1991). Third world feminists used the term to deliberately mark a connection with global women’s issues foregrounding colonization, immigration, racism, and imperialism – concerns that many white feminists did not address.

This identification with other women across the globe also encouraged US women of color to acknowledge long traditions of anti racist collective organizing that was often ignored, suppressed, or obscured during second wave feminist activism. These conditions helped to solidify the strategic use of the term women of color and have supported over the last two decades global organizing in Brazil, England, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Aida Hurtado (1996) argues that there are four over arching principles that connect almost all feminists of color: (1) an insistence on recognizing the simultaneity of race, class, and gender oppressions; (2) a claim to their racial group’s history as part of their activist legacy, including struggles in their native lands; (3) an understanding that theorizing can emerge from political organizing, everyday interactions, and artistic production as well as the academy; and (4) an opposition to heterosexism in their communities.

Although there are commonalities between multiracial feminists, there are also concentrations on specific topics that distinguish over 30 years of scholarship and activism. Asian American women have documented pervasive and debilitating stereotypes that promote passivity and exoticization, domestic violence, and the US military’s role in sex tourism. African American multiracial feminists have consistently called attention to ”controlling images” of black female bodies (especially regarding sexuality) that seek to justify disenfranchisement through law, ideology, and social policy. Chicanas and Latinas have often concentrated on immigration, challenging patriarchal definitions of family, the sexual double standard, and critiquing the black/white conceptualization of US racial politics. Sovereignty and land rights, environmental justice, spirituality, and experiences of cultural appropriation and genocide have been primary concerns of Native women who espouse multiracial feminism.

Multiracial feminism is often viewed in contrast and reaction to white, middle class feminism; however, it is important to recognize that there have often been women of color working within white dominated feminist groups pushing for a multiracial feminist politic. For example, two African American women, Margaret Sloan and Pauli Murray, helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, and black feminist Doris Wright was a founding member of Ms. Magazine in 1972 (Thompson 2001).

Women of color feminists organized around a wide range of public issues historically ignored by white, middle class feminists. Multiracial feminism addressed: reproductive rights, sterilization abuse, welfare rights, police brutality, labor organizing, environmental justice issues, rape, domestic violence, childcare access, school desegregation, prison reform, and affirmative action. To address these public issues, in addition to working in white dominated groups, women of color also developed their own autonomous feminist organizations and caucuses. These organizations grew out of both civil rights groups and white women’s groups. Black women organized in 1973 to create the New York based National Black Feminist Organization  (NBFO)  and  launched  a conference attended by 400 women representing a variety of class backgrounds (Thompson 2001). Additionally, the NBFO inspired the formation of another black feminist group in 1974, the Combahee River Collective, who wrote a now famous statement describing the genesis and politics of black feminism. Other women of color groups that grew out of race based political organizations include the Third World Women’s Alliance, which emerged from the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee; the Chicana group Hijas de Cuauhtemoc, founded as an off shoot of the United Mexican American Student Organization; Asian Sisters, which grew out of the Asian American Political Alliance; and Women of All Red Nations (WARN), initiated by members of the American Indian Movement (Thompson 2001). These feminist multiracial groups addressed a multitude of issues related to racism, classism, and sexism that were affecting women of color.

Multiracial feminism came to the fore with the 1981 publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, an anthology representing black, Latina/Chicana, Native American, and Asian American women grappling with issues of racism, sexism, homo phobia, and classism. The writings reflect women of color activism in previous years.

Although there were activist women of color texts preceding Bridge, such as the anthology The Black Woman by Bambara (1970), the 1980s marked a burgeoning of feminist texts by women of color. In 1983, Barbara Smith published Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology featuring writings by black feminist activists, and in 1984 Beth Brant published A Gathering of Spirit: A Collection by North American Indian Women. All of these texts included the voices of lesbian and feminist women of color, and the second edition of Bridge, printed in 1983, provided a largely international perspective expanding the concept of intersectionality from race, class, and gender oppressions to include sexuality and nation.

Simultaneously, there was an explosion of creative work by multiracial feminists that contributed to the vibrancy of the activism of the late 1970s and early 1980s and that expanded the theory building that was taking place in multiple locations (e.g., community centers, conferences, women’s centers, educational institutions). Writers of both fiction and nonfiction created academic and popular interest in exploring the multidimensional lives of women of color in ways that had not been previously attempted.

Alice Walker advanced the articulation of multiracial feminism as distinctive, culturally specific, and part of a legacy of social justice. Her groundbreaking book In Search of My Mother’s Gardens (1983), a collection of essays, introduced the term “womanism.” Walker does not reject the term feminism but offers a parallel affirmative expression for the multiple and complex ways that women of color view their communities and commitments in those communities. It also explores many facets of life important to women of color that a radical strand of 1970s feminism often eschewed, including spirituality, the suffering of men of color due to racist oppression, and the relationship between art and activism.

Multiracial feminism has been critical in identifying new metaphorical spaces for theory, praxis, healing, and organizing, highlighting the intersection of experience including the concept of “borderlands,” ”sister outsiders,” ”new mestizas,” and ”Woman Warriors” (Sandoval 2000). Transformation of the self is considered important to counteract the reductive  and  homogenizing  tendencies  of the uncritical idea of ”sisterhood” espoused by white feminists; it can include renaming, recasting, and reclaiming buried components of one’s identity. Women of color feminists organizing in early second wave feminism, whose needs were often marginalized or ignored in both white women organizations and race based organizations led by men, also emphasized the importance of creating exclusive women of color spaces, as evidenced by This Bridge Called My Back and the various women of color caucuses.

Women of color entered into the academy in greater numbers during the 1980s. Many were from activist backgrounds and espoused multiracial feminist viewpoints; they began documenting their experiences challenging prevailing theoretical  frameworks.  Some scholars revisited the historic tensions of the mainstream feminist movement, arguing for a more relevant analysis applicable to diverse communities. Beginning with her landmark book Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981), bell hooks blended personal narrative, theory, and praxis in a distinctive style. hooks is one of the most prolific and widely read multiracial feminists. Multiracial feminism has changed the landscape of both theory and methods in the social sciences and humanities.

Multiracial feminists have argued that multiple oppressions can combine and create new and often unrecognized forms of encounters in daily life. The concept of ”multiple oppressions” and the ”intersection of experience” approach have been primarily used to help understand non dominant groups’ experiences navigating the social world. In the last 20 years, activists and theorists located outside the US have developed these insights to support a global analysis of power and difference.

The call to redefine work through a race, gender, and class analysis has had a significant impact, beginning in women’s studies and spiraling out across other fields and disciplines, especially in the field of sociology. Patricia Hill Collins introduced the concept of the ”matrix of domination.” She argues for viewing race, class, and gender as a central organizing principle that allows scholars to investigate how individuals and groups can simultaneously occupy areas of privilege and domination. Sarah Mann and Michael Grimes note the influence of ”intersectional work” in the academy and suggest that its scope is pandisciplinary. Scholars have used the concept of ”race, class, and gender” as an inter locking site of oppression, in multiple ways, to create theory as an analytical tool or as a methodological practice (Berger 2004). Research explicitly utilizing intersectional analysis tends to cluster in pockets in a few traditional social science disciplines (sociology, psychology, education) and in multidisciplinary programs including women’s studies, ethnic studies, criminology, and environmental studies. Several sociologists have compiled anthologies that examine the intersections of race, class, and gender. Two key texts that provide a conceptual framework for understanding the complex intersections of oppressions have been written by sociologists: Privilege, Power, and Difference (2001) by Allan Johnson and Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework (2001) by Lynn Weber.

Multiracial feminism is a burgeoning field that centers on the voices of women of color but includes writings by anti racist white women, women outside the US, and feminist men of color. Comprehending the intersections of oppressions in order to promote equity across lines of race, class, and gender and nation differences is a key component of multi racial feminism.

Sociologists have contributed greatly to this endeavor. Multiracial feminism offers new formulations about organizing, coalition building, and critical theory production. The field has reached a maturity and sophistication in both activist and scholarly communities, enriching the conceptualization of power, identity, and inequality.


  1. Anzaldua, G. (1987) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Foundation Books, San Francisco.
  2. Anzaldua, G. (Ed.) (1990) Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color, 1st edn. Aunt Lute Foundation Books, San Francisco.
  3. Bambara, T. C. (Ed.) (1970) The Black Woman: An Anthology. Washington Square Press, New York.
  4. Berger, M. (2004) Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journey of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  5. Brant, B. (Ed.) (1984) A Gathering of Spirit: A Col lection by North American Indian Women. Fire­brand Books, Ithaca, NY.
  6. Hurtado, A. (1996) The Color of Privilege: Three Blasphemies on Race and Feminism. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
  7. Mohanty, C. T., Russo, A., & Torres, L. (Eds.) (1991) Third World Women and the Politics ofFem inism. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
  8. Moraga, C. & Anzaldua, G. (Eds.) (1983) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2nd edn. Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, New York.
  9. Sandoval, C. (1990) Feminism and Racism: A Report on the 1981 National Women’s Studies Association Conference. In: Anzaldua, G. (Ed.), Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color, 1st edn. Aunt Lute Foundation Books, San Francisco, pp. 55 71.
  10. Sandoval, C. (2000) Methodology of the Oppressed. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  11. Smith, B. (Ed.) (1983) Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, New York.
  12. Thompson, B. (2001) A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  13. Wong, D. & Cachapero, E. (Eds.) (1989) Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women. Beacon Press, Boston.

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