I like fruit and oranges.
Does something seem off to you about the sentence above? It should: orange IS a fruit!
What about the following phrase? “Women and women of color.” Any better? No? That’s because the two examples are grammatically the same.
When people use the phrase “women and women of color,” they are unintentionally insinuating that women of color aren’t women.
“Women and women of color” is harmful to women of color, period. People don’t realize the harm they are causing simply because there are a lot of nuances to be aware of when discussing the intersection of gender and race, and it’s new to many. I want to set the record straight: the phrase “women and women of color” is othering because it positions whiteness as the default.
Correct: Women are not a monolith. “Women and women of color” almost gets it right since it acknowledges that women of different races have different experiences because of intersectionality (the instance of someone having multiple personal circumstances or traits that can increase their exposure to discrimination). People can face intersectional oppression when gender discrimination is combined with discrimination towards their race, class, disability, sexual orientation, and more.
When we aren’t specific and intentional, we leave people out. In well-intended efforts to be inclusive, companies sometimes exclude certain racial groups and make assumptions about who the default is when talking about women. The good news is that unintentional exclusion can be fixed with a mindset shift.
No one has the answer on exactly what to say in every situation, especially since language is constantly evolving along with society (refer to two of our other articles for our thoughts on Why We’re Using “Latina” Instead of “Latinx” and Trans-inclusivity and BLNA language). But in this case, there is an easy-ish fix:
If you mean all women, then you can say “women”
If you want to signal the importance of intersectionality, say:
- “women, especially women of color” or
- “women and people of color”
And, companies? Sometimes it’s okay to just say “women.” If you don’t explicitly have a racial focus, don’t force it. If there is a racial focus, don’t ignore it. There’s nothing wrong with specifically using the words “Black”, “Latina”, “Native American”, etc.
In the end, using the appropriate language comes down to three things:
- Context — Reflect on who you are speaking to and who is doing the speaking
- Timing — Re-evaluate your language as needed
- Intent — Be mindful of what your end goal is
Companies have become proud of the number of women they employ (as they should!), but more often than not this means White women and East Asian women. Gender parity is a win for inclusivity on some fronts, but we can’t claim victory until we have all women celebrating success. Companies need to be specific and intentional about the different identities their female employees hold so all women can continue to rise. To do this, companies should disaggregate their data by race and gender to get a better idea of who is in their workforce and where there are growth areas for diversity. With a foundation in data, leaders should feel more comfortable saying what they mean and breaking out of the monolith.
Oranges are fruit. Women of color are women. Be committed to your company’s diversity, authentic in your approach, and intentional in your language.