Sexism and Racism

Diane Balser-From a talk at a Women Leaders’ Workshop in England, November 2005

The Fourth Draft Policy on Women’s Liberation is a policy for the present situation. Although it stems from our earlier policy, it reflects our current relationship to the major changes that have happened for women in the intervening twenty years. A critical part of the policy has to do with race.

We’ve made the elimination of racism the primary issue facing the RC Communities as a whole, not because racism is objectively more important than any other oppression, but because in this period racism is the oppression that confuses all the other oppressions. If you don’t look at racism, you really won’t be able to work on any of the other oppressions. Another way of saying it: The other oppressions can’t move unless you move on racism.

How does that affect us as women? In wide-world organizations there have been men (often white men, but not exclusively) who have told women to wait to work on sexism until racism has been worked on. That isn’t what our policy means. It means us as women working out these questions: “How do we make the battle against racism central to our struggle as women? How does the work on racism assist us essentially in fighting the battle against sexism?”


Today in our policy, we look at racism for the way it divides women. Many other things happen with racism, but racism is also important in terms of the ways women are divided.

An obstacle in the battle against sexism has been divisions imposed among women. (Race is most visible, but we’re divided in all sorts of ways.) From the very beginning of the evolution of sexism came internalized sexism.

One of the earliest Old Testament Bible stories is that of Abraham and Sarah. It is found also, told differently, in the Quran [Koran], where it becomes the story of the beginning of the Arab people. This story has affected Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Sarah can’t conceive, as she is at least a hundred years old; so Hagar, her handmaiden, is given to Abraham, and they conceive a child, Ishmael. After Hagar conceives, Sarah does conceive, and she makes Abraham kick Hagar out. Of course, Abraham is seen as the tool of Sarah; but the point is that the division between women accompanies sexism. Sexism is the ownership of women. Abraham owned both women. But the division between the two women existed at the same time, where one served the other (and even gave birth for the “benefit” of the other). Even where one woman owns another woman, ultimately the man owns them both. If those women had not been divided and pitted against each other, sexism would have been highlighted for what it was, rather than obscured by the acting out of internalized sexism.

That division around reproduction continues in a contemporary form. Does a woman have a right to have another woman give birth to her children? Does a white woman have a right to adopt a child targeted by racism or a child from another country? A group of Asian women in the United States have been discharging and trying to set a policy about the adoption of Chinese daughters by white parents in the Western world. These are issues to work on and to think about, ones that affect our immediate lives.

Racism was not necessarily there in the beginning. It’s a relatively contemporary phenomenon. When Barbara Love (International Liberation Reference Person for People of African Heritage) talks about her history, she says that racism accompanied colonialism, and that oppression by color didn’t exist before that. But the underpinnings certainly existed.

We have a little bit in the women’s policy about colonialism. You see its effects particularly in England, where many women targeted by racism inhabited countries that were colonized by what is Great Britain. And in the United States such effects are seen more and more. For us the racism came in through genocide of Native people and then through slavery, but today it’s also seen directed at immigrants of countries that are the direct product of U.S. imperialism (South East Asians, and so on).


There is the effect of racism on white women and the effect on women targeted by racism. For women targeted by racism racism has involved a sort of systematic denial of femaleness in various ways, as well as the insistence that women’s issues are not their issues, even though women targeted by racism are oppressed by race, by gender, and by a combination of the two.

Like women targeted by racism, we white women are usually oppressed in some way in addition to being female—as working-class, Jewish, Catholic, Lesbian, and so on. But in terms of how race sits on us, white women are certainly in the oppressor group and are viewed as “privileged.”

The privilege of being white and the oppression via sexism are connected and hard to separate. For instance, the standard of beauty in the wide world is of a white Gentile woman. But “beautiful” Gentile women often receive heavy abuse. They have been generally forced to be silent and forced into all sorts of things in order to make them whatever it means to be a traditionally “attractive” person—that is, someone who doesn’t have her own voice, who isn’t outspoken, who doesn’t have her own mind as a human being, and who gets easily targeted. So privilege is a confusing word, as indeed it is when looking at any privilege within the context of oppressive society.

There are economic benefits to being white women. White women earn more than women targeted by racism. However, since, statistically, black men earn more than white women, we can see that looking at one dimension (race) and not looking at others (in this case gender) can leave out important aspects of everyday life.

Racism and gender overlap around reproduction. Generally speaking, the image of the owning-class woman was a woman who gave birth to children, probably under hard circumstances; but that was her only job. Because classically she didn’t have to raise the children (that was done by other women), the owning-class woman remained physically fit. We have images (I don’t know how real) of the owning-class woman who rode horseback and played tennis into her sixties and seventies, whereas in contrast most other women’s bodies were used up by heavy caretaking of many children, sometimes including the children of other women. So access to physical fitness and to a positive body image has been reserved for a certain group of women of a certain class. This has been a tremendous source of division among women, as well as a source of accompanying health issues.

At one time it was owning-class women who were hospitalized for “mental health” difficulties, often when they spoke up too much or defied the class system. Again, you have this connection between privilege and oppression distresses for women.

The other place for white women to work is certainly on our relationship to men targeted by racism. Because we have been taught to be both scared of them and attracted to them, we carry two sets of distresses. In the United States, white women were held up particularly for black men to hook their distresses on. (And many black men were killed for crimes against white women that they never committed.) Most white women are taught to be scared of rape and violence directed toward them by black men, whereas most rape actually happens within races. The fear keeps white women in a box. We don’t go places. It limits our physical mobility. Again, in counseling, how do you open up that material?

There’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s often hard to get to. Oppressor material interlocks with your oppression (such as your oppression as a female). It can therefore be hard to work on. Our minds don’t automatically get to work on it. At these kinds of workshops, you can work on things more easily, away from the heavy restimulations of everyday life.

Let’s do a mini-session. Black women work together, and white women with women in their own constituency.

Questions for white women to consider in sessions:

•      Where do you see yourself as a female in relation to race?

•      Do you have black friends outside RC?

•      What’s your closest relationship to black men?

•      How do you feel about your looks in relation to women targeted by racism?

•      Do we have women targeted by racism who serve us in service roles? (We do get to work on that. As women, we were servants, and then got other women to serve us.)

•      White working-class women, did you work with racially mixed groups of women?

We get to discharge on all those things. 

Last modified: 2014-11-19 14:00:46+00