Like a whole lot of other people this past Sunday night, I watched the Oscars. And like many women, I felt a swell of inspiration when Patricia Arquette used her moment in the spotlight to bring attention to gender pay equality. “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights! It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!” It was an impassioned plea, and as the camera panned the crowd, you could see women of all races rising to their feet and cheering her on. (This was also this moment, which looks like Jesus is watching her from afar, that I am still giggling about. But I digress.) I appreciated Arquette’s call to action. I’m never annoyed when someone wants to use their platform for social justice issues, and I agree that it is completely ridiculous in this day and age that there is still such a disparity in working wages for men vs. women. I admire Arquette’s desire to advocate for this issue, but unfortunately some of her message was undermined a few minutes later, when backstage she said the following:
It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America, and we don’t because when they wrote Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. 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!
Now, I think Arquette probably had the best of intentions in this impassioned plea. I believe that she’s probably living a life in which she is attempting to be an ally to all marginalized groups. But we all have blind spots, and we all know that intention and effect are not always the same thing. And unfortunately , the effect of her “callout” to LGBT people and people of color was to alienate and dismiss. Particularly as she stood on a platform of privilege at the Oscars that has so often alienated people of color. Especially this year. (Parading out every actor of color they could find to present awards did not negate the fact that Selma was so categorically snubbed.) I consider myself a feminist, but I don’t believe it’s appropriate or timely to tell other groups that experience discrimination that it’s OUR time, or that this fight is one they must take up. Here’s why: The struggle for equality for people of color and the LGBT community is still ongoing. These are not issues of inequality that have been solved by any means. While it may be time to fight for equal wages, it is also still very much the time to fight for racial equality and LGBT rights. Asking marginalized people groups to help, as if their time has passed, is dismissive. Black women and LGBT women are already heavily involved in feminism. As my friend Heather said, in a post called “Patricia Arquette wants people of color to fight for women. What have I been doing?”:
To be told that, as a woman of color and a bisexual woman, I have not been doing enough for “women” – by which I can only assume she means “white women” – in the quest for gender equality is not only incredibly hurtful to those of us who check many boxes when it comes to identity, but also a harmful point of view. In saying that people of color and LGBT people need to now support white women in their fight for equal pay continues the deep rift between women of color feminists and their – our – white counterparts.
While I certainly don’t have the statistics to back this up, I can anecdotally say that my black and LGBT friends seem even more engaged in gender equality issues that my white friends. There are far more women who can join the fight without singling out women of color. Women make up about half of the population in the US. It’s estimated that about 3.5% of the adult population in the US are LGBT, and about 12.6% of the population is black. If anyone needs a call-out for standing up for women, it’s other white women sitting in the privilege seat. But to challenge minority and marginalized groups as the people who need to carry the mantle does not make sense, when there are so many others who can pick up the cause. There is already a well-documented tension between feminists and black women. As Nyasha Junior says:
“When white women say “we,” the side-eye from African American women swiftly follows. African American women have had a stormy relationship with the notion of women’s rights. Arquette’s remarks are another reminder of the many reasons why some African American women do not identify themselves as feminists. The link between the term “feminist” and white women’s activism on behalf of other white women is such that some African American women shun the label, though they may be deeply committed to women’s equality.”
The struggle for people of color and the LGBT community is exhausting. People who are already constant advocates for their own marginalization are likely worn thin, and may or may not have the energy to champion other causes, which is their call and their right to opt out. I am grateful for the many women of color and LGBT women who are working hard to champion their gender, but I will never place expectation on them to put that cause over the other intersecting issues. Instead, I will do my best to advocate for women but also to be an ally to other marginalized groups, without getting into some kind of oppression olympics that asks one group to set aside their struggle for my own.