Commentary Race

As a Multiracial Woman, This Is Why I Need Intersectional Feminism

Lara Witt

Cultural change requires me and others who benefit from being light-skinned or multiracial to use our privilege to lift up the ways in which our marginalized brothers and sisters are discriminated against by those within, and outside of, their own communities.

Growing up, I witnessed the relationship between my white father and my Kenyan and Indian mother. There existed a sense of dominance: My father always thought he was right and intellectually superior to my mother. He often patronized and ridiculed her in front of our friends and family.

As a teenager, I didn’t know any better—I used to respect him more than I did her.

It took me ten years of unpacking my internalized misogyny and racism to see that their dynamic was never based on a true sense of equality. My mother made herself smaller for my father. She quieted and diminished herself and her ethnicities for him, because as she later told me, she’d rather remain silent than respond to his condescension.

She also raised my sister and me in a way that suppressed our Kenyan and Indian heritage. When I asked her about that, she told me it was because my father didn’t speak Punjabi or Swahili and wouldn’t be able to understand us if we spoke a language other than English.

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As I began to learn about intersectional feminism, I realized that the way my father treated my mother was not only because she was a woman—he didn’t seem to talk that way to white women—but because she was Black.

I never want to ignore my mother’s pain again.

As a multiracial woman, I am both privileged and oppressed. I’ve come to understand that I need intersectional feminism to critique and fight against both racism and sexism. I learned of intersectional feminism from the writings of critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who explains it as such:

The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.

Cultural change requires me and others who benefit from being light-skinned or multiracial to use our privilege to lift up the ways in which our marginalized brothers and sisters are discriminated against by those within, and outside of, their own communities.

I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. There was never a single moment of my life, either there or here in the United States, where I felt like I belonged. There is a certain loneliness in being multiracial. You never quite know where you belong, and you’re always yearning for a sense of community. I don’t identify with the feeling of intense nationalism; I am completely unpatriotic, but I am proud of my Black and brown heritage.

Intersectionality has taught me to look critically at how both oppression and privilege coexist for me as a multiracial woman.

I benefit from certain privileges that dark-skinned people do not, because I look more ethnically ambiguous. I grew up with people telling me I was “lucky” to be lighter-skinned than both my mother and sister. I also benefit from privileges my Black mother doesn’t have: I went to a private school, I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism, I speak two languages, I have two passports, I am able-bodied, and I am cisgender. I am privileged.

But I am also oppressed: I am a woman of color, I am bisexual, I am financially poor, I work for hourly wages at a restaurant because I can’t find a full-time journalism job, I have no health insurance, and I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from being sexually assaulted.

Also, it can be difficult to fight against white supremacy among my white family members who don’t understand what it’s like to have a multiracial perception of race and racism.

I have been in several arguments with a white feminist relative who refuses to acknowledge the ways in which racism works. It is painful. Her perception of my Kenyan and Indian origins works like racism-liteshe thinks those origins are cool and interesting and make me look pretty, but she doesn’t acknowledge the oppression that accompanies those origins.

I’ve ended up in tears over relatives’ racist remarks about Black people, and the exotification of my appearance by my own family. I love themthey helped raise mebut it adds another layer of complexity when they’re trying to erase my Blackness and brownness.

It’s a strange sensation to know that parts of your white family were and are racist when half of you represents those they don’t see as equal.

And it’s not just my family members. On more than one occasion white people who have mistaken me for being Spanish or Italian have said horrible anti-Black or anti-Indian things in my presencethe sort of racist things they feel safe saying when they think only white people are around.

As I grew up, watching racism and sexism play out in my own home and in my community, I vowed never to let racism and sexism be part of my adult life.

But you cannot fight against white supremacy and heteropatriarchy without addressing your own privilege and racial biases. That’s what I have had to do.

I use writing and my interpersonal communications to combat such toxicity: It’s my goal to critique and confront any instance of racism or misogyny in the various ways they manifest themselves. Often, it’s during social interactions at work or on Twitter. I have always considered writing as an act of rebellion and activism, and I write and tweet about my personal experiences with street harassment, sexual assault, and racist microaggressions in my social life. It’s my hope that others will be less afraid to confront such things in their own lives.

I married someone who is both a feminist ally and anti-racist, and as a white man, he consistently deconstructs and sheds his own internal biases and privileges, and confronts others on their racism and sexism. This requires a lot of self-awareness and constant work, but our relationship is stronger because of it.

I have come to realize that I must embrace intersectional feminism to use my privilege to fight for those who are more marginalized than I am, as well to fight against the oppression I experience as a multiracial woman.

In my own life, in my family life, and in my marriage, I have to push myself to create change, and so must we all.

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