During her acceptance speech at the Oscars last Sunday, actress Patricia Arquette made an attempt to rally white feminists by calling for equal pay. On the surface, Arquette’s standard issue rallying cry was the sort of policy-lite that could be hashtagged and memed for days. However, things went south backstage when she was asked to elaborate her onstage comments. In a breathtakingly ignorant move, Arquette asserted that white women had done their part in agitating for the civil rights of “everybody else” (read: blacks and gays)—and now it’s their turn. Her response betrayed a fundamental flaw in mainstream, American feminism—the repeated failure to acknowledge the socioeconomic ramifications of intersectionality. In other words, the movement’s failure to recognize that one can be both a feminist and a poc and even, by god, LGBT. She offered the following wisdom behind the curtain:
“And 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”.
In her self-righteous bid to briefly don the “activist cape”, Arquette denied the ongoing struggle of people of color and LGBT citizens. Her reflexive universalization of the experiences of leisure-class white women revealed an unsophisticated understanding of the fight for equality. The actress’s failure to recognize the interplay of race, class, and gender mirrors broader issues within feminist movement.
Black feminists in the academy long ago recognized the immutable reality of intersectional identities. Pioneering work by Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term intersectionality) and bell hooks, among many others, attacks the notion that one has to be either a feminist or a woc. Most feminists of color recognize that systems of oppression do not operate in isolation, and thus reject the dictate that the struggle for minority rights is a separate and competing agenda.
Unfortunately, the popular imagination still clings to the framework first put forth by Betty Friedan. This is a framework centered on middle-class, college educated white women. Today, the daughters of Friedan’s peers want to lean in and be compensated appropriately for it. Essentially, these women want to compete on the battlefield of capitalism and achieve financial parity with their white, male counterparts.
Arquette’s appeal conveniently ignored the fact that black women and Latinas routinely earn less, dollar for dollar, than their white peers. An analysis of Census data conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that while white women earn 78% of the earnings of their white male counterparts, black women only earn 64%, and Hispanic women make even less at 53%. A quick look at the numbers muddles Arquette’s simplistic argument for fair pay.
The data collected by AAUW shows that race has an almost decisive impact on the lifetime earnings of women of color when compared to those of white women. Furthermore, deeper analysis of the numbers demonstrates that higher education amongst women of color does little to mitigate the persistence of the pay gap. Arquette’s use of a heteronormative, white, male-vs-female dualist framework to attack gender-based pay discrepancies erases the unique challenges faced by women with intersecting identities.
Ultimately, rather than taking a moment to seriously question an economic system that is highly stratified and marked by crippling inequality, the actress instead chose to unconsciously endorse a mode of production that must necessarily keep a significant percentage of the population on the bottom rungs. Instead of insisting on parity in a grossly unfair system, Arquette would have been better served to call for the structural changes that would make such concerns largely null and void. Perhaps next time Patty, you can struggle for women across the race-class-sexuality spectrum.
Actually…don’t bother. Intersectional feminists can agitate just fine for our damn selves.