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Feminism and Racial Justice

How does feminism influence white Americans’ perceptions of discrimination faced by others?

It’s a double-edged sword.

By: M. Brielle Harbin

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Following the 2013 acquittal of the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin — an unarmed Black teenager who was walking home in Sanford, Florida — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi cofounded the Black Lives Matter movement.

In 2018, Latinx organizers and activists rallied to protect migrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

In 2020, Asian Americans encountered heightened prejudice as COVID-19 spread across the globe and former President Donald Trump coined the disease, “the Chinese virus” and “Kung flu.”

What each of these examples hold in common is non-white Americans facing prejudice and discrimination stemming from their racial/ethnic identity.

In our recent article, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free: how feminist identification influences white Americans’ willingness to recognize and respond to racial discrimination,” my co-author and I examined how identifying as a feminist relates to white women and men’s perception that Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans experience greater (less) discrimination than white Americans.

We refer to this concept as respondents’ perception of relative discrimination.

Using a 2016 national study, we tracked respondents’ perception of relative discrimination with a measure that asked whether African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and non-Hispanic white Americans face a great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, or no discrimination in the United States.

We then used these variables to create our perception of relative discrimination measures, which subtract respondents’ perception of the amount of discrimination each group faces from their perception of the amount of discrimination faced by white Americans. In total, we analyzed three different relative discrimination measures:

  • white Americans vs. African Americans,
  • white Americans vs. Hispanic Americans,
  • and white Americans vs. Asian Americans.

We found that white Americans who identify more strongly as feminists perceive that other racial groups face more discrimination than white Americans. More specifically, those who identify more strongly as feminists perceived that Black Americans are the most discriminated against group, followed by Hispanic and then Asian Americans.

The figure below illustrates this finding. It plots white respondents’ perception of relative discrimination toward racial/ethnic group by strength of feminist identification.

Figure by M. Brielle Harbin and Michele F. Margolis

While our respondents’ ability to perceive discrimination toward other racial and ethnic groups is a promising finding, the distinctions they made can be a double-edged sword.

In particular, these findings could be viewed as troubling because they may reinforce harmful racial hierarchies in the United States. These racial hierarchies categorize and rank groups often based on their proximity to whiteness including Eurocentric cultural values. These rankings can be harmful because they may divide groups by encouraging members to compare their degree of oppression and compete for limited resources.

Thus, the finding that white feminists perceive discrimination faced by racial and ethnic groups differently may prove troubling for broader efforts to forge diverse coalitions responding to racial injustice.

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M. Brielle Harbin

M. Brielle Harbin

I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy. I study social identities, media, and U.S. public opinion.

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