Searching for Women of Color

Women of Color in fashion ad

(Image source)

I decided to run a little ‘Net-search experiment on women of color (WOC) the other day. I think we can all admit doing this kind of (re)searching to look at social issue climate is something almost everyone does. In some ways the Internet offers a lot of insight into the public imaginary and what’s going on people’s minds. But we do have to dig. A lot. And even then it’s near impossible to rummage through the multitudes of crap to get to just a fraction of what’s substantial online. That’s where search engines – which employ pretty powerful algorithms for searching the vast endless sea that is web content – become well, kind of irresistible. What happens when I Google this? What happens if I Google that? We really do live in the age of the Googlization of everything, as Siva Vaidhyanathan suggests. So, I wondered, has information about women of color been Googlized, too?


So this particular morning I was thinking about racialized gender bias; how women of color experience sexism if different racist ways. My memories rushed online as I thought back to all the articles and posts I’d read on WOC over the last months. Of course there’d been narrative patterns in what I’d read, but the webbed interconnectivity of those patterns, the outline, wasn’t always something I paid attention to in a big-picture way. And so then of course I couldn’t help it, I thought, “I wonder what happens if I Google labels like ‘Black women,’ ‘Native women,’ ‘Latina women,’ ‘Asian women’ and look at the results aside each other? What will I see?”


First some disclaimers. One, I fully recognize Google’s algorithms tailor to user history so what I got wouldn’t be the same as what you’d get. Two, I acknowledge Net searches are snapshots in time and results change by the probable millisecond so my results should not be understood as static by any means. Three, Google searching is not “formal” social science research so this post should not be taken as hard evidence but transformative discussion. And four, the goal here is not to create a suffer-meter for gauging “who has it worst.” Rather the point is that all women of color are painfully oppressed but their oppressions are constructed by oppressors in different ways.

Disclaimers now disclaimed. Here were the first-page results of my searches:

Googling WOC infographic


Unsurprisingly women of color were often understood, shaped (and objectified) through their appearance. For example, a search for “Black women” turned up these top three results: “The 30 Most Beautiful Black Women in History,” “Why Are Black Women Considered Unattractive?” and, “Beautiful Black Women.” Of all four WOC searches I conducted combined, 51 percent of results referred to physical appearance, beauty and sexuality. Before we continue though let’s make something abundantly clear. This so-called beauty and desirability is a mainstream construct made by predominantly a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered male gaze. Which perhaps explains what I discovered next.

Amongst these racialized beauty narratives there were flagrant patterns impossible to ignore. Results of a search for “Black women” produced only 30 percent referring to Black women’s physical appearance, beauty and sexuality; there were no ads for sex/dating/marriage. The results of a search for “Native women” produced only 9 percent referring to Native women’s physical appearance, beauty and sexuality and again, no ads for sex/dating/marriage. Regardless of the fact WOC are likely glad not to see sex/dating/marriage ads, the complete absence of said ads combined with the low number of references to attractiveness was glaring to me and seemed to indicate something about how dominant male gaze racializes away the desirability of Black and Native women in an erasing, subtracting, and negating manner.

I was forced to contemplate a colonial mindset that seemed to emerge. Black and Native American women are generally understood (rightfully so) as having been in America a long, long time. Did it follow then that dominant male perception of their beauty in a region already “conquered” seemed to trend toward disinterested, callous or uncaring? Consider that by contrast when I shifted my search to women typically stereotyped as immigrants and foreigners, male perception morphed into one that reveled in the mysterious and hungrily desired to own and devour it. The results of a search for “Latina women” produced 42 percent referring to physical appearance, beauty and sexuality and 25 percent ads for sex/dating/marriage. Elevated exoticization was blatantly revealed in titles like “Engage the Exotic – Spanish Women” and “Meet Latin Women for Marriage, and Exotic Latin Bride.”


The query for “Asian women” produced a particularly severe level of fetishization. This search turned up roughly twice as many results (23 for Asian women compared with 13 for Blacks, 11 for Natives and 12 for Latinas) but the extra results were accounted for by the fact that almost half of entries for Asian women were advertisements for sex, dating, and marriage. A whopping 87 percent of results referred to Asian women’s physical appearance, beauty, and sexuality and 48 percent were ads for sex/dating/marriage. The search for “Asian women” was the only one to list sex ads in the main result column first. Additionally their acute hyper-sexualization was the only one framed in especial relationship to white men: “Asian Women Want YOU NOW,” “42 Seriously Hot Asian Women To Get You Through Monday,” “Rules of Attraction: Why White Men Marry Asian Women…” and “Asian Women And White Men.”

Search engine results


Yet whether women face superficial racialized “undesirability” or fetishized “desirability” we must understand BOTH stereotypes are dominantly male-framed and as such BOTH are incredibly diminishing and oppressive to women of color. It is damaging and painful to have your natural beauty dismissed or cringed at. It is also damaging and scary to have your natural beauty treated like a strange fruit in need of rapid consumption. But either way – and this is the sexist piece for sure – too much time gets spent scrutinizing women’s appearance and then women by necessity are forced to do the same. I mean already the majority of this piece has been spent breaking down racialized beauty narratives. Case in point, when I ran my Google searches the number of results challenging stereotypes and identifying racial barriers while higher for Native women (63 percent), hovered at around half for Black and Native women and less than a third for Asian women. There was also a depressing dearth of results referring to women of color as leaders for progress and change: 38 percent for Black women, 36 percent for Native women, a small 17 percent for Latina women, and a miniscule 9 percent for Asian women.

Bringing us to the crux of the issue. What this little experiment confirmed to me was something I already knew; a Google search may be limited in its capacity/reliability as a research tool but there are some over-arching truths that exist everywhere. It’s undeniable that women of color in a sexist/racist society face very real, welded gender/racial barriers to thriving and succeeding holistically in their lives. It’s also undeniable that women of color often get reduced to their “looks” and when this happens, the pervasiveness of the gender/race-biased obstacles they actually face everyday — get reduced too.



World AIDS Day: Black Women, HIV/AIDS, and Racism

Today is World AIDS Day, when people around the globe stop to reflect on those lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is almost in its third decade. While many people may associate the disease with white, gay men because they were one of the groups initially infected and affected by HIV and among the most political vocal about it, the fact is the epidemic has changed.   Within the U.S., if you examine the epidemic across racial and ethnic groups, you will see that HIV/AIDS is not a disease that exclusively, or even primarily, affects whites.   Blacks and Latinos are increasingly affected by the disease, as this graph based on 2007 CDC statistics illustrates:

The changing nature of the epidemic is even more striking when you include gender.Today, black women are the group with the highest rates of new HIV/AIDS infections.  According to CDC:

  • African American women account for a majority of new AIDS cases (66% in 2006); white women and Latina women account for 17% and 16% of new AIDS cases, respectively.
  • African American women account for the largest share of new HIV infections among women (61% in 2006), an incidence rate nearly 15 times the rate among white women.   (For more detailed look at statistics about the epidemic’s impact on African Americans, see: “Black Americans and HIV/AIDS” compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, opens PDF.)

During the first decade of the epidemic, most social science research focused on changing individual behavior (e.g., wearing condoms, using clean needles) as the primary intervention strategy to prevent HIV infection, these efforts often failed in the face of complex settings of social inequality.  For example, telling a woman that her partner should wear a condom becomes a risky proposition if she is economically dependent on that man for survival and he sees the request to wear a condom as an affront of some kind.   Thus, researchers and community activists interested in stopping the spread of the disease began to look at the dynamics of sexuality within a broader social and cultural factors.

Just as an increasing amount of research demonstrates that mothers who experience racism are more likely to have low-birth-weight babies, the experience of racism and sexism are part of the social and cultural factors affecting HIV/AIDS rates among African American women. One way to measure this combined racism and sexism, is to look at what national leaders have to say about the HIV/AIDS epidemic among black women.  In 2004, when journalist and vice-presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill raised this important issue in the form of a question to then-candidates John Edwards and Dick Cheney, neither one could stammer out a coherent answer.  It was clear that the alarming rates of HIV/AIDS among black women were simply not a concern for powerful political leaders (who also happened to be white men).

Some of the most exciting research that attempts to address this inequality is the pioneering intervention studies conducted by Gina Wingood and Ralph DiClemente of Emory University who, drawing on Connell’s gender and power theory, began to think differently about HIV prevention for young, black women.  Wingood and DiClemente developed an intervention study for African American adolescent girls that used workshops that emphasized ethnic and gender pride along with the usual HIV-prevention information.  Basically, the researchers included a consciousness-raising group about race and gender along with the usual health education information.  These positive messages about racial and gender pride are important for enabling and empowering young, black women who encounter a layered burden of racism, sexism and often, poverty.

However, not all black women who are HIV-infected are poor, as several activists remind us. Marvelyn Brown, for example, diagnosed at age 19 with HIV/AIDS has become an outspoken proponent and visible spokesperson for HIV-prevention among young, black women.  The author of Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, Brown has won several awards for her activism. Rae Lewis-Thornton, diagnosed at age 23, was featured on the cover of Essence magazine in 1994 and described as, “I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS.” It’s been fifteen years and, fortunately, Lewis-Thornton is still very much alive and an tireless activist.  Yet, she struggles with the legacy of her diagnosis (powerful video interview with Lewis-Thornton here).   And, young black women who are allies, are harnessing the power of new media to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, such as Karyn and Luvvie of the Red Pump Project.

The growing epidemic among black women in the U.S. reflects a global trend.  The World Health Organization’s estimate (via is that there are over three million women with HIV in the world, most of them in Africa. In fact, one in 50 women in sub-Saharan Africa is infected with HIV.  AIDS is the leading cause of death for women ages 20-40 in major cities in the Americas, Western Europe, and Africa.   The fact that this disease is shape-shifting into one what disproportionately affects black women both here in the U.S. and globally raises important questions about whether or not we will, collectively, be able to put aside our racism (and sexism) to address this epidemic.

Today, as you go to a service, attend a vigil, or just hold a good thought or observe a moment of silence on this World AIDS Day, reflect also on the ways that racism shapes the epidemic and who we lose because of it.  If you care about racial and gender equality, you need to start paying attention to HIV/AIDS.  IF you’re concerned about HIV/AIDS, you need to start learning about racism and sexism.

For more on the public health crisis affecting black women, you can watch this video (approximately 27 minutes) which features a discussion with C. Virginia Fields, President of National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Monica Sweeney, MD, Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Marvelyn Brown.

[This post is from the archive: 12/01/09.]

Speaking Truth to Power: Spotlight on Women of Color Bloggers

Audre Lorde wrote that “… what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect” (excerpted here). Audre left us in 1992, but her legacy continues. Today, there’s a network of women of color (WOC) bloggers that are bringing the tradition of Audre Lorde to the digital age. Despite the disabling rhetorics about the digital divide, and the near fetishism of the white-male-mainstream-blogger, these radical women of color speak truth to power. And, since the New York Times is highlighting the work of one WOC blogger at the Democratic Convention (hat tip Pam via Twitter), I thought it would be a good time to highlight just a few of these brave women here:

The Angry Black Woman

Diary of an Anxious Black Woman

Aunt Jemima’s Revenge

Black Looks

Brownfemipower / La Chola


Dark Daughta

Maria Niles

Pam’s House Blend

Professor Kim

What About Our Daughters


Lots of these blogs are covering mainstream politics, such as the presidential election, yet these voices are rarely the ones that mainstream news outlets read and draw on for commentary.   Let’s hope that’s changing.  Perhaps these blogs can offer a different angle of vision in the social and political landscape, while providing a mechanism for speaking truth to power.