We've Been Leaning In: "The Nightly Show" on Patricia Arquette’s Problematic Oscars Speech

by Brianna Cox

Patricia Arquette roused many feelings after she spoke about women’s equality at the Academy Awards last Sunday. But her call for wage equality was also an age-old call sounded by many a white feminist throughout history.

In her acceptance speech, Arquette thanked her loved ones and the cast and crew of Boyhood, before saying:
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!
This seems innocuous, perhaps, to the untrained ear, or to someone who likes to throw out the problematic baby in the proverbial bathwater. She continued afterwards, telling the press:
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!
Arquette started out strong – she really did. Nothing in the first section and leading up to this is untrue. However, the Constitution was not written for black people (who were slaves at the time) or LGBTQ people (whose sexuality were often criminalized) either. So, yes, there are absolutely inequalities that affect women because of the white heteropatriarchy that founded our society, but those issues also affect people of color and queer people, just as much—if not more.

“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!”

This is a doozy. It is absolutely time that both men and women alike understand the necessity for gender equality, including the need for equal pay. However, this recognition of sexism should not and cannot come at the expense of the issues of queer, gay, and transgender folks, or black women and other women of color (who may also identify as LGBT).

Luckily, there have been many women—particularly Black women—who have been very public about expressing why Arquette's speech missed the mark on being a true feminist call to action: its lack of intersectionality and inclusivity. On Thursday night's episode of The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore gathered a panel of Black women to discuss the problematic nature of Arquette's sentiments: writer and content producer Issa Rae, professor and author Christine Greer, comedian Marina Franklin, and New York Live co-host Jacque Reid.

As Patricia Arquette's speech centered on closing the pay gap, the four panelists discussed their experiences as Black women in work place (who traditionally make even less than white women, something Arquette doesn't seem to acknowledge).

This is why an understanding of history, coded language, and intersectionality of identities are all imperative when having honest discussions about gender equality.


Greer brings up how the inequality of black women in the workplace has historical roots by bringing up FDR's New Deal: "[FDR] had to make some concessions with white Southerners, and so he excluded black domestics. If you exclude black domestics… then we know over time, there's a lack of wealth that's been able to be built. Decade after decade, black people—black women in particular—were paid less."

White feminists also have a hard time accepting how their own heroes for women's equality in the U.S. left out and promoted the oppression of women of color. Suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for the voting rights of white cisgender straight women… and not for very much else. As Angela Davis notes in her book Women, Race, and Class, Anthony and Stanton fought for the rights of white cisgender straight women like themselves, at the expense of black men getting the vote (whom in their speeches they denigrate by calling them "niggers" and "sambos," and question their intelligence), and at the complete omission of black women.

Additionally, from Angela Davis to the Wages for Housework Movement in the 1970s to the present-day, both black women/women of color and queer women have always sought equality for all women in their movements (be that wage equality, reproductive rights, or whatever else). Arquette’s assumption and implication that women of color and queer women have only been focusing on issues that affect one particular aspect of their identity is 100% false, and quite misguided.

Coded Language

Christine Greer brings up the way code words and language are used to discriminate against women of color in the work place, in a way where white people don't have to take responsibility for the problematic nature of what they're saying. Coded language means implying something with your words while not actually saying it.

"We know with Patricia Arquette, when she says 'women,' she actually means white women," Greer explained about the troubling nature of the actress's speech.

Arquette may not have realized how her words came across, but her sentiments basically boiled down to: Because straight white women have helped fight for the rights of gay people and black people (even though, historically, they have not always done so), those other oppressed groups should put down their ongoing battles in order to help white women (who, again, have not always helped them). In addition, this is asking black women to choose their gender over their race, or asking gay people to choose their gender over their sexual orientation, which is nearly impossible to do.

When speaking on the unique issues that African-American women might face in the workplace, Reid expressed, "I had a manager tell me one time that she was afraid of me. And anybody who knows me, knows I'm not [coming] in with a gun or gang signs or anything like that. I'm just, you know, a typical black girl. And she told me she was afraid of me because I'm a strong woman, I'm opinionated, and I say what I feel needs to be said."

This point is particularly important, as Patricia Arquette failed to recognize the way that white women can sometimes make it uncomfortable or unwelcoming for women of color in the workplace, which also affects our ability to advance professionally and close the pay gap.


Intersectionality, or how differing identities intersect, is important as well. Often, white feminists speak about their own experiences, not understanding how their race or class affords them privilege not experienced by other women.

Jacque Reid brings up the focus on "leaning in," Sheryl Sandberg's philosophy of how women can push back against the glass ceiling. "Black women, we've been leaning in forever. The problem is no one is letting us advance… we get pushed back."

Black women and other women of color, due to their racial identities, have less societal privilege than white women. Queer and gay people have differing privilege as well. While some of them may be white, and are therefore afforded racial privilege, the heteronormitivity of our culture—or the fact that being heterosexual is seen as the status quo—makes them oppressed in that regard. Essentially, women of color, queer women, and queer women of color face multiple discriminations. Thus, when people speak about the need to understand of intersectionality when talking about "fighting for equal rights", these layered discriminations are often ignored, as Patricia Arquette did in her speech. What this does is imply that the struggles of people of color and queer people do not exist, and that (straight) white women are the gate keepers and experts of what all other women need.

These reasons are the issues many queer women and women of color took with Patricia Arquette’s speech: not because we thought she was mean-spirited, not because we like to be argumentative. But because letting non-inclusive white feminism slide leads to more perpetuation of oppressive systems—and if one is in the fight for equality, they should fight for the equality for everyone.

Brianna Cox is regular contributor to For Harriet.

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