How to be a Woman (of Color)

Colors come in many shades.

I am a feminist. I know I’ve probably lost half of my readers with that sentence, but I am. The British feminist Caitlin Moran has the perfect explanation of why I’m a feminist:

“a) Do you have a vagina?

b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said yes to both, congratulations you’re a feminist.”

I read Moran’s book. I loved Moran’s book. She is exactly what our generation of feminism needs, taking female empowerment out of our lofty academic ivory towers and catapulting the issues back to the streets in a whirl of “breasts” and “lulus” and “cunts.” EQUAL PAY! RIGHTS TO REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH! All very important things, right?

But as of last week, her message has been lost because of a Twittersphere controversy. When asked if she would call out Lena Dunham for not representing women of color in “Girls,” her response was, “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.”

As crass and thoughtless as her response was, and as much as it pained me, a woman of color, to read it, I find the backlash to be problematic for two reasons:

1) Just because stories from Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham, etc., do not encompass the experiences of all women ever (which is an unrealistic expectation to begin with) does not mean that her voice should be discounted. Feminism has enough to deal with without people saying, “Your perspective about women, as a woman isn’t important because you can’t speak to race and classism.” That’s just silliness.

2) How in God’s name could these women possibly know enough to be the representation of women of color in pop culture?

I think the important lesson we can take away from the backlash against middle-class white feminists in popular media is that there is a demand for stories from women of color. There are narratives specific to WoC that are not voiced because of our lack of representation in mass media. I’m not just talking about stories cushioned in theory, or a casual mention in the greater dialogue to be politically correct. I’m talking about women, wonderful, beautiful, intelligent ethnic women refusing to live in a scary world anymore, reaching across ethnicity and class and saying, “¡¡¡¡no más!!!!”

Yet “pop feminism” hasn’t expressed the seriousness of WoC being objectified in a way that is damaging to how we envision ourselves and our relationships to others. I know this is super cliché, but I do want to have kids one day, and if I should have a daughter, I never, ever want her to be looked at as a hunk of meat with a couple of holes. Yep, people of color, we are still there. That takes us solidly back to pre-second-wave feminism.

It started for me when I was 14 or 15. Grown men following me, yelling after me, pulling up to me on the side of the road while talking a walk and chasing me as I try to run away. I was taught to ignore them: “it’s a cultural thing and laughing it off is the best policy.” When, earlier this month, an older man pulled up to me as I was waiting at a school bus stop for the little girl that I babysit in East Rock, and hit on me in a repulsive manner, mirroring the actions one might take when soliciting a prostitute, I decided to ask questions to my peers, talk about it and take note of how often I’m harassed, and by who. BIG SURPRISE: Aggressive cat-calling is racialized. In my experience as a black woman, the perpetrators are mostly minority men towards minority women. In fact, last weekend I was picked out of a group of white people on the street, and watched as a group of young men pantomimed air-humping me. Thanks guys, that’s exactly how to get to a woman’s heart.

Just think for a second about the psychological ramifications of being objectified over and over again in such a disgusting manner for years. We’re not just talking about women feeling helpless and inferior to men, but also women of color feeling less respected and important than women who don’t have to tolerate harassment all of the time. Also, if our family members, friends and neighbors can do it, men outside of our communities can look down on us too, right?

Now I am not saying at all that all minority men are like this to all minority women. Hey, it might even be just a few guys (unclear), but if the goal is equality, it can’t be laughed off, because you know what? Even if you are a tough broad and you can handle having your personal space invaded or being leered at on a daily basis, you have a moral obligation to the next generation to not tolerate being threatened.

Caitlin Moran isn’t going to do it for us because she’s fighting another battle. She might have something to say in terms of support, but when it comes down to it, we need our own representation in the media. WE NEED MORE VOICES.

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