"The nationalism I seek is one that decolonizes the brown and female body as it decolonizes the brown and female earth." —Cherrie Moraga
Womyn and allies took to the streets in droves on the morning of Jan. 21, 2017 in what was positioned to be a collective effort to champion womyn’s rights, and protest our daily struggles and lived experiences. In a country that continues to make it perilous to be female in far too many spaces, womyn and men and even children from all walks raised their fists and picket signs in the name of equality, protection and liberty, making the rally the largest inaugural protest recorded in U.S. history.
Fast forward months later, and womyn of color are still reeling from the reality that hit us like a ton of bricks in cities throughout our nation: however powerful a moment of resistance against the misogynistic regime, the Women's March – in many respects – proved to be the antithesis of intersectionality, perpetuating the historical disallowance of black, brown, indigenous (et cetera, et cetera) voices and their varied forms of oppression.
VIBE Viva solicited a number of articles from womyn of color who responded to our call asking about their lived experiences as non-white womyn in the Unites States today. Some issued full-length essays, while others described their narratives in the form of short prose or poetry. Some were painfully honest, and others more nuanced with their respective truths. Some vehemently threw down the gauntlet at patriarchy, and others simply took up the challenge for themselves. In their own words, these are their stories…
Ynanna Djehuty: Midwife, Writer & Activist
There are poignant moments in which I’ve felt the gravity of serving Black and Latina women in pregnancy and childbirth. My journey as a midwife began as a doula out of a desire to learn more about my body and share this knowledge with women like me. As an AfroLatina, I had come to realize how much lack of information the community I am from has—low income, racially diverse with a predominance of Black and Latino people in the Bronx, experiences particularly in reproductive and maternal health. When I first learned how important my menstrual cycle was, I began to understand how the silence that so many women like me have been kept in regarding our bodies was detrimental to our health. It meant that healthcare professionals who did not always have our best interest in mind were making decisions for our bodies, often without our full understanding and consent. I became more interested in learning what else had been kept from us and ultimately landed in childbirth. Having become an activist in high school, keeping women of color [aware] of their bodies and the ideologies that keep them [ignorant], and how to create alternative statistics instead of becoming one, became a matter of human rights to me. Racism has created a national health crisis on all levels. This led me to becoming a midwife as I learned along the way what the big picture regarding state of reproductive and maternal health really was—a crisis.
I became a reproductive justice advocate in earnest when I was in my doula training the summer of 2010 in New Jersey. In one session, the facilitator was focusing on the maternal and infant outcomes for specifically African American women. The statistics and reality of birthing in the United States as a woman of color hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that people of color in this country suffered from health problems at a disproportionate rate than their white counterparts, but something about learning what it was like in pregnancy and childbirth struck a nerve. I have for most of my life considered childbirth and the creation of the family as the foundation of healthy communities. I was also aware and felt the pain of the ways in which the enslavement of Africans and its ongoing legacy broke the black family apart forcefully. Learning black women are about four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than our white counterparts, and black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday broke my heart completely. I knew I had to do something. I need to take direct action to help change these outcomes.
I’ve dedicated my doula work to helping solely Black, Latina and other marginalized women because of the health disparities. I will always advocate for safe, empowering perinatal care as a human right for all regardless of ability to pay while focusing on changing the outcomes for women of color specifically because I know firsthand what they are vulnerable to. I stand as part of a growing number of reproductive justice activists who take on birth justice because I know what is at stake. The sense of duty and the urgency of my work were born into my hands several times when I trained as a direct entry midwife about three years ago. There has been nothing as profound in my life as attending births and caring for women as a Black Latina midwife. Every child I caught in my hands was a human life that would be affected in the ideologies and institutions that would try to impede their self-determination as a person of color in a white supremacist system.
The reality women of color are facing can weigh heavy on me sometimes. I think of the ways the reproductive and maternal lives of marginalized women are shaped by violence and coercion because of race, class, age, sexuality, and other systems on a daily basis. Yet, I am driven by my work as a birthworker to see women of color empower themselves and fight for their right to autonomy over their bodies and choose the ways their reproductive lives unfold, from the prenatal to the postpartum, everything in between, and beyond. As someone who is not yet a parent, I am deeply inspired by the strength and resilience of women of color birthing and see it as an act of resistance. I am reminded that many of us were not meant to survive, given the genocide that is being carried out worldwide against people of African and Indigenous descent. Birthwork makes me remember that we will continue to defy what the systems of oppression want our story to be.
The way that we are born has an impact on the rest of our lives. The birthing process each woman has affects her and her family’s life forever. Working as a birthworker and raising awareness among women of color about their options and rights in childbearing, educating young women about their sexuality and reproductive justice, and advocating for the intersectional issues that also oppress them keeps me balanced. The most rewarding part of my work is seeing the children and families on their own individual journeys, knowing that I had a part in their birthing journey. I am reminded that my work is not in vain when I receive notes from mothers I have worked with affirming how my presence allowed them to stand in their power when they birthed. It is important that women of color are served by healthcare providers who look like them, understand their lives and the effects of racial oppression on them. My midwifery work allows me to see that another world is possible for people of color. —Ynanna Djehuty
Giovanna Acosta: Blogger
“Wait…you’re NOT a feminist?” She stared at me confounded.
“Do you advocate for equality of the sexes?” Of course I do.
“But, you’re NOT a feminist?!” She shrieked, her p**sy hat about to fall off her head from utter shock.
It’s a hard concept to explain (by which I mean, it’s a hard concept for her to understand), so I don’t.
“I guess I’m just not into labels,” I say and walk away.
As a woman of color it’s hard for me to subscribe to the brand of feminism that white women are constantly trying to sell me on. You know, the kind that says, “All Lives Matter” and loses her s**t over some psycho kicking a cat, yet doesn’t bat an eye at the string of violent crimes committed against the systematically disenfranchised. White feminism. The type of feminism that focuses on the plight of white women while seemingly ignoring the issues faced by the less privileged. If that is your kind of feminism, then sorry, I’m not with it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being a woman, I love being a woman of color, and f**k yeah I want to dismantle the patriarchy. I want women to speak about sexual assault without being questioned about the length of their skirts, I want women to go to work and make as much as their male counterparts, and I want a woman’s reproductive rights to no longer be reduced to a vote by a group of wealthy white men. I want this for every woman, regardless of her race, age, income, sexual identity, and/or religious beliefs.
Yet that is my problem with mainstream feminism: the exclusivity of it. Mainstream feminism advocates for women rights, and that is great, yet it forgets that not every woman’s path toward those rights is the same. Whereas white women have their gender against them, women of color and other marginalized women, have their gender plus their race, or their sexual orientation, or their economic status, or sometimes all of these and more, against them. Feminism is not one size fits all. It should be intersectional and it should not prioritize the issues of one group over the others.
The fact is that feminism occurs across many different spectrums, and thus awards every woman the right to define herself as she chooses to. Is a woman less of a feminist because she wears a hijab? Because she was born a man? Because she makes her boyfriend a sandwich? Mainstream feminism will have you believe that yes, these things may get you a pink slip from the feminist club, but I chose to differ.
My feminism deals with many issues, not just the issues of middle class white women. Poor women, women of color, women of the LGBT community, we all have our struggles and if we feel your particular movement does not represent it, then excuse us as we choose not to join it. Does that make us less of a feminist? Nah, it just makes us more of a humanist. —Giovanna Acosta
As an Afro-Latina born to immigrant parents, my concerns, grievances and responsibilities in 2017 America are layered. I wake up every morning stressed about what new dimension of evil will reveal itself under this new administration, who has proven to be the most egregious personification of the toxic-white-supremacist-patriarchy many of us have resisted for years. Like many others, in the weeks following Nov. 8, I was overtaken by dejection and disillusionment—a reaction that surprised even me, given that I was never under any misguided impression that this country was a glowing beacon of freedom. But there is something especially miserable about handing over the presidency to a national troll who freely sexually harasses women and demoralizes anyone who isn’t a white cis male.
To survive this neo-fascist state – where feeding students living in poverty and ensuring an entire city has clean water are secondary to building a wall along an arbitrary border – we desperately need to channel and model the pioneering spirits of women like Septima Poinsette Clark, Esther Cooper Jackson, Angela Davis and Maxine Waters. To work toward liberation, our feminism must be intersectional and relentless. Yes, the Women’s March was a powerful moment of resistance against a misogynistic regime, but we need to apply that same fervor and rally around trans lives, around black lives, around immigrant lives, around refugee lives. We need to exercise that same collectivity in calling out this new administration everyday about its bizarre contempt of facts, its tyranny, and its duty to us as a democratic state. White folks practicing intersectional feminism ought to push themselves to be more than allies and serve as accomplices who leverage their inherent power in the name of equity.
We have a long road ahead of us, but Audre Lorde reminds us that "women are powerful and dangerous." Don't try it. —Mirelis Gonzalez
Ana Martinez-Feliciano: Wife, Mama & Lifestyle Editor
When you look at me, is it hard to tell where I come from? I’ve been told more than once that I am ethnically ambiguous, however, I am a woman of color. I am the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. I felt very self-conscious about that for some time, not because I wasn’t proud of where I came from, but because of my profession. I have been an English teacher for over 10 years and at this point in my career I have taught every age, from middle school, high school, and now college students.
I’ll never forget the day when I had a parent sit across from me for a parent-teacher conference and look me in the eye and say, “I am not sure why my son is failing Spanish.” I looked at him and swiftly responded, “You’ll have to ask Ms. Aguero about that grade because I am your son’s English teacher.”
For a long time I didn’t feel good enough because of other’s preconceived notion that a Latina would not be able to teach English, literature, vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing in the suburbs of New Jersey simply because my last name ended in -ez. And why not? Because I also speak Spanish? I am a Dominican-American. I was raised on Sesame Street, Thundercats, She-Ra and Jem. I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Shakespeare, and The Babysitter’s Club, just like any other teacher [of American background].
See, as an only child, books were everything to me. They were my company, my escape, my world. And now as an adult, a mother, books are my tools. I instill in my children that you cannot simply judge a book by its cover.
During the elections I explained to my two young boys that they may see the first woman president, and they did not flinch or find it strange. Perhaps because the only president they ever knew was a man that my son described as, “the same color as you, mami.” Months before election day I said to them that Donald Trump was not a good person. That he was a bully, that he did not say nice things, and that he did not like people like their grandparents. We went to the voter’s box on Election Day and I had my five year old press Clinton, while my three year old pressed the button that said VOTE.
They were excited, and as we took the obligatory picture outside of the polls and got our sticker I got emotional, unknowing of the outcome that would scroll across my television screen at nearly 3 a.m.
I cried. I cried for the kids that may not get to live free, like me, because their parents will now not be able to come to this country for a better life. I let the helpless feeling sit there inside of me for weeks while I watched the news. I read articles, but stayed away from Facebook, and prayed that my children wouldn’t grow up to be judged for their last names, a fear that President Obama somehow ameliorated. My greatest concern today is that my two boys will grow up in a country filled with fear and hatred towards one another's differences, when we were founded on bravery and known as "the land of the free."
So in January, I marched in New York City, with thousands of other women and people who felt much like I did. I marched as a woman of color who believes in the right to choose, as the daughter of immigrants who believed in and achieved the American Dream, and as the mother of boys who wants them to be raised as kind human beings who believe in liberty and justice for all. And I’ll continue to march because that is who I am. —Ana Martinez-Feliciano
Jenay Wright: Writer
As a women of color in America I feel oppressed.
As a women of color in America I feel silenced.
As a women of color in America I feel like an outcast.
I feel like I don't belong.
I don't feel like this I'm represented.
It took years for a women like me to be appreciated.
For my melanin to finally be revealed on covers of magazines and on television programming.
As a women of color in America I don't even feel American.
Even though the first foot [here] was brown. The natives. Killed off & this land was conquered by Whites.
How can I feel American if I am already separated because of my color and because I am a woman?
My whole life I have to check into America's boxes.
I have to fight beauty standards and fight stereotypes.
It's a struggle being an Afro-Latina in America.
Especially within your own two cultures, your neither accepted and feel like you have to choose.
I am Latina no I am Black, or I am Black no I am Latina
But if I'm one percent Black I'm just black in this country.
You see the mind games
I'm from a country that's so diverse but I'm the minority.
But's it's okay because I have this voice and I will use it to the best of my ability and celebrate women of color. —Jenay Wright
Jada Gomez: Journalist
For me, being an American woman of color is to be dynamic and awe-inspiring. It takes a bold sensibility only possible with my DNA as an Afro-Latina, a Nuyorican, to speak up on streets filled with stares and looks that urge you to do anything but speak your truth.
With recent events like the Women’s March on Washington, I find it imperative to speak on issues that affect me as a feminist and woman of color, to help open the door for the young people with their eyes on me right now. Since I stand on the shoulders of giants like Maya Angelou and Sonia Sotomayor, it’s both my duty and my birthright. —Jada Gomez
Stephanie Jimenez: Writer
Right now, activism is in. People who up to November have largely been apolitical are suddenly showing up in the movement—many of them white, liberal women. As a woman of color who identifies as both a writer and activist, this is difficult in ways I’m discovering everyday. Well-meaning white women have always been around, but they’re louder than ever, capitalizing on the wave of protests and actions to make their voices heard. On one hand, I’m grateful that they are around—their bodies and energy, as demonstrated at the JFK protest—can be used to further issues that go beyond their immediate priorities. But more often, as shown by the Women’s March, they are likely to drown us out. In D.C., when the speaker’s program before the march had gone on an hour too long, the crowd became so loud and restless that I couldn’t hear Monica Simpson or Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas over the repeated cries of “March! March! March!” I did [however] hear everything Cecile Richards said.
Ultimately, it can be tiring to be both a woman of color and a feminist. I rally behind women of color who denounce white feminists for never including us, thinking of us, and worse, for pushing agendas that only succeed at our expense. At the same time, I get easily weary of reading critiques of white women (after the Women’s March it was as if think pieces calling out white feminism would never stop being published). I don’t doubt that my personal life, to some extent, informs this. I’ve been dating a white man for years now, and one day, we might form an awkward family. But it’s also precisely because of our intimacy that I know first-hand that all the op-eds criticizing white feminism are right—even if they exhaust me just as much as explaining to my boyfriend why I don’t like when he speaks broken Spanish to my parents.
I envision a day when, as a woman of color, I don’t have to tell other people to stand in order to take a seat for myself. A day when I don’t have to bat myself against a white woman, when my life isn’t constantly counted for less when placed side by side next to hers. For white women, the stakes are less high. In fact, they’re low—so low that one of their biggest threats is merely symbolic. After the election, a white woman told me that her biggest fear was that we’d never come close to having a woman president again. That white women’s fears can exist only in metaphor—a ceiling that doesn’t actually exist, not like the actual wall that Trump wants to build—is an indicator that sisterhood, just like that glass ceiling, might not be real either. —Stephanie Jimenez
Tara Betts: Teacher
Being a woman of color in America means being perpetually agitated, but still expected to be sexy and smiling. If you aren’t, you are angry and have given up on trying to be beautiful. If you speak up too much, you are causing trouble. As a sister raised in hip-hop and entering her 40s, I find myself dealing with the fatigue of being a non-tenure track professor in the academic industrial complex. [But] in doing so, I am teaching young people of all colors, and dismantling some of the ideas that keep them from seeing how economics and race alter public policy and how hip-hop has been a lens for examining a host of issues as they work on grammar, organization [while] learning how to do research.
As their gears are turning, I am managing students who live in one of the most segregated cities in America; students who are so terrified of bad grades as a result of standardized tests and being labeled “stupid” that it paralyzes meaningful dialogue until I can break down the invisible blockades preventing them from speaking; students who are very aware of issues like police brutality, sexism, gentrification, and the indentured servitude to student loans; students who are afraid ICE is coming for them or their relatives in a supposed sanctuary city. And of course, because I am one of the few women of color leading a classroom. I get more young people of color and more women asking me for guidance beyond the classroom, which I am happy to do, but I know it detracts from the time that I spend writing my own books and articles and doing readings at other institutions and conferences. When you try to explain this work as a woman of color, then people pile on advice. Why don’t you have a man if you’re not queer? (Yes, this question has been posed.) Simple conversations have been halted simply because a man has asked me what do I do for a living. I try to keep it brief.
“Where? What do you teach?”
“English at University of Illinois Chicago.”
“You teach college? You have a Ph.D.? You write books?”
“Yeah, I write poetry and essays mostly. I have two books out.”
Usually, there is dead air or the conversation stops, but the more insidious undermining happens when the man talking to you says, “You must be married to your career.” Or “You sound like all you do is work.” I cannot help myself then.
“Well, when women have to pay all the bills and still make less money than men, then I guess I would be working. The last three men I dated made more than me with fewer or no degrees.”
The conversation is usually terminated then. I just keep thinking about Chimamanda Adichie saying a man who is intimidated by her is probably a man that she is not interested in, but the reality of a woman of color who wants to keep her bills paid and stay indoors is often a lot of labor, paid and otherwise. You may have a couple of side hustles. You may cut open the lotion bottles and toothpaste tubes to make them last longer. You may become a coupon master and barter. You may be figuring out what you need to buy before a check bounces, or you have figured out multiple streams of income. In some ways, I’m relieved to see younger women of color taking the parody version of Bree Newsome seriously where the image of her body scaling a flagpole is paired with the imagined quote of “F**k it, I’ll do it then.” Frankly, I think a lot of women are tired of saying that and tired of doing it because of other people’s apathy and expectations. There is a reason that self-care is becoming an increasingly popular term. It is not that young people are more fragile than previous generation or that “they are not like their grandparents” as some of the memes with Civil Rights Movement photos might suggest.
Every slight adds up. Those micro-aggressions. [Like the one about] "the savages in Ferguson" on a co-worker’s page from a previous teaching position that I held. I was horrified, and politely countered that many former students of mine from Chicago were supporting the protests in Chicago. Many of them have gone on to earn degrees and teach themselves. I refreshed the page, only to discover that he deleted my comment and continued with a thinly-veiled racist tirade. We can go further and discuss how he told all my co-workers, and it wasn’t until a white male co-worker (who agreed with me) told me that the Facebook post told everyone that I “unfriended him” without telling them why. The post avoided me until I finished teaching there. So, I am not oblivious to people ignoring me, acting like I got a free affirmative action ride, or acting like I am racist for asserting myself.
Months later, I moved back to Chicago, a city that I love, and a city that loves its men. Two Chicago-based publications reviewed my book. Both publications are edited by women. Of course, the major newspapers are mostly populated by North Siders, who are mostly white. However, I see men get published in these newspapers regularly. This reflects a trend that women writers involved with an organization called VIDA have been addressing with “The Count.” The count for women writers of color still needs to be more conclusive. As I tap my foot and wait for the results, I keep writing. I keep debating doing gigs for less money. I keep encouraging young women of color to work, and I keep monitoring my health. Every slight is a step closer to high blood pressure or anxiety, and I think of Leanita McClain, a Chicago journalist who eventually had hate mail heaped in canvas bags on her desk on a daily basis after writing blistering commentary on race, especially after she wrote a piece called “How Chicago Taught Me to Hate White People.” The pressure grew until this depressed, talented and beautiful writer killed herself in her own living room. Her book, A Foot in Each World, was edited by her husband Clarence Page, who still writes for The Chicago Tribune. McClain’s piece would be right on time for the onslaught of think pieces that go live everyday in the Internet era. Instead, her life serves as a cautionary tale that me living is just as important as the work that some people assume subsumes my capacity for relationships, even when I have yearned for the joys of cuddling—even a child. Besides, if I’m single, I MUST be doing something wrong, right? WRONG. Maybe we should ask why the standards are set so simultaneously high and low for women of color to remain in docile servitude to everyone but themselves.
Every missing dollar adds up in a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy real estate, even if you got that “good university job.” Respectability politics makes it seem like the good teaching job is for suckers once you get the paycheck. It is a position that you do for the love. Yet feeling like it is a punishment in the 21st century, when there is a president who can joke about grabbing women by the crotch, is common. I have heard students and professors alike wonder if getting on the pole as a stripper and going to the gym every day, might have been a better prospect. So, don’t ask me to be mad at sex workers when that is hard work, too. Don’t ask me to turn up my nose at anyone who manages to keep the lights on, sometimes, in spite of feeding several people and supporting people who expect her to do it, even though they can occasionally take care of themselves. It’s also not my job to hand over my ideas as a professor so you can profess them and make money off my intellectual capital. Quit suppressing me as a colleague and thinking I will do some barefoot kitchen and bedroom footwork for you, all of that is another kind of shuffling, and I see other young women of color trying to walk upright with me into the next decade of the 21st century. —Tara Betts
J.S. Tomori: Professional Consultant
I feel like a liberated slave who is constantly trying to break free from the restraints that haunt me. I am experiencing my dreams come to fruition, yet I feel bound when I have to coach and mentor those who are coming from prison and live a constant mental slavery because of mistakes they made in the past. Empathy forces me to act and think and do and be. I feel that the responsibility of my skin does not always afford me the opportunity to marinate on or in my accomplishments. As a Trinidadian immigrant at age 10, my vision of America was perhaps muddled somewhere between not understanding the embodiment of adopting a new home and longing to believe that the new home in America will be exciting and good. As I progressed to adulthood and obtained a college degree I realized that “success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed”—at least that is what Booker T. Washington taught me as I studied Journalism and English at Rutgers University.
I currently reside in what could be considered an affluent community in the New York Metro area, yet some of my own brothers and sisters are impoverished, hopeless, homeless, unemployed and yet prejudice against each other. The prejudice is often layered in ignorance, particularly disturbing at a time when there is so much work to be done. I have experienced folks saying the silliest things about our African or Caribbean or Latino brothers and sisters. Yes, I said brothers and sisters because there is a difference in pretending to understand your history and really understanding the history. Daily, I battle within myself to stay open and flexible to what the Universe sends my way. There is something very powerful about spiritual awareness, it allows for a panoramic view. I have argued with individuals, family members, who want to tell me that being a Christian goes against my roots, yet they know little about our roots. I have witnessed friends and family alter their disposition towards me, because my spouse is British and Nigerian, yet complain when they experience a racist moment.
It behooves me when we are reactive to racial profiling yet dismiss the female mutilation in over 30 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, because it is not “us," but “them." As much as I can’t ignore the mass incarceration of over 2 million in our U.S. prisons, or the ongoing immigrant deportation, I can’t ignore that women [are evermore subject] to be unprotected from sexual violence, HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies and the like under Trump’s Global Gag Rule. The fact that their faces are olive, caramel, mocha, or dark chocolate matters, because they are my sisters, daughters, aunties, mentors. Yes, I come from a legacy of strength, and I lean everyday on the tenets of hope and love, but it is downright hard to relax. It is even harder to "ex-frigging-hale."
My mother cleaned on her knees, only to be riddled with dementia in her golden years. I now live in a space where I work hard to capitalize on my marketability and earning potential. I am forever balancing health, career, family, business, relationships, [but] most of all, I struggle to stay sane in the insanity. My acceptance in some circles is based on my physical appearance, or how loud or soft I echo an opinion. Like many, we are sometimes judged by whether or not we have gained a few pounds or whether our nails and hair is done. So here is my response: if my bitter better makes you bitter, good! My “womaness” allows me to be an artist, and as Maya Angelou once said, "If art is another form of prayer then I am an artist," because although I must stay on my knees, Audrey, Coretta, Shirley, Claudette, etc. has shown me how to stand. —J.S. Tomori
Mireya Perez-Bustillo: Writer & Poet
Now, my curls can move as they like. No more are they fried by
creams. My ears, happily pierced show off my collection of dangling
earrings that I've
acquired from travels in Mexico, India, Peru and beyond. No more do I
hear the taunts
"Phew, you've got holes in your ears, " that haunted five-year-old me
newly arrived from
Colombia when I showed up at kindergarten sporting the little gold
hoops, a gift from
Abuela, I'd worn since I was a baby.
New York was my new home but Papi and Mami's stories of our ancestors and of
Bolivar, la Pola, la Madre Castillo, Narino, the heroes and heroines
of Colombian history
lived here too. These were the "grounding" for my definition that
spurred me to study
Spanish and Spanish American literature and to become a scholar and writer.
Now, when others brand us as criminals, illegals, we need to know our
broadcast that many of us have been here even before there was a U.S.A.
Today, hair free, earrings dancing , I begin my classes with " Where
do your people come from? What is your migration story?" —Mireya Perez-Bustillo