By CLA’s Facilitator & Project Manager – Cristina Schaffer
I stood in the hallway and looked up at the flyers taped to the board. The brightly colored paper advertising the various clubs and events happening on campus were so inviting. The event that caught my eye was entitled, “An Evening of Stories for Women of Color.”
While I love listening to stories and storytelling, it was the second part of the title that made me pause, “An Evening of Stories for Women of Color.” There, it was– the phrase that stops me in my tracks every time. And I see it everywhere, on titles of books, workshops, and meetings…the phrase “Women of Color” or “People of Color.”
And each time I stop and ask myself, “Will I be welcome?”
I am a petite, Filipina-American woman with almond-shaped eyes. I am a first generation Filipina-American and growing up in a community that didn’t have many people who looked like me, I was very aware of my ethnic and cultural differences. I consider myself a woman of color, but I have had several experiences when others do not. I have light skin. And it is the shade of my skin where the confusion springs forth. My skin is what is known by some as “yellow.” I do not have the black or brown skin that most assume describes a “person of color,” but, I am also not white.
What is the spectrum for people of color? And who decides? Each time I see the phrase “people of color,” I’m not just confused, I am frustrated in my uncertainty. I want to be included. I want to be seen.
Having yellow skin does not shield you from implicit biases and ignorant comments. It comes with its own set of prejudices and racial stereotypes. When I was young, there were days when I hid my tears, pushed out my chin, and tried to act brave because as I was being teased by kids who would pull the corners of their eyes and yell, “Ching, Chong, Chink.” my heart was breaking. They would pull my long hair or speak to me with exaggerated accents, trying to sound like the comedic Chinese caricatures portrayed in old movies, think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In high school and college, I was fetishized by boys of all ethnicities who had “yellow fever” and wanted to date an Asian girl, because Asian girls were”known” to be better in bed and knew how to “take care of their man.” One morning, my family woke up to the terrible discovery that someone had spray painted “Japs Go Home” on the side of our house. I felt violated and afraid. Who would do this? Why would they do this? This was my home. Would they come back to hurt us? My dad didn’t talk the whole time he scrubbed the paint off the wall, erasing the hate. His silence frightened me. We never spoke about it after that day.
Having light skin also allows you to pass as white. I am not singled out as a troublemaker, a shoplifter, a gang member with a mere glance, like some of my black and brown friends have experienced. But passing also means you, your authentic you, is not recognized. Blending in requires letting go of your uniqueness, and that is where I feel overlooked and even invisible. I am part of what is known as the model minority, better educated, non-confrontational, white-conforming. But this is a backhanded compliment, isn’t it? I’m not white, but I have some of the traits that the white majority find positive. I am fitting into the model of whiteness. To this, I defiantly say, “Screw you!” I don’t want to fit into that mold.
Discrimination and judgment do not only come from White America. It comes from within my own culture. I remember being called ‘“white-washed” when I was around 13 years old by some of my cousins who felt I was not dark enough to be a “real” Filipino. I was insulted and defensive. Who were they to judge my Filipina-ness? I went home that night feeling unsure of myself and a little guilty. Was I too white? Was I not Filipino enough?
Recently, when starting my work with the Conscious Leadership Academy, a colleague shared with me that she wondered how the lack of people of color on our team would affect our work.
I had to pause. We are a small team of about 12. Two of us are Latinex women, two are Asian women, one of our high school interns is Indian in ethnicity. We all have lighter skin; are we not people of color? If I had the nut-brown skin that some of my Filipino cousins have, would I have counted as a woman of color? Why are the life experiences of people with lighter brown and yellow skin considered less-than those who have dark skin? This feels wrong to me. I want to be included in this conversation because my experiences can add value and richness to the whole story.
I attended The United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles this year. The keynote speaker was Michelle Obama, and because I am such a fangirl of this amazing woman, I couldn’t miss it. There were over 5000 women from many different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and gender identities. It was a weekend filled with empowerment and inclusivity. Here’s an example from one of the speakers who greeted the audience of 5000, “I am so happy to be here today. Let me hear all my black sisters! (applause and screams) Let me hear from my Latina and Middle Eastern brown sisters! And from all the white women in the audience, let me hear from you! Thank you for your ally-ship!” As a Filipino, as a Pacific Islander, as an Asian woman, where was the love for the yellow people? There were a fair number of Asian people at the summit, from various cultures, out in the audience. Asian women, also care about the state of women in our country, but why aren’t we included in the conversation?
When the term “women of color” or “people of color” does not include the spectrum of all colors that represent all minorities, and when people experience prejudicial or preferential treatment based solely on the color of their skin, this is colorism at its finest. The problem I have with the term “people of color,” is that its inclusivity is relative. We all have had experiences that have hurt us, broken us, pushed us, challenged us, and activated us.
All of our experiences are different. All of our stories are important. It is when we share our stories that we can inspire, motivate, elevate, and spread understanding and compassion to people of all colors.
What do you think? How do you feel when you see the phrase “People of Color?”
For a very brief history of why Asians began being described as “yellow” go to this link: http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/753623.html
To get a quick explanation of the term model minority and how harmful this term is to all minority experiences check out this short video: https://youtu.be/PrDbvSSbxk8
If you want an explanation of the difference between racism and colorism, visit this link: http://time.com/4512430/colorism-in-america/
For all my Filipino American family out there who wonder why I refer to myself as Asian and not Pacific Islander, I share this short, but awesome video. I consider myself both Asian and Pacific Islander. https://youtu.be/gNjE19tmYzs