Opinion: A voice for Women of Colour, ‘I am not white, but please listen to me’
By Karina Zapata, Contributor
An unspoken truth about being a woman of colour is that I hold a lot of shame in my being. Growing up, I spent all my energy trying to make myself small and unnoticed. Growing up, I tried to make myself white. I would scrub my body with papaya soap — typically used to lighten skin in various parts of Asia. I would avoid the sunlight ceaselessly, refusing to go to the park when it was beautiful outside. I would be angry when my skin got darker and I would cry when my friends, who were also of colour, mentioned that I could only be with someone if they were dark like me. Growing up, I watched myself be put into a box in a hierarchical system in which I was buried at the bottom.
I’m older now. In a fairytale, I would say that I have cured myself of this internalized racism, but I haven’t. Instead, it keeps me up at night. Internalized racism is something that is with me every second of every day, screaming at me that I am less than. That I am not good enough. It screams at me when I eat Filipino food in public, when I eavesdrop on a conversation that’s spoken in a language that I intentionally lost as a child due to shame and when I allow myself to feel the sunlight soak into my skin.
My internalized racism screams at me the loudest when I am the only woman of colour in a room full of successful white people — and this happens very, very often. Every single time: “You are less than everyone else in this room.”
Often, it makes me want to scream back, “I am not white, but please listen to me.”
Man of colour: “Your arguments are weak”
In the process of growing older, away from the young girl who didn’t know how to love herself, I learned to accept that as a woman of colour, I will always have to work harder than non-visible minority women to be seen and acknowledged for my work.
This isn’t to say that all women of colour are the same, because we aren’t. Perpetuating that stereotype is just as toxic as pretending that we get the same opportunities as white women.
This isn’t another wage gap argument, though the wage gap is the most evident piece of oppression that women of colour have. According to Statistics Canada, 28 per cent of visible minority women were below the low-income cut-off, compared to 14 per cent of non-visible minority women.
I realize that this statement calls for many arguments. Once, in a civilized conversation, a man of colour said to me, “Your arguments are weak. Have you ever considered that women of colour don’t get paid as much as white women because they don’t strive for jobs that pay well?”
I don’t believe that’s the issue. Think about entertainment media — how many times have you seen women of colour being portrayed outside of their stereotypes? Asian women are vastly represented in television and movies as characters who are amazing at science, love math and play chess in their spare time. This sets up expectations and pressure for Asian women in real life to be absolutely perfect or we are undeserving of attention and love.
To the fellow oppressed man: the issue is not that women of colour don’t strive to find jobs that pay well, the issue is that some employers would much rather hire white women over women of colour because it’s “less complicated” for them. Because this way, they don’t have to worry about funny accents or language gaps or cultural nuances. I have seen past employers hire under-qualified white people over extremely qualified women of colour with a slight accent they acquired from learning their third language. I have seen past employers keep managers who absolutely refuse to hire people of colour for no other reason than racism.
So no, I don’t think women of colour don’t work hard enough to be successful. We are just given a fraction of the opportunities that white women have.
How have you worked harder than your white counterparts?
When asked in what ways they have had to work harder than their white counterparts, a handful of women of colour replied without hesitation.
“Working to be taken seriously and for my ambitions and dreams to be seen as legitimate. Being seen as lazy in school when suffering the same physical and mental injuries. Proving to my peers that I’m ‘cool’ enough (code for white) and to my parents that I’m brown enough,” says commerce student Hooriah Ikram.
“My immigrant parents don’t have the same connections as my white counterparts, therefore I have to network for myself,” says finance student Shiza Aslam.
“Every way,” says graphic designer, Ayra Peredo.
I am a second generation immigrant. It’s a tiring narrative, but my parents grew up extremely poor. My mother shared a room with her 13 siblings and sacrificed food for her younger brothers more times than she ate.
Because of this, my parents didn’t spend my childhood pushing me for straight A’s or hoping that I would become a doctor. Growing up themselves, they were too busy worrying about surviving to worry about getting good grades. Instead, I grew up with my parents worrying about my safety to the point that it was suffocating. It’s instilled a fear in me that I don’t think will ever go away.
Running at a fast jog
Being a woman of colour sometimes feels like moving at a fast jog, all the time. There is no room to stop and sit down, even when I’m exhausted and my legs are in excruciating pain and I can barely breathe. All I can do is acknowledge my exhaustion and continue moving forward or else I will never catch up to the small amount of opportunities that I have.
I have walked onto the train and had white people look at me in disgust. I have had people get up and move seats to sit beside someone who isn’t of colour.
Because once I take a second to sit down, people will treat me like I haven’t been fast-jogging.
As an adult woman of colour, I am always afraid — and for good reason.
My heart pounds whenever I walk down the street alone at night, not only because I am a woman, but because I am a visible minority. I am seen for my gender and I am seen for my race. I walk down the street with my keys between my fingers, not only for fear of sexual assault as a woman, but for fear of harassment as a non-white person.
Statistics Canada states, “About 21 per cent of visible minority females reported being a victim of discrimination — a significantly higher proportion than their non-visible minority counterparts with 13 per cent.”
I have walked onto the train and had white people look at me in disgust. I have had people get up and move seats to sit beside someone who isn’t of colour. And every single time, I am afraid for what they have to say. I am afraid for what words I have to endure and sit through and not react to.
Women of colour don’t have time to react. Women of colour don’t have room to be imperfect. We aren’t given the capacity to be anything more or less than women of colour.
Who am I to the media?
I chose to be a journalist because, even as a child, I knew that minorities had more to say but were rarely given a voice, especially in the media.
According to the study, “Reflecting Which Canada?: A Source Analysis of Canadian Network Television News,” out of 3,571 examined sources, visible minorities were only used as sources 10.42 per cent of the time and aboriginal sources were spoken to 1.51 per cent of the time. This is because white reporters are more likely to turn to white sources while visible minority reporters are more likely to turn to visible minority sources.
This isn’t to say that white people aren’t doing their jobs. My work is not a competition against white people and it never will be. As a visible minority reporter, I have always felt as if I owe it to other people of colour to completely immerse myself in my work, so media can become representative of our populations.
Noor Tagouri, a powerfully successful hijab-wearing journalist, explained this struggle in an article with Forbes. She said, “I realized that my strength lies in using my own identity to build trust with people who’ve never trusted mainstream media to tell their stories before.”
But along with this responsibility comes pressure. Even as a senior journalism student, I feel a debilitating pressure to report on groundbreaking stories all the time. Living in a world in which I am hyper-aware of violence against women of colour means I don’t have room in my heart to report on “unimportant stories.”
Women of colour, this is for you
I am extremely lucky that I have an opportunity that so many other women of colour don’t have. I have a voice and platform to give other minorities a platform to display their voices.
I have been running at a fast jog my entire life. Sometimes I am exhausted, my legs are in excruciating pain and I can barely breathe. Sometimes the worst part is watching everyone around me take breaks when they are tired. Sometimes the worst part is not getting acknowledged for working harder than most.
Despite this, I have accepted that I will likely run at a fast jog for the rest of my life, but I don’t just do it for me — I also do it for the other women of colour who are running at the same pace as me, but feel like they’re getting nowhere.
To those women: you are not white and I am here to listen to you.