This Is What Happens When Women of Color Redefine the Racism and Sexism They Face
Trigger warning for racism and a mention of racial violence and sexual assault.
One day Bree Best was walking across campus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, when a fellow student, a white guy, asked if she was the girl on the poster that was pinned up nearby. It indeed had her picture on it and said, “My name is Bree, and I’m not white on the inside.”
The guy hesitated for a moment before asking her, Is that an offensive thing to say? He told her that he says this to one of his friends, who is black, all the time. Her answer? Of course it is.
Women of color deal with subtle and unsubtle racial and gender-based microaggressions every day, insults that whether blatant or backhanded reinforce ideas about inferiority and belonging that are harmful and infuriating. Students at the UMBC Women’s Center and Women of Color Coalition decided to do something about it by launching the Telling Our Stories: I’m Not/I Am campaign in spring 2015, thanks to an AAUW Campus Action Project grant that was sponsored by Pantene. The Baltimore chapter of the Younger Women’s Task Force was also involved. The project, which included printed posters and several public events, was all about calling out the racist and sexist labels students face on a daily basis and redefining themselves in their own words.
The campaign launched with posters like Best’s. They ended up with 70 entries that made waves on campus and online (one of their Tumblr posts was liked and reblogged more than 34,000 times). The posters covered many different stereotypes. Best and several others addressed the offensive idea of being labeled an “Oreo,” meaning that you’re white on the inside and dark-skinned on the outside. This implies that qualities like speech, dress, taste, or even academic prowess can be broken down by skin color, and it tends to define things are associated with success or smarts are somehow uncharacteristic of blackness.
Other harmful labels that UMBC’s students eschewed: terrorist, bad driver, model minority, pretty for a dark-skinned girl, an Asian fetish, a diversity hire, oppressed by their religion or culture, blackish, ratchet, a China doll, submissive, illegal, and many more. Rising sophomore Jahia Knobloch described the cumulative effect of hearing these kinds of things over the years: “I came to realize that as a woman of color, you are forced by proxy to represent the exotic ‘other.’… Even with our own races, we can be subjugated to lesser roles because of our status as women.”
The campaign’s later phases went beyond confronting stereotypes to then illustrate participants’ definitions of themselves. The I Am portrait series created by graduating senior Yoo-Jin Kang allowed students to construct their own, more complex descriptions in their own words. “I am constantly evolving,” says Jamie Imperial’s poster.
As an Asian American young woman, I often find myself segmented into various categories: bad driver, submissive, quiet, exotic, good at math, etc. A peer recently told me that he “wouldn’t believe I was American” even if I told him, simply because of my race. Another person offhandedly remarked to me that she “hated Asians,” then backtracked quickly upon looking at me, asking if I was Korean (I’m not) and emphatically stating that she “only hates Koreans.” These are both statements that have been said to me within the past month. This is why it’s important to see women of color as human beings. We don’t exist to satisfy a fetish, and we don’t exist to embody a stereotype. We’re more than dragon ladies or hoochie mamas or “exotic” foreigners. I refuse to be defined by the boundaries that others want to impose on me. We’re constantly evolving, beyond stereotypes and loose outlines that the media wants us to fill.
I’m Not/I Am also involved several spring events, including a poetry and music event with QueenEarth and a speech by Franchesca Ramsey, the actress and comedian who made the video “Sh-t White Girls Say to Black Girls.” But the culminating event was a performance in late April that included dance, singing, spoken word, visual arts, and more for participants to lend context and expression to the labels they chose for themselves.
Rising junior Madia Coleman was one of about 25 performers that night. She shared a poem about black women’s struggles, which she described as being historically overshadowed by rights movements that focused on black men.
Complacency does not live here anymore. If we march hand in hand, I want empathy. When we march hand in hand, you must acknowledge me. When we march hand in hand, it is because they lynched me and you. We march hand in hand because they raped me, and they killed my sons, too. So I rebuke this invisibility. I’m a leader and a fighter, just like you. Everyone will listen, because I have a story, too.
Best says she hopes that the work doesn’t end here. “I don’t want the conversation of women of color telling their stories to stay stagnant,” she said on the project’s website. “These need to be heard so that they can help heal the multigenerational hurt that women of color have accrued. I believe if we tell our stories, people will understand better how to heal or not hurt us through racial interactions.”
When Best presented on the project to a packed room at the National Conference of College Women Student Leaders, attendees shared the insults that they’ve experienced, and each revelation was met with vocal agreement, snapping, and applause. Megan Tagle Adams, the coordinator of UMBC’s Women’s Center, says that this sense of community and solidarity was the main goal of the project. “Our aim was to (re)affirm the strength, dignity, and diversity of women of color, because sometimes we need to hear this message as much as anyone,” Adams says.
It’s clear that the work that the UMBC students and other Campus Action Project teams did touched a nerve and that it’s definitely not over. Overall, this project reached thousands and continues to live on in the conversations it started about the racism and sexism that women face, at college and in daily life.
The guy who noticed Best’s poster on campus walked away realizing that something he says all the time implied really insulting things about his friend and about race. That kind of awareness-raising is an amazing byproduct, but Adams says she’s evaluating the project’s success by the impact they’ve had raising up women of color. The results speak for themselves.