“Women of color” is rapidly becoming a buzz phrase used to describe non-white women and their experiences. As such, it’s important that people understand that referring to women from diverse ethnic backgrounds as “women of color” invalidates the diversity of their experiences and does not position them or others to be able to understand or truly advocate for them.
During an orientation session for a graduate program, the comment or question was raised as to how to speak to women of color. Yes, the person who posed the question unabashedly said in so many words that he or she does not know how (or is unwilling) to interact with people not like this person. And as problematic as the statement was, the speaker also could not answer the question in a non-assuming, unoffensive way.
The answer is simple: there is no way to talk to women of color. “Women of color” is a phrase used to place into a box the richness of the experiences of “people of color” who happen to identify as women. Yet, it explains nothing. There’s no way to talk to women of color because women of color are not aliens or objects as the original statement suggests. You speak to women of color the same way you speak to any other person. You don’t objectify or glamorize their experiences. You don’t try to make them relate to yours or your other friend who also happens to share that persons race and gender identities. You recognize that all women of color are not a monolith, even when they belong to the same racial group. And you listen to hear and understand.
You recognize that “women of color” is not a synonym for Black women, Latin American women, Asian American or any other variation of a non-white woman. “Women of color” is similar to describing you as a human. As a human, there are certain common experiences we all have. We all must eat, breathe, sleep and drink water. Yet, there’s much more to the ways in which we negotiate those necessities. There’s many more instances in which our decisions are based on our upbringing or past experiences. What if someone only referred to you as a human though and neglected to acknowledge the city you grew up in, your profession, your education, and all of the contributions you’ve made in this world?
The individual experiences of Black women or Latin American women or Asian American women is much more specific to individual experiences. Account for and appreciate these differences by distinguishing when referencing specific populations. It encourages them to tell their story and brings validation to their voices and perspectives.
People need to have the opportunity to tell their own stories instead of having them told for them.