Autostraddle’s Women of Color Ask: What Does WOC Mean To Me?

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So A-Camp numero dos is upon us, ya’ll. I’m hugging you in spirit if you can’t make it and holding back tears if you made the conscious decision not to come. (We love you so much, lost kitten, please come to us.) Anyway, we’re bringing our conscious rap game with us and gearing up for some serious panelage. We’re gonna be talking about the serious stuff, ya’ll and if you can’t be there, here’s a little bit of what that entails.

The WOC Panel is back and in full effect and we’re ready to dive deep into the murky waters of racial politics, identity, interracial dating, hair and intersectionality.  (I feel like those words could be the beginning of one hell of a damn good Autostraddle drinking game.) For this post, we asked ourselves for the first time in AS history, what the hell being a WOC meant to us. And just in case, you’re late to queer lexicon train, WOC = Woman/en of Color. We’ve got colors, ya’ll, maddd colors.

Katrina, Gabby and Whitney on the WOC Panel. Look how hard I’m thinking about being a WOC, ya’ll. Shit is so serious.

It’s something we probably should have asked ourselves before the last panel but language is sneaky like that sometimes. It’s always changing and slipping into the vernacular before we even have a chance to examine the origin of certain words and phrases. They slide into our sentences and private jokes before we’ve even wondered where they come from, what they say about us when we use them and how they are perceived to the rest of the world. Queer lingo is especially prone to this type of surprising acceptance.

We are constantly and rightfully redefining ourselves. We create new words and phrases to express and navigate the complicated landscape of queerness, gender-isms, presentation and and just everything. Sometimes all of this happens so fast that we don’t talk to each other about it. We expect all of the queers to understand all of the definitions of ALL of the words we’ve just made up. That’s just not fair and we AS WOC have decided to come forth with just exactly how we feel about the phrase “Women of Color.” We hope you dive in with us and encourage you to share your thoughts in an open and conversation-fostering type of way. Queermos, I ask you, is there ever any other way?

Autostraddle’s Women of Color Ask: What Does WOC Mean To Me?


For a long time I felt afraid of kissing my partner in Asian restaurants — the Indian restaurant, the Thai restaurant, the Chinese restaurant. Whenever she would lean in to kiss me, I would pause or turn my head or look at her uncomfortably; whenever she wanted to hold my hand over the table I would hesitate before reaching out to her fingers on the white tablecloth between our plates.

I was afraid of being gay in front of people who were like my family — Asian, immigrant, bi-lingual. When I thought about my identity, about being Asian American or queer, I thought about alienation rather than inclusion. Being gay felt like something I couldn’t be because, as my family had framed it, gayness wasn’t Asian. If I was Asian, I couldn’t be gay; if I was gay, I couldn’t be Asian.


I grew up in a predominantly white town, surrounded by white friends and white families. The people there sent me conflicting messages: “Asian people are just like white people,” “That’s not how we act in America,” “You’re such a banana (white on the inside, yellow on the outside).”

These messages broke my identities down into pieces, and I had to be the one to pick up the rubble. If I was Asian, I couldn’t be American. If I was Asian American, I wasn’t actually Asian. If I was queer, I couldn’t be anything. The racism I experienced made me want to pretend my own identity didn’t exist. Because acknowledging race means acknowledging racism; it means seeing the “ching chong” jokes and my friends’ pulled-back eyes for what they were; it meant acknowledging that I wasn’t safe. And I wasn’t ready to handle that as a teenager, especially combined with the terrifying knowledge that I was gay.

I became a woman of color junior year of college, when my professor, Lolita Hernandez, handed me Helen Zia’s book, Asian American Dreams. Not long afterward, I made a zine with a queer Asian American friend of mine called GAYZN. I started dismantling the pieces of my identity that people had thrown at me all my life and I started building myself from the ground up. I became a woman of color when I started accepting the communities around me, the people of color around me, and finally saw that I did have a group of people I loved who understood me and supported me through the things I went through daily — racism, self-love and all.

I had felt for a long time that I was doing most things alone — being Asian American alone, being queer alone, being lonely alone. Being a woman of color means accepting myself, gay and of color and all. It means kissing my partner in a Chinese restaurant where the waiter comes to our table and says, “We haven’t seen you both in a while! It’s good to see you. Do you want the regular?” And we both say, “yes”.


A woman of color. To be honest it’s the phrase I use most commonly to describe myself but also the one that gets shot down the most. I am pale as fuck, you guys.

My dad is a light-skinned Puerto Rican who used to piss off his in-laws by calling them white.  I was raised exclusively by my Italian mom beginning when I was four and my dad let us board a plane off of his native island without so much as a fight. We never went back. My mother asked if we wanted to visit – we didn’t. My father and his culture was so alien to me that I couldn’t imagine attempting to make a home there anymore. Instead I ignored that he had given me my last name and my hair and I told everyone I was white. For 18 years I believed a lie.

I went to college in 2008 and met the most amazing person of all time, my best friend Amanda. She hated when I called myself white. I was such a fucking idiot. I was there on an ethnicity-based full ride merit award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and I still persisted. There may have even been a few times I called myself “Caucasian.” Then one day Amanda hit me, I think in the face, just enough to wake me up. “Carmen you are not white.”

It was the opposite of my entire life in four words. Throughout high school people told me there was “no way I was Puerto Rican” because I was fair. Surely there had been a genetic mix-up of sorts, some sort of defect in which I was made up exclusively of my mother’s DNA. Surely my father was lying or I had managed to successfully erase him from my body and my life. My white friends never questioned that I wasn’t “like them.” But I wasn’t.

It has been hard for me, in my own sort of “coming out” as Latina, to reconcile my own complexion with the movement for my own equality that I deeply believe in. Maybe calling myself a “woman of color” is disingenuous. Maybe it’s unfair to everyone else, maybe it’s me being too obnoxious to stop and recognize the amazing privilege of passing that I had for 20 years before I cut my hair. Maybe it’s me wishing I could be a leader and a voice for people who experience the oppressions I face on an entirely different scale. But it’s what we call ourselves, and so I am a woman of color. Is this how we celebrate ourselves together, without dividing province lines and racial backgrounds? It is how we stand up for each other? It is how we persist in existing despite the media and our white friends who are so quick to mark us “like them” and our struggles each day to simply make it to bed with all ends met and all accomplishments down?

I call myself a “woman of color” because I am colorful. I’m bright pink and blue and green. I’m dark hair at the root and eyes like the sky. I call myself a “woman of color” because each day I am challenging myself to break down my own embedded prejudices and the ones which also hold me back in other peoples hearts and minds. I am a “woman of color” because my father lives still in his homeland of the island of Puerto Rico, and those beaches and rainforests raised me and kept my cheeks flushed. I call myself a “woman of color” because despite all odds I am finally proud of where and who I come from, and where we are all going to go.

But mostly, I call myself a “woman of color” because Amanda’s four words changed how I viewed my world, and still do. And because sometimes I still need someone to slap me in the face about it.


Being asked what it means to be a woman of colour makes me uncomfortable – not because it isn’t an important question to ask (it is), but because to me, personally, I don’t know exactly what it means.

I’ve never had the experience of living in or being part of a “people of colour” community. I was primarily raised by my mom, who’s white. My whole life, I’ve lived in an incredibly multicultural community. I have relatives who are not only Dutch, but German, Native American, and Latin American. At my last family gathering, I was seated next to a certain relative’s friend who had escaped from Rwanda as a teenager. Across the table was a white Catholic priest from the Yukon and close family friends from the Philippines. I’m probably really lucky, but the result of growing up this way is I have an incredibly difficult time conceptualizing terms like “race” and “community.” My community is fragments of many communities in one. When I was little, I knew racism existed but I never even thought too much about it. To me, racists were just  stupid people in other places. And the few times I experienced it (your mom is white? you’re actually Canadian?) I just thought, “Oh, this person is stupid,” and would proceed to explain to them that people of different colours could make kids together and Canada is made up of different people, like duh.

When I was a teenager I was flipping through the channels when I came across a Dr. Phil episode in which a woman who looked like me was talking about how being half white and half black made her feel torn. I listened to her with an emotionally-detached intellectual curiosity. So maybe this is how I would feel if I had been born somewhere else, had lived a different life?

When race was brought up in my university classes, I felt I had to speak up. It wasn’t necessarily because I was dying to say anything, but moreso because as the “ethnic” person in the class, I felt obligated to have an opinion. Not one to have an empty opinion, I started reading and researching  more about racism in different cultural contexts. The more I read, the more  knowledgeable I was when I raised my hand in class; but page after page over reading reinforced  how different other people’s experiences of racism are from mine.

When I read about white privilege I felt confused because I’m not white but I feel like having white privilege hasn’t been a huge factor in my life.  Like, yeah, I’m a “person of colour” but not all people of colour have similar experiences of race, ethnicity, or community.

It was only years after coming out and being comfortable in my own queer skin that I fell in love with community – but a community based around sexuality, not race. Being half black has never made me feel afraid or alone; but being gay has.  I want to be in spaces with queer people because I feel safer and more understood that way. I don’t have to worry about what someone’s going to think when I mention I like women. I can talk about hot girls all I want and not worry that I’m going to offend someone by simply being who I am.

Yet I feel sad sometimes because there aren’t very many people who look like me in these queer spaces I need so much. When I see lesbian couple after lesbian couple with not only matching haircuts and clothes but matching skin colours, I feel alone. I am so many races in one that the odds of dating someone with my exact ethnic background are pretty slim – not that I mind. I only want interracial relationships to be more mainstream. Most people I know would never say they have anything against interracial relationships; but still, most of the people who message me on okcupid, etc. are other women of colour. I don’t want someone to want to date me just because our skin shares a similar pigmentation.

In contrast, sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that a potential (white) love interest is eyeing me up like I’m some beautiful exotic thing it might be fun to play with for a while. I say interesting things and I have cool hair that’s fun to touch. I’m an exciting “different” experience on the way to a “normal” destination.

I just get confused. Being a woman of colour doesn’t mean anything to me. It shouldn’t mean anything to other people either.


For a long time, being a woman of color didn’t mean anything to me. For some people of color – actually, probably for many people of color – racial awareness is shaped through denial of privilege. And while that was certainly a part of my experience, I most definitively developed racial consciousness through education, which is sometimes a difficult thing to wrap my head around, because it means that I developed knowledge of oppression within an institution of privilege. These are hard things to reconcile, but that’s how complicated it all is.

I am a first-generation Filipina, which means a lot of things. The Philippines is the only country in its part of the world to be colonized before it developed any sort of national consciousness. That means the entire history of The Philippines is one of colonization. We were conquered by the Spanish, which means things like: I grew up Catholic, my parents speak a language influenced by Spanish, the tilde over the n in my last name was removed during the naturalization process, and I share a surprising amount of cultural similarities (read: colonial legacies) with my friends who are ethnically from countries in South America.

The Philippines also holds a strong Chinese influence, which means things like: my skin is light, my eyelids are folded, and I’m often read as any miscellaneous type of “Asian.” Identity and upbringing are intersectional, always. I was born in a predominantly Asian neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, but I grew up middle class in the suburbs. I only speak English because, for my parents, it seemed like the easiest way to acclimate me to American culture. The overwhelming majority of my friends, classmates, role models and just people I knew were white, until this past year when I started school at a public university in Brooklyn.

And that’s when I realized that for me, being a woman of color means constantly qualifying my legitimacy and my belonging in the country where I was born, and where I’ve lived my whole life. Because the thing is that you can speak perfect English, you can receive an American education, you can surround yourself with whiteness, and people will still ask you “No, but where are you from from?”

This is what we carry with us every day, sometimes unknowingly. But once you do know it, it can’t be undone or unseen. It’s almost as if the only solution is to thrust it into the light, to talk more, to actively refuse silence and to care for ourselves. Over the past year, I watched my whole group of friends come into a huge collective racial consciousness. It was as if we understood who we were for the first time, and we were able to find comfort and solidarity in each other. That’s real.

And yeah, it’s stupid that a group of people – or multiple groups of people – should be historically and systematically marginalized, excluded, exploited, disenfranchised, dehumanized and STILL have to bear the responsibility of educating people, building power, and defending spaces. But the truth is: ain’t no one gonna do that shit for you. You can’t ask, you can’t wait. You have to do it for yourself.


I don’t remember where I first came across the phrase “Women of Color”. It was probably in some women’s studies class in college or something. It’s existed on the edges of my identity consciousness kinda like the safety net between being awake and being asleep, like even if the privilege/identity checkers say I can’t call myself Puerto Rican because I was born in the Bronx or Hispanic because it’s a term of enslavement, then I can at least still classify myself as a Woman of Color. Right? Sure, whatever.

Actual representation of my ethnic identity.

Writing for Autostraddle has allowed the phrase to flow into descriptions of myself because everyone uses it here and we all know what it means. It means all the other women but not in a non-white kind of way, least not to me. It’s come to be the most beautiful term to use when describing ethnic women. So I use it still wondering why it didn’t leave the same eye-rolling, gag-worthy taste in my mouth the way the phrases “minorities” and “non-white women” do. Enter the reemergence of our WOC panel at A-Camp, immediately the question begged itself: How the hell can I talk about being something I don’t know a damn thing about and haven’t really examined in any way?

Yikes, bad business. I gave more thought to the term and realized that two images always popped up in my head when I thought about where WOC came from:

1) A room full of well-intentioned liberal white feminists determined to come up with a loving and magical term to call their oppressed sisters (ahs).

2) A meadow full of brown/black/tan/rainbow colored sisters deciding to join forces and become WOMEN OF COLOR and fight crime and dance around naked or something.

While that last one is a pretty cool scenario and may provide the basis for the yet-to-be-written graphic novel, neither one of them is legit. So in conversing with a super smart and ridiculously beautiful woman, cuz that’s what I do when I’m trying to figure shit out, I was told that the origin of WOC came from some even greater place and that if I looked hard enough I’d find it. (Did I mention that she lives under a bridge and has a penchant for riddles?)

Anyway, so after some very serious googling, I found the most awesome video, a video that made me question my connection to WOC and the very stories that were already written for this post. Had we all missed the fucking boat? I didn’t know, so I watched it again and well, here, you watch it and then we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled post.

Loretta Ross, cofounder and national coordinator of SisterSong -Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, sharing one of the birthing moments of the term ‘women of color’:

Originally, according to Loretta Ross, WOC was a political term coined for women of oppressed ethnic identities as they combined forces to combat injustice on many levels. (You know in my shoddy layman’s terms that do not do justice to her actual words so please watch the video if you didn’t and just skipped ahead.)  Ross also poses the following: Why have we “reduced a political designation to a biological destiny?”

Because maybe we didn’t know any better? Is that even a valid excuse? Maybe, maybe not. To me, it has way more to do with the proclivity for language to bolt ahead of our inspection while ingraining itself in our vernacular sometimes being crushed in between verbs and nouns without an ounce of original intention. That shit happens allll the time. So now there are multitudes of young WOC who use the term to identify themselves as ethnic women, with or without a political designation. Does that mean we have maligned the term? I don’t think so but it is our duty to question, investigate and thoughtfully examine the fruits of our research, especially when it comes to the terms we use to identify ourselves. We must find a way to do justice to the term WOC and reconnect it to the way we interact with the world through political action. It must be used as the powerful tool that allowed us to name ourselves and a movement fueled by us.  WOC cannot be relegated to the title of another box checked on some form created by some oblivious power structure trying to herd us into some nameless group.

So like Carmen said, we can be Women of Color because we’re colorful but we must also reignite the term with the call to action for which it was created while connecting it to our individual ethnicities and life stories. Otherwise, we may have no right to use it at all.

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Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabby has written 102 articles for us.


  1. “For a long time I felt afraid of kissing my partner in Asian restaurants…Whenever she would lean in to kiss me, I would pause or turn my head or look at her uncomfortably; whenever she wanted to hold my hand over the table I would hesitate before reaching out to her fingers on the white tablecloth between our plates.

    I was afraid of being gay in front of people who were like my family — Asian, immigrant, bi-lingual.”

    Thank you so much for this!! My girlfriend is Korean and she’ll happily walk down the street holding my hand and being affectionate, but as soon as we set foot in an Asian supermarket or restaurant, we’re just “friends”. Same thing happens when we’re around Asian people (strangers, not people who would ever know her family).

    Of course I always want to be supportive and understanding, and I had a vague idea of what was going on in her head, but it helps so much to see it written out.

  2. I loved this post. There was something in each of the panelist’s answers that gave me a sense of feeling grounded and motivated, which is a big deal since I encounter this term lots, in discussions, writings, explorations and as a term with which I identify. Thanks for sharing your answers!

    Wish I could be there in person for this and other undoubtedly important, engaging discussions that will be happening. Next A-camp! =)

  3. What if you don’t really fit in anywhere? My father is unequivocally white but my mother hails from Spain and because of this I speak Spanish, have a deep olive skin tone dark hair and dark eyes. So despite technically being caucasian, I am frequently told that I’m not white. A boy in my high school once asked if he could take a picture of me and interview me for his project on racial minorities in our school and kept brushing off my insistences that I was indeed caucasian. Instead I tend to get lumped into a Latina category which doesn’t really fit me because it doesn’t describe my cultural experience and I would never presume to take over or assume someone else’s.

    So what do all you Portuguese, Italian and Spanish Autostraddlers do? Is saying you’re Iberian a thing? Or do we just go with white despite what other white people say?

    • It’s the 50 shades of white! In the US context of “white,” it always tickled me when they used ethnic to describe poc when everyone (this includes white people too!) has some ethnicity based on cultural and sometimes physical features.

      I guess speaking spanish and being from Spain, the language puts you in the “women of color” because of the lack of understanding Spain’s imperialist history and colonizing countries in South and Central America and Africa. Meaning people in America for some reason think when one speaks spanish one must be Mexican! Also being Mexican has it own cultural multi-racial and ethnic history which includes slavery, colonization and a host of different things that are similar to US history.

      I tend to see Portuguese, Italian and Spanish people white no different from French, German Austria other European countries. (short answer)

      • Your last sentence illuminates the way these definitions change according to context. Spain has that imperial/colonizer history yet among the Anglo-Saxon set, the Spanish/Italians/Portuguese were lower on their imagined racial hierarchy, which (assuming there’s no confusion about Latin America) would explain why people in the UK, the US, Australia or Canada might think of people from Spain as part of another tier of European racialized identity.

      • That’s a super interesting and obviously totally valid way to look at it, to look at the way we think of race as being prepared by colonial history. If someone gets labelled as ethnic or a person of color or a non-Caucasian person, by the people around them growing up, even if this is at odds with the history behind their actual ethnicity or the way they self-identify, do you think this complicates the very definition of race? It probably would affect the way a person looks at themself, the way they relate to others and themself. Do you think that makes race a grayer thing, a thing that could actually be shaped by experience and how you’re seen and you come to interact with others, in addition to what you know about your family and where they’re from and what your biology is? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I’m totally late to comment anyways, but I’m just curious.

      • If we’re going by colonial history, then shit gets even more complicated.

        Japan is a *coloniser* country: they colonised much of Asia and power-dynamics-wise have more in common with Western White countries than the rest of the Asian continent. There is still a lot of strife around Japanese colonial history in some Asian countries.

        The Indian subcontinent has gone through rough histories of being colonised and colonising itself. The Subcontinent was once colonised by Muslim Moghul warlords (think Genghis Khan and co) from Mongolia, who were then overtaken by the British. Somewhere in the struggle for independence the Muslims wanted to be separated from the Hindus and asked for their own country, which led to the formation of Muslim Pakistan enveloping Hindu India. The Persian-side Pakistanis imposed their culture, *especially* the language, onto the more Bengalis in East Pakistan, who were more culturally similar to Hindus but were split between the Muslims in East Pakistan and the Hindus in Kolkata. The Bengalis wanted independence and choice over their language and culture – which then lead to a war that saw West Pakistan destroy vital Bengali infrastructure and eradicate their best minds through university massacres. Eventually the Bengalis won and became Bangladesh – but now suffer from deep poverty and strife as a result of being wartorn.

        Then there’s Malaysia, colonised by the Dutch and Brits and Japanese, and in the fervour of casting out “White devils” turned into a Malay supremacist country. Everything is segregated by race and politicians bring up the race riots of 1963 as cause to censor discussions on racism and integration. “Muslim” and “Malay” become conflated, and “Muslim” becomes more Arabicised (I reckon cynically to get more Arab money) – so traditional Malay culture, also largely inspired by Hindu and Buddhist cultures, is slowly disappearing. Peninsular Indigenous people get no recognition while the Borneo Indigenous folks have tenuous relationships with the larger administration. Migrant labour from places like Bangladesh are lured to work in Malaysia under the guise of “Muslim brotherhood” – and then find themselves scapegoats for the country’s problems and accused of “doing Islam wrong”.

        Stuff like this is why, despite technically being a person of color and finding some resonance with POC politics because of my lifelong experiences with institutional & personal racism, I have major qualms with US-centric POC politics. My oppressors during my formative years were not White (it’s only been in recent years that I’ve had to deal with white supremacy). My family’s oppressors were not always White and indeed we share some joint blood and culpability. Solidarity is important, but who am I supposed to share solidarity with?

  4. WOC? Women of color? Yes, yes please.

    Being born in Nigeria and coming here to the US has put me in funny, annoying and fascinating experiences racial/ethnic micro-agressions, horizontal oppression and lots of denial and alcohol (this increased going to Penn State) when dealing with my ethnic heritage. A brown body is a brown body is a brown body that comes with it’s own assumptions/prejudices depending on space that brown body takes up. It was my name that othered me from black and white americans and my transition due to my parents class mobility from “just came into the country status” to “oh shit! you’re a Cosby kid.”

    When I was growing up in a predominately black neighborhood my name outed my perceived otherness and I was made fun of. I felt alone but managed to make friends. When my parents made more money their decision to love to a predominately white neighborhood had me feel othered (again) but not because of my name but I knew my body just existing in a space where people looked different from me, I felt I was going to be alone because I was the only poc in my classes. I was aware about being a poc, I couldn’t deal with the racism I saw on tv, observed from the statements my white peers would say about “other black people.” It was then I decided to assimilate myself to being a “real” American.

    Despite my name I wanted to show the white people I am no different from them, so I developed interests that seemed to reflect and aura of whiteness. Somethings I couldn’t participate in because money got in the way but certain things interests like Japanese anime and listening to rock music (Linkin Park was my gateway -_-).

    “I didn’t know black people liked metal, interesting/cool!”
    “Ugh thank god you are not like those ‘other black people!’ I could invite you over.”
    “So articulate no wonder my daughter likes you and on the debate team! I would love to hear your parents story on really taking the American dream seriously.”
    “Africans tend to do better, if you know what I mean. Almost like Asian people.”

    Despite the annoying things people said, I was doing well until I realized I was a gay and really queer lady.

    Coming out in Penn State, haha, I had to deal with assimilating with white people but I had to be straight. I was aware about white gay/queer people but I was in denial about that before. I jumped into the queer community forgetting about my Nigerian heritage and came out to my parents. Sweet baby jesus that was a terrifying time and relaying those experiences to my fellow queers in Penn State I was met with blank stares and sympathetic looks of horror. I realized then I just couldn’t relate to the openness, the outness of my other queer (usually white) people at Penn State. I was alone again. So I went online to try to find a community because I could not be as out, as open about my sexuality. I found the same problem in some of the mainstream queer lady websites but with some reading LOTS OF reading, I started to pick up the fragmented pieces of my identity. It has been years and I’m working on my internalization of racism, homophobia, classism and other uglies but finding myself has been cathartic.

    I use the term woman of color to reflect my personal understanding of reading Bell Hooks and Alice Walker and how internalized them to make them into weapons against oppression. I’m a gay black woman, a woman of color in solidarity for other women in different backgrounds. We are colorful, we are beautiful and thanks for creating a space to discuss our lives that are often ignored. Love you all :D

  5. Thank you, Autostraddle for continuously writing pieces about WOC topics and issues. It always feels like in my real, every day world that nobody understands why WOC/POC topics are important to understand, let alone how racism has affected me, and why I get upset when it happens. I love that Autostraddle is so persistent in talking about these things, and is building it’s own welcoming community for queer WOC. Thank you all for sharing your stories!

    Also/on a sidenote, I especially can relate to Carmen’s story. I’ve kind of went through a similar process in my life, in which I always knew in the back of my mind what my heritage was, but I would always deny a part of it, as if it didn’t exist. I embrace all the parts of my different cultures now that I’m older, but when I think of how I used to act, I realized that I was so embarrassed of admitting the other part of my identity. It’s kind of sad that I used to feel that way, but I understand why my younger self felt that way, and I’m glad now that I’ve come to terms with the same kind of “coming out” that Carmen had described.

  6. As Gabby well knows, I love me some WOC panels. Please don’t stop, Autostraddle. It’s so nice to have stories that represent the experiences of so many different individuals to look forward to here.

  7. I must admit it doesn’t mean a great deal to me. I was born and raised in East Africa; I’m a naturalised British citizen, now living in central Europe. I’m a black woman but when referred to as a woman of colour it doesn’t bother me, I see it as part of the person’s lexicon but I would continue by calling myself a black woman within the same conversation.
    I asked some of my black British and black African friends what it means to them. In a few cases they didn’t like it at all because the use of the word colour reminds them too much of the offensive use of ‘Coloureds’ in colonial history.
    In general WOC is a term I encounter very seldom in my every day British life; I most often come across it here on Autostraddle actually. For this reason I have warmed to the phrase more than my pre-Autostrad days when all it conveyed to me was the very vague statistic ‘women who aren’t white’, with no further political, cultural, sociological or any other connotation.

  8. “Yet I feel sad sometimes because there aren’t very many people who look like me in these queer spaces I need so much. When I see lesbian couple after lesbian couple with not only matching haircuts and clothes but matching skin colours, I feel alone. I am so many races in one that the odds of dating someone with my exact ethnic background are pretty slim – not that I mind.

    In contrast, sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that a potential (white) love interest is eyeing me up like I’m some beautiful exotic thing it might be fun to play with for a while. ”

    This is me. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to admit to myself that my color could be a reason that its harder for me to meet womyn/have a connection with womyn. I’m always just hoping for the best that one day I’ll meet someone that will love me for me.

  9. “Being a woman of colour doesn’t mean anything to me. It shouldn’t mean anything to other people either.”

    Thank you for this. The first time I heard the phrase “Woman of Color” was right here on Autostraddle. It’s also where I first heard the phrase “white privilege”. I grew up in a country (and region) with virtually zero racial diversity. Everyone was white, and apart from brief moments in my education,race/racism was never discussed. Privilege was defined by social status and not much else. It wasn’t until I was old enough to travel on my own that I got to step out into a world that was different than the one I knew while growing up. When I studied abroad (in Belgium), the fact that I was white didn’t do much to make me feel accepted or not discriminated against. I was still the girl from *gasp* eastern Europe, from an ex communist country, and the only people who didn’t seem to care about that were the black people. I lived in a black neighborhood and sometimes in clubs my roommate and me would be the only white people in the room. But the point is, it never felt weird or anything, for me race was still not an issue. Which brings me back to what Malaika wrote. Except that in my case it’s that being white doesn’t mean anything to me. I know this is a sensitive topic, so I wanna make it clear that I’m not trying to invalidate anyone’s experience or say that racism doesn’t exist or that cultural/ethnic/racial background doesn’t matter. I just wanted to share some of my feelings on the issue. As for the phrase itself, my first thought was Carlin and this clip:
    Nuff said.

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  11. “When I see lesbian couple after lesbian couple with not only matching haircuts and clothes but matching skin colours, I feel alone.”

    yes. exactly. indian-american, all of my partners have been white. my girlfriend’s family happens to be racist as well, and i’m meeting them this weekend. it’s hard to explain to her (or to any non-POC friends, really) what being a ~woman of color~ is like, though i’ve certainly tried. it’s frustrating that no one actually believes i’m queer because i’m indian- and that’s just having to do with outside perceptions of me, not even with what being queer means in my culture itself.

    articles like this make me feel not so alone, which is such a nice change from the normal. thank you.

  12. I am someone you would class as a woman of colour. I was brought up by a white looking mother with a white adoptive sister and a white father. My mother is half Asian (Oriental) but seemed to get none of the genetically stereotypical things, folded eyes, shade of skin, etc. But then I get all of those things even though I am even less of an Asian %. My eyes are partly folded, my skin has an ‘Asian hue’ as I usually describe it if asked. I was often asked if I was the adopted sister, but it didn’t offend me, I understood, I don’t look anything like my parents, it doesn’t offend me because I know if I was looking at my family without my experience I would pick me as the adopted child and not my sister, with naturally pale skin, freckles and red hair like my father. But guess what, the fact a few generations ago there was an Asian bloke in my family has absolutely nothing to do with who I am. Having Welsh, Irish, English, French, Scottish and Canadian in my genetics also mean nothing. I am a person. On forms, I write ‘I’d rather not say’. Because, I don’t think the shade of my skin has anything to do with anything else in my life. It actually upsets me when people assume that because I have a tiny bit of Asian in my heritage that I am ‘of colour’. I was approached at pride to sign a petition about race, they did not approach my fiance, a white woman with green eyes and blonde hair or my sister in law, a white woman with blue eyes and blonde hair. That shit offends me, don’t come and TELL me I am of colour, don’t come and tell me what I should label myself as. She said ‘as a woman of colour, we ask you to sign our petition…’ which is when I cut her off ‘I am not a woman of colour, I am a woman, my colour is no part of that’. And unfortunately, I find ‘women of colour’ are the worst at telling me I am a ‘woman of colour’. I have no attachment to that tiny bit of Asian heritage, I have no attachment to my French heritage or my Scottish or Canadian. I hate that when people look at me they call me mixed race, I hate that they feel the need to look at me and discuss my race. I want these ‘racial barriers’ to end and I don’t think segregating yourselves as ‘women of colour’ is helping to put everyone on an equal footing regardless of their colour.

    I do feel offended when people talk about me as ‘mixed race’ or ‘white’ or anything because I am none of those things. I am not a any colour, I am not a tick box, I am not in a special segregated group. Being ‘of colour’ should not mean anything to any of you. You are all people, you have cultures, yes, but that is nothing to do with your race. You can be white and have Indian culture, you can be black and have a French culture, etc. Culture is what we should focus on, not colour.

    • * In many places culture and color are conflated; certainly there is plenty of correlation on how you would be *treated*.

      * It’s this thing about how you are *treated* that’s really key in POC/anti-racist politics. I wish people didn’t make a big deal over my ethnicity or nationality, but they *do*, from the person down the street to the Government. Race may be a social construct but that doesn’t make it any less *real* in its effects.

      * Define “culture”. I am a child of Bangladeshi migrants, born and raised in Malaysia. Malaysian culture is what I know best, but (as a comment above explains) since Malaysia works on a weird integrated-but-separated hybrid, my experience of Malaysia is and has always been as someone coded Other. I just moved to San Francisco from 6 years in Australia and in many ways I am a hell of a lot more “Westernised” than my Asian or other ethnic-minority peers, even those that have spent some time in the US (esp being queer poly kinky ++). Even then in the US or Australia I’m never going to properly assimilate into White Western culture, but I stick out in diaspora circles too; I am the “foreigner” in my family tree. Which culture am I supposed to belong to? Which culture do people assume I’m in? Which one holds more weight?

  13. This is interesting. I am 100 percent Cuban, but kinda light skinned, which is pretty common. I refer to myself as hispanic usually, but white as well, because technically, white would be my “race”. My parents always referred to themselves as white which I always found strange and rebelled against when I was younger, but I think this had to a lot to do with culture. When I refer to “white people” though, I think of “other” people and not myself. But I would never call myself a woman of color.

  14. When folks ask me what it’s like be queer, this is my response:
    “So let me get this straight: You’re black, female, queer, and you’re not even Christian???

    Pack your bags and get off the planet; nobody wants you.”

    Of I say this in a tongue in cheek tone but I think speaks to the hurdles that we have to jump. But I believe when you leap the universe will catch you.

  15. Courtesy of the 1 drop rule I’m a WOC and proud of it! I remember in class we talked about how gay WOC don’t have it easy because they have to overcome the obstacles of being a POC, female, & gay.

    • I’m not sure how far the one-drop thing goes. I come from New Zealand and have some Māori ancestry, but my most recent Māori ancestor is five generations back, I wasn’t brought up with Māori culture and I get read as white by pretty much everyone, especially since moving to the UK, so I feel like it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to claim the POC label. Being part Māori is still something I identify quite strongly with, though.

      • The 1 drop rule is really an American thing, but I see no reason why you cannot claim and be proud of your Maori heritage. All because you appear white doesn’t mean you’re not Maori. I know several black people who pass for white, but they are still black. Be Maori and proud!

  16. I have very curly hair and my skin is light brown/tan year round. If I had a dollar (hell, even a nickel) for every time I am asked “What color are you?” I would have lunch money forever. My favorite question is when people shorten it to “what are you?” I live in America, and I am Russian, although I don’t actually know of any relatives who are directly from, or have ever lived in Russia. I do not identify myself as Russian, and I certainly don’t look the part. I’ve noticed people with dark skin ask me what color I am more often than light skinned folks.

    I have never considered myself a WOC, but I suppose I am? I am not white, but Russians are typically light skinned and I am Russian. Can WOC simply be an aesthetic thing or must it be attached to a culture/nationality?

    When I’m asked what color I am/what am I I automatically feel alienated or judged based on my response, so I typically point to my arm and respond “this color.”

  17. i am a proud black queer woman, a woman of color.

    i’m also light skinned and grew up in a predominately white neighborhood, so most of my childhood was spent around white friends who tried to erase my black identity by saying that “i wasn’t really black anyway” and “i didn’t act like THOSE people.” i spent some time deconstructing myself and rejecting my former need to assimilate which i had craved so much when i was younger.

    i was also pretty damn lucky because i went to college at an HBCU (historically black college and university) and was surrounded, daily, by a diverse community of color.

    in a society where whiteness it’s established as the status quo and anything else is “otherness”, it’s pretty important to have poc collectives and establish discussions like these in all circles, including queer circles where unfortunately in some spaces white privilege can run deep.

    being a queer woman of color means so much to me. it affects how i operate, how i view the world, how others view me, etc. it allows me to love all the complexities that come with these intersections. and it gives me a community to take refuge in when straight/white/male privilege becomes too overbearing.

  18. Being 100% black and the daughter of black militants, being of colour meant something to me as a child. Because race was a topic that you couldn’t avoid. It was all up in my face, though I didn’t ask for such…Whether I was ostracised for “acting white”, “talking white” or “dressing white”, isolated and picked on for having big lips, nappy hair and broad features or by being “well spoken” and not like a “typical black person”…

    I hung out with other black people, then I rebelled by hanging out/dating white people. Unfortunately, I didn’t find my tribe in either circles. Now I am just cool with whoever is cool with me.

    Now that I am older, it really matters very little unless it’s someone else bringing it up. I *know* I am a woman of colour, but that all it means to me, just a skin colour. I understand why many other POCs need collectives or a safe space or to identify with their POC-ness. I, on the other hand have little-no interest in POC politics at this point in my life.

  19. Discussions regarding identity and labels fascinate me more and more over time. This was a very interesting article, thanks y’all.

  20. I grew up as the daughter of an artist, and I was taught from babyhood to look at colours, to see how they change in shadows and light. I was taught not to see with my mind but to open my eyes and look, really look at what was before me. It is amazing how just this changes your world — shadows are not grey, like you’ve been taught, but often purple, blue and even pink. When we describe people as a colour it is political — it has everything to do with what is in our minds and little to do with the pigments we are actually seeing. My “black” friend is lighter than his tanned “white” friend. Mixed children are always described as asian, black, native, etc. – ignoring that half their genetics. Most of us are some shade of brown – from very, very pale beige (off-white…) to rich mahogany. Is any “white” person actually white? Paper and paint are white – people never are. I recognize that we are included, excluded, and descriminated against based on perceived or actual colour. However, I can’t help wanting my colour to be absolutely irrelevant because it is, after all, simply an accident of birth and no more important than the shape of my toes or the size of my ears — all aspects of my physical self that I can not control. Thank you Autostraddle for engaging us in this discussion.

    • I was going to say: It means a lot to me, because I was raised in a very interesting family, because my whole family is dark until you get to my siblings, my aunt and myself. My mother is a light olive skin, but hides behind highlighted blonde hair. I did not inherit my father’s eyes, deep dark and Native. I did not inherit my grandmother’s skin of caramel… but I still have all the weird hair issues, (i.e. Frida Kahlo brow, mustache waxing since birth, you know) and we don’t speak the language… but I feel it. I heard my aunties speak it, and grew with it in my soul. And when people call me white I sometimes have to check my arm, and see it’s pastiness. Being a femme and a pale woman of colour, I suffer both erasures of my identities, so much that when people interviewed me for my school paper they asked, how can you be the Director of Diversity, you’re white and straight…
      Thank you, as always, Autostraddle!

  21. i’m ambivalent about the term women of color. i support use of woc or people of color for protests, community activism, and as a political voting block, and even to explain the simple difference between white people and people of color in america. i admit there are some shared commonalities amongst women of color the same as there are shared commonalities amongst all races and ethnicities of queer women. yet, the same way i often alienated from white lesbians for having not having to personally deal with racism or (EVEN WORSE) not even acknowledging white privilege, i sometimes feel alienated from other queer women of color because different groups of people of color experience discrimination and oppression differently. even on autostraddle, an asian queer woman just HAD to expose how blacks and latinos are swindling affirmative action so that they can be lazy (at least lazier then asians) and get into college solely based on the color of their skin (black and brown skin). which was a nicer version of the white supremacist shit i’ve read on from the mouth of an asian person.

    and during the autostraddle discussions of blackface there were latino and asian queer posters blatantly being dismissive of how offensive blackface is to black autostraddle posters and to many black people in general. (you can look up that racefail yourselves. where was the moderator to shut down some of the blatant racism and ignorance being exhibited by a good majority the posters?)although i had told some people off in these threads and at times took relish in doing so, a queer/lesbian space and even a queer/lesbian women of color space don’t automatically qualify for me as safe and comfortable spaces. i hate having to be the one to “racism 101” with queers on autostraddle and on other websites and spaces that purport to respect intersectionality. being a queer woc doesn’t mean you are not susceptible to perpatrating stereotypes and discriminating against other queers of color (particularly blacks, since that is my personal experience). i think all queer women of color have some work to do before we can really unite under that banner on a personal level.

  22. YES, sam and YES 2x lyric melody. I don’t even need to say anything (which is what I usually do on these topics) but haaay….y’all done said what I wanted to say and more.


    making me so happy to be a queer black disabled womanist. loving my communities all day.

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