Throughout my life, I’ve held on dearly to the bonds I’ve formed with people of color.
I especially revere my core group of friends who identify as women of color because of the sense of solidarity we’ve felt for each other. We grew up in a predominantly white, southern town, so the connections we fostered across racial and ethnic lines were powerful.
In a barrage of whiteness, building this coalition made me feel less alone. These relationships were crucial building blocks for me to unapologetically embrace my intersectional Filipinx American identity when I so often felt ashamed of how I stood out as the “other.”
This collective friendship was the first time I had ever experienced sincere solidarity among people of color. But as I’ve grown to build upon my social consciousness and expose myself to activist spaces for people of color, I’ve begun to question more and more my place in these spaces as an Asian American woman.
Before college, my understanding of social justice was admittedly shallow. I had narrow means of consciousness-building amid a public school education that taught us that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, and limited access to resources to cultivate my own self-education in the first place. All I knew was that the connections I fostered with my core friend group came from a place of what I perceived as shared struggle.
What I didn’t acknowledge were the degrees to which that marginalization affected us individually. While I acknowledged the obvious differences in experiences between me, a Filipinx American woman, and my Latinx and Black friends in high school, I didn’t know how to deconstruct the way my privileges as a light-skinned Asian American set me closer to whiteness than my Black and Brown friends, and how problematic this can be when identifying as a person of color.
When I entered college, I immediately immersed myself in my alma mater’s Asian American community. I not only learned about and advocated for the issues that uniquely affect my community, but I also became keenly aware of how Asian Americans were used as a wedge between Whiteness and Blackness, and how our community has been used to antagonize Black Americans with the model minority myth.
After learning how Asian Americans can be complicit in anti-Blackness. I became leery of an identity that I previously thought was irrefutable. I started questioning more and more, “can I even call myself a person of color?”
The answer to that is a bit complicated. If non-Black people of color in general are going to use the term, we must use it with extreme caution to context and know when to sit down during racial justice conversations.
Colorism and classicism are real. As a light-skinned Filipinx American woman from an upper-middle background, I do not experience oppression and violence the same way folks who have darker complexions or those who come from lower-socioeconomic households do.
Although I am an Asian American woman who experiences oppression and marginalization in unique ways, my experiences are not interchangeable with those of Black Americans. This difference is key in critically discussing race relations and how centering my own experiences can diminish the significance of others.
Systemic forms of oppression like racism affects different communities in different ways, and language is crucial to assuring that these differences are recognized and that we’re uplifting the most marginalized, even in the ways that we use the term “people of color.”
I often feel exploitative when I call myself a person of color, which in itself is already a broad umbrella term. By claiming this name without context, I am unwittingly erasing the experiences of Black and Brown folks that experience oppression in ways that are often more violent and fatal.
While I can acknowledge the ways white supremacy oppresses me and other Asian Americans, I can acknowledge and advocate for my community’s struggles without erasing the very real and violent experiences of others.
For non-Black people of color, we have to recognize our privileges and confront how we unwittingly oppress each other when we erase Blackness in an attempt to form solidarity. I am simply not entitled to all spaces for people of color, and that’s okay.
I can identify as a woman or person of color for purposes of coalition-building and unity, but I have to de-center my experiences as a non-Black woman of color when hearing about the experiences of Black women of color. We need to center the experiences of those most marginalized and disenfranchised, not conflate them with our own.