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Feminspire | April 19, 2014

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Brown, Black, Asian: One Word Can’t Define a Woman of Color

Brown, Black, Asian: One Word Can’t Define a Woman of Color

Black and white. Brown, yellow and red. These are much more than colors. They are indicators of race. In America, they are indicators of where you stand in a racially divided world.

This may sound controversial — to some it may even sound false — but who can deny it? America is still largely controlled by racial divisions. Why is that? Isn’t race nothing but a political concept created to divide and weaken people? Isn’t it a concept that erases rich cultural traditions and creates generalizations?

To call myself brown is to deny my roots and how deep they run. It denies my ability to be more than just a statistic, more than just Hispanic. To be considered black or white (even yellow if people truly use that term) makes you become yet another shade of color on a painter’s palette. Not Mexican. Not Korean. Not Peruvian. Not Cherokee. Not even a member of a people spanning back to the glory of West African nations.

Yet the concept of race has engrained itself into our American culture. With the inception of slavery in 17th century colonial America, the distinction between skin color — and the meaning attached to it — has not only existed in the states, but thrived.

Woman of ColorOver the centuries, society has formed well-worn perspectives on what the perfect definition of each race is. This has led to racial extremes: The image of black women is dark-skinned and naturally curvy, with short hair, and et cetera. A Hispanic or Latin woman is short, olive-skinned, with dark brown eyes and long hair.

These ideals are racist on their own; they do not need help in exposing the prejudice behind our society’s interest in crafting racial examples of minority groups.

More than that, these examples are also dangerously inaccurate. Of course, not all African-American women will fit the archetype, nor will all Latinas. While women judged by such standards may know this — the rest of America may not.

The interconnectedness of race with racism is not difficult to understand. Relying on broad terms such as “black” for a diverse group of individuals with ethnic roots spread far and wide simplifies and belittles something that is far more complex. It is the lazy way of dealing with people — it lumps them all into a category and refuses to look at their uniqueness or differences even when examples can be found in every single person you meet.

It can also be incredibly hurtful to be held up to a standard created solely to label you in an easier-to-read package. Even detrimental values are values we unintentionally aspire to reach since they are branded and marketed on the stimuli we’re exposed to in everyday life. Television shows, beauty products, fashion advertising and music are but a few of the subliminal ways we are exposed to standards of race we compare ourselves to.

Would life as women of color be easier if we did away with the idea of race altogether, assuming that is even possible?

Instead of being judged as Asian —  a derogatory term misleading and dishonest in its lack of truth — one could be identify as Cambodian, Hmong, Filipino, among several other ethnicities long misrepresented in  mainstream America without having outsiders look at you with confusion.

Staunchly defending the background one identifies with would also deny racists and white America the ease of grouping all individuals with the same skin tone, hair texture or any other physical feature into one large, misunderstood group.

The disillusion of racial boundaries may seem like a utopian concept; it may also be just as destructive as being judged as one large minority conglomeration.

While “minority” groups can band together by self-identifying as people (or women) of color, if one chose to identify solely as, say, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Yaqui and Mescalero Apache such as myself, they could potentially isolate themselves from a larger community fighting the same battles.

What path would you choose in your fight against racism, discrimination and misrepresentation in America? Is it more ideal to identify on the larger scale and accept that the concept of race still exists, or is it more powerful to defy such vague terms to identify with your specific ethnicity? Can you identify with both? Will it even make a difference? Share your thoughts with us in the comments — I look forward to meeting you there.

Written by Kevynn Gomez

  • Meg

    I agree with many of your arguments and agree whole-heartedly that we too often lump minority groups together. However, I’m not sure I agree when you say that the term “Asian” is a “derogatory term misleading and dishonest in its lack of truth”. I grew up in a community with a very large population of “Asians” and my high school was 85% Asian. I agree that the term fails to recognize the diversity of the cultures of the Asian continent, but I don’t think it’s necessarily derogatory. Kids at my school called themselves Asians, and the term was brought into usage (at least in my town) because it was more offensive assume a group of Asians were Chinese (when they could be Korean or Japanese for example), which was the norm until quite recently.

  • Batty

    In tone with Meg, I generally agree with what you say but take issue with some points:

    1. The fact that only America was referenced here – multi-culturalism exists in many other places, such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Likewise, racism, discrimination and misrepresentation happen in these places as well. While this America-centristic approach is common to Feminspire (and, indeed, much of the internet), it is rather annoying to see an article on race and colour (yay! finally!) completely alienate anyone who is not American (me, for example).

    I go to an incredibly ethnically diverse school and many people from Asia go there, including myself. Being able to collectively call ourselves “Asian” and “yellow” (which IS used but generally somewhat ironically or in a joking tone) gives us common ground. In fact there are MANY things that Asians, particularly Central-East and South-East Asians, have in common – an obsession for K-pop and k-dramas, a love of anime and manga, crazy driving in our home countries (too many people, too little space), stuff from night markets and eating rice for lunch. We all share these things, whether we are Filipino (the majority at my school), Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, of mixed heritage (me!) or what-have-you. We share these things even if the only language we share is English and even if we don’t belong to the same ethnicity. There’s nothing derogatory about being called “Asian” – there are some problems with terms like “yellow” (for one thing, not all Asians have a golden tinge and I can’t think of a single person I know who is yellow) but, like most slang, when used responsibly, “yellow” is just another adjective to identify with.

    3. While the idea of people being ‘racially’ different is absurd (you can’t base someone on how they look to determine their race – some people just don’t look like the ethnic group they belong to, among other iffy reasons), people ARE CULTURALLY different and will have different ideas in regards to social behaviour – British and Western table manners can be very different from Asian table manners, as can parenting methods, religious practices (even if it’s the SAME religion) and what is appropriate to talk about (Chinese people, for example, are generally more open about their toilet habits than the British, for example). Ethnicity is one thing and culture is another. Identifying by your cultural group – South-East Asian, Asian, yellow, African, African-American or black – allows you to share your culture with others, even without having to be of the same ethnicity.

    Uh, I may have gone off into a tangent there. I hope my comment still addressed the article and still related to what was discussed there.

  • Guest

    My children are in the politically correct terminology Melada

  • Vickie Sims

    This race band wagon and grouping people together…??? Do we even need to do that in this day and age? I have two children that if you want to categorize them by race and get technical I will give you a challenge. OK, here goes: They are African American, German, English,Irish, Italian, Cherokee, Blackfoot, and possibly Polynesian. So…you mean to tell me it’s necessary to “lump” my children into some classification? If you looked at my children without them saying a word to them and had to guess their nationality, you would put them in the Hispanic lump. They don’t have a drop of Hispanic blood in them that I know of. So you cannot just look at someone and judge what their nationality is, even of Asian descent. Sorry…there are quite a few Hispanic people with those pretty slant to their eyes. Are people aware that Filipino People speak Spanish? Ahhhh….Very Asian persuasion!!! Stop all this judgemental “lumping” terminology. If you are in Rome…do as the Romans do. This is The United States of America. I emphasize UNITED. Everyone here is a part of the “Human Race”.

  • Litost

    Mehhh my partner is Arab and I send him lovey-dovey texts everyday about how “special and brown” he is. Before we go to bed at night I tell him he’ll wake up tomorrow more brown and beautiful than he was today. I can feel you all suppressing your gags – sorry!! That was the last example. Our difference in colour has become a term of endearment for us, in fact a lot of jokes in our relationship are based on our colour difference. He jokes we can’t spoon at night because my freckles and red hair (I’m Irish) might rub off on him, and in the morning we have coffee in a brown and white mug (respectively). We celebrate our racial difference as it’s part of who we are as individuals and who we are as a couple! I think ignoring race isn’t necessarily the answer to racism, but just maybe accepting and celebrating difference in race as a general difference – like a difference in hair colour or eye colour or music preference: no big deal! My God I don’t know what we’d do if we suddenly couldn’t comment on our racial difference anymore.. we’d lose half our inside jokes!

  • Yasmeen

    For Black people, however, I feel that race cannot be eradicated. Since our history was washed out via the Transatlantic slave trade, we have nothing else to “culturally” tie use together but our Blackness. We do not have the privilege of being about to denote where we come from, because for many no such records exisit. Yes, race is a very filthy way of grouping and identify people; however, we have to remember that it is a social construction and is not perfect.

    Wonderful article :)

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  • Sara

    without having even read this article, my only question is why a piece talking about limiting the definition of a woman features a photo of all THIN, AIRBRUSHED models

  • Sara

    more like, why it’s okay to be a woman of color so long as you are thin and beautiful

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  • Laura

    Hello, I have a very specific question…. How should describe an antique miniature hand painted portrait that I am selling? She is from the 19th century and possible could be Surinam. She is lovely. I think to describe her color makes her stand out for her uniqueness. If anyone could tell me what her ethnicity is I would be grateful. But, barring that, I do need to describe her?