Women of Color - A Reply

by Fazia Rizvi

The following is a reply to an e-mail message the 3rdwwwave recieved just a couple of weeks after a live interview on 'Feminist Magazine', a Pacifica Radio program based in California at KPFK, 90.7fm Los Angeles. Feminist Magazine airs from 7pm to 8pm (Pacific Time), every Wednesday.

The interview was 15 minutes long and covered such questions as 'What is the third wave of feminism?', 'What are our issues?', 'Is there a place for men?', 'Who are our sheroes?', 'What do we think of the media potrayal of women?', 'Is the internet really important for our activism?' and 'Is there any tension with 'old feminists'.' The 3rdwwwave web site was mentioned several times.

On Sun, 20 Aug 2000, aura xxxxxx wrote:

> I've been too busy the last few weeks preparing for the Democratic National 
> Convention to write to you, but now that it's over, I want to tell you how 
> insulted I am as a woman of color to hear you on KPFK and to see your 
> website. What third wave? When you speak of women, you must surely be 
> referring to upper class white women, I'm sure. You do not give any mention 
> to the first wave many women of color are still facing with gender issues in
> this country and around the world. On page one of your site, you obviously
> recognize your privilege to a certain extent but why don't you address it in
> respect to women of color?


I was the woman speaking on that radio program. I hope you will permit me to respond to you at some length.

I am a first-generation American. My father is from south asia. Born in India before The Partitioning, he lived in Pakistan after they had to flee during the civil war that followed India's independence. He came to this country as a student in his late twenties. I have family in both India and Pakistan as well as disputed Kashmir.

My mother is from Scandinavia, from Finland - a country with one fifth of it's population living abroad. My grandfather died in The Winter War, leaving my grandmother to raise my mother alone in country living with rationing for nearly a decade later, helped in part by pensions provided to widows and children of veterans of that war. She arrived in this country also in the mid 1960s as a nurse.

My parents met in the cultural melting pot of the United States, and worked very hard, from war-torn family backgrounds and as immigrants in this country to build a middle-class life.

I was born in the United States, and have lived most of my life in Texas, as a young muslim woman in the Baptist Bible belt. Mehndi (temporary henna tattoos) were something I grew up with as a part of my culture - a wedding and religious practice of women, not a teenage fad. One grandmother taught me how to do needlework, and introduced me to a heritage filled with legends of forest trolls and poetry from the Kalevala. My other grandmother brought me bangles and silk saris, and wore a diamond in her nose, not because it was trendy body piercing but because that's what all women of her time and culture did. I grew up with Tex-Mex food and latino music. I ate Cheerioes for breakfast and Biryani for dinner. I had a 'kissu' and a 'koira' and a reindeer skin on my wall while growing up, and said 'Khoda Hafiz', 'As Salam Aliekum' and learned to write Arabic script.

I was the only woman of my generation in my family to refuse an arranged marriage. I'm also the only one to be living on her own. I deal with people who automatically think I was born elsewhere because my name is not 'American' as often as I deal with young men of the middle east and south asia who think I am a 'nice Pakistani' girl when I accomplish someting and 'too Americanized' when I behave independently.

People have thought I was Hispanic, Arabic or Greek from my looks. They have assumed I was Italian or Iranian from my name. But they would never classify me as white, much less upper class and white.

That you can so easily dismiss me and my thoughts as upper class and white and that you find those thoughts so valueless leaves me feeling insulted and angry. And moreover, invisible. In fact, that's the title of my introduction on the 3rdwwwave web site - the Invisible Feminist. Obviously I was not far off the mark there. Unfortunately the audience of that essay was meant to be the middle class white feminists of the 60's and 70's. It was meant to show them that something other than the 'noble savage' woman of color existed, and that our perspectives on feminism were multi-dimensional and valid. It makes me feel frustrated and somewhat angry that I am invisible to more than just that audience as evidenced by your response.

The really sad thing is that I find all women's experiences to be valuable. Even the 'upper class' and 'white'. I learned a lot from the poor white women I've known - my best friend of 20 years came from a trailer-home, Polish descendant background. She opened my eyes to the perils of white rural women and how difficult it was to live as a single woman in that environment as well. We both have to fight societies idea that we should get married and have babies as soon as possible. We both have to fight social structures that make doing things on our own - buying car, building a fence, getting a septic tank installed - difficult, because it's setup for men to do for women. And she has difficulties that I would never face: every man she deals with, whether it be the one boarding her horse or the one digging a post hole for a fence, wants to be paid in sex. And I have difficulties that she would never face: such as extended family pressure to bow to an arranged marriage. The upper class white girls I've know face a society even more unbending in gender roles than my own immigrant, ethnic one. They face higher levels of depression and suicide than my ethnic group, and domestic abuse is well hidden in that socio-economic class. So when an upper-class white woman speaks about her feminist perspective I find it just as full of worth as the poor black woman who speaks too.

I've had friends of other economic classes and many different ethnicities. All of us have had experiences that none of the other groups could share. And all of us had experiences that cut across our racial and socio-economic lines and cut right to the heart of being a woman in this time and place. I found them all valuable. I found none of those voices worthy of such dismissal you've expressed with us at 3rdwwwave, no matter the color or socio-economic status. Ad I've found none of them so easily categorized. The five women who also write for the 3rdwwwave web site are not classifiable as 'upper class' by any means, and each belongs to a minority group of some kind.

You ask, why don't we address gender issues that focus on women of color? If you read our web site and understood the nature of it's existence, you'd already know the answer to that question. This site is a compilation of personal essays by six, and only six, women who've known each other for nearly ten years now. It is a place to speak of our own, very personal, perspectives and experiences. We will speak only for ourselves and NOT for all women or for women whose perspective we cannot accurately portray. That's why our site is called '3rdwwwave' and not 'Third Wave'. Just because we band together into a small group does not mean we become one vague definition of 'woman' that applies across the board. For too long men have sought to define women as one objective entity - as if all women were the same. We are not.

I will not speak for 'upper class white women'. They will speak for themselves. I will not speak for Latino women. They will speak for themselves. I will not speak for African-American women. They will speak for themselves. I will not speak for Japanese women. They will speak for themselves. I at least will include those voices in as my peers, no matter their experience. I will not dismiss their point of view as worthless. I will provide as many bridges as I can to their point of view and their voice - forwarding their words, providing links on an internet web site, or making sure that they are sought out to speak for themselves. BUT I WILL NOT SPEAK FOR THEM. I have found that when someone else speaks for me, I am less than happy with the results.

As for myself? I could play the part of the ethnic voice very well. I could write my umpteenth essay on Women in Islam. Again. And Again. And yet again. I could do what I always seem to have to do in many feminist circles - provide a stereotypical ethnic voice from the periphery. I could tell you about how frustrating it is to pursue what I feel is the greatest problem facing women at this moment - the gender apartheid of Afghanistan - when so people are so ill educated in history and geography outside of this country. I could apologize for wanting to also throw in my two cents about Xena, and the massacre of female students at the engineering school in Canada those many years ago or the history of women on the Internet. I could apologize for not fitting the stereotypes.

But I won't.

As I mentioned, I speak only for myself, but that singular voice will cross cultural boundaries. I will speak with a south-asian woman's voice and a scandinavian one. I will speak with a southern woman's voice and with whatever voice speaks to my experience. I will lay it out there to illustrate the diversity of women's experience and how we still share many of the same struggles, even if those struggles are somewhat differently expressed through our cultures.

I could define each and every one of the other five friends who write personal essays for this site as a stereotypical woman. A handicapped woman. A mother. An Italian-American. Scientists in male-dominated fields.

But we are not stereotypes. We are six individual women. We celebrate the diversity of all women in feminism AND we celebrate the diversity within ourselves. We'll speak on one hand about the strength of the matriarchy in Italian-American families and we'll speak about their struggles with the issue of birth control. And in the next breath we'll talk about women and money and investing and the internet. We as *individuals* are as diverse inside of ourselves as women are in general. I refuse to be a stereotype. And I would hope that you would see the other five women as something more than a stereotype as well. Did you read about the Italian-American experience of World War II? Janis wrote a powerful website about it: http://www.io.com/~segreta/

What about the piece she wrote about the Chinese Fire Horse women? http://www.io.com/~cortese/hinoeuma/index.html

Or is her voice still too white to be heard and valued?

When we talk about being 'third wave' because we grew up after the successes of the first and second waves of this country - we don't mean to say that every single one of us directly benefitted from every single success. Obviously *I'm* still having to deal with the idea of arranged marriages. All of my cousins can have their own credits cards and bank accounts and get a job - but family pressures dictate their lives as women. Just because we grew up after the second wave doesn't mean that we're all speaking from a perspective of privilege. We're speaking from a perspective of *history*. How that chain of events affects us depends on our situation. And for that reason we insist that people see our essays as part of those different perspectives and derive from that the fact that there may be even more different women's voices.

> I went to the Arts section and found books like of 'The Edge of Time' by Mariana Yampolsky. What? She was a white woman 
> from Chicago who went to Mexico and captured romanticized photographs of their 'simple lives' which only complicated,
> educated Americans could enjoy. I went to the Books section and hoped to find something, anything by someone
> like bell hooks. No such luck. Shame on you! Furthermore, when I heard you 

Shame on me, yes indeed. It should indeed have been included. But perhaps you noted the book by Leila Ahmed? Or those describing the Japanese women's feminist experience? Our the artwork of women of Africa? These don't rate as 'women of color'? Perhaps you noted the absence of other important feminist books? The usefulness of this highly time-intensive section of our site is still a matter of debate to me. I'm not sure that anyone uses it, or that it's worth the effort since there's so little positive feedback and I've put little effort into expanding it or plugging the holes.

> on KPFK, I had to laugh (either that or cry) at how unprepared you were to 
> give out a good sound bite when asked such common questions like 'Who are 
> some of your heroes?'. You couldn't even answer it comfortably enough! 

Of all of your message, this sentiment probably frustrates me the most. Obviously you're quite politically active, as indicated by the fact that you mentioned your preparations for the Democratic National Convention. Obviously you've been recently exposed to the polished career politicians - who've perfected the art of the sound bite. Don't you think this is an unfair comparison to make of a grass roots group? Or of an individual who is quite obviously not a politician, but a techie with feminist opinions? My unpolished voice counts too - that's at the heart of grass-roots efforts.

I've never done a live radio interview before. I prepared weeks in advance, and sat by the phone with prepared notes just before the interview. All that evening I distracted myself with other tasks, so I would not be nervous and stumble over my words. I knew I would only have ten minutes to answer a number of questions and that wouldn't leave room for very deep discussion.

Had I been the shy, so-soft-spoken-the-room-has-to-be-silent-to-hear-me person I'd been in early college, your feedback would have been utterly devastating, and I might never give a live interview again. I sort of expect this kind of experience from the men who frequently disagree with feminism, but not from a fellow woman, who understands the need for feminism. I was very proud of that ten minutes - and I still am. I did well.

And I stand by what I said. I meant it - quite wholeheartedly - when I said that many women of my generation DON'T have *SHEROS* (not 'heros' - there's a difference, and that difference was at the heart of the question asked of me). We grew up during the backlash against multiculturalism and feminism and our education as to who some of these women were was (and is) lacking because of our textbooks silence on the subjects. And I stand by what I added - that up until last year, I'd never heard of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and hearing what she and Susan B Anthony, and Lucretia Mott and a number of other early American women did for the women of this country makes me teary-eyed. They are my sheros now.

I was not unprepared for this question. We know it was coming WEEKS in advance, and that was my very prepared answer. It's a POV shared by a number of other women on the 3rdwwwave web site, well in advance of the live interview. I was VERY comfortable answering that particular question. In fact, the only question I was not prepared for was the one about our feminist bookshelf. I had nearly abandoned the bookshelf as a lost cause on our web site some time ago.

> It 
> sounds to me like you are just now beginning to figure this out, although 

Of course. That is the heart of a young feminist movement always - young voices just figuring it all out and realizing the differences in thier experiences as opposed to their mother's.

> you have the privilege of always being heard and speaking for ALL of us 
> women. I ask you from now on to better define who you represent and refrain 
> from saying that all 20-30 somethings have had it just like you because from 
> personal experience, I know it's not true. You better recognize!
> -Aura 

I believe that our site, and these words have made it abundantly clear that we six have not, never have, and never will, speak for ALL women, or even for ALL women of our age group. I hope too that you will realize that my five friends have not all had similar experiences as each other or myself and have not necessarily had the privilege of always being heard as you assume.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I wish you well.

ad astra,

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  F a z i a         fazia@io.com  www.io.com/~fazia
   B e g u m       --------------------------------- 
    R i z v i       3rd WWWave    www.3rdwwwave.com

Copyright © 2000 by Fazia Rizvi

07/05/07 at 2:9