photo essay recognizes the identity struggles of women of color

March 30, 2017

By Hermon Gidey, AFROPUNK contributor

Late for work and in a rush, my mother (who is Eritrean) changed lanes, ‘cutting off’ a man that was driving alongside of her lane. The man, who was Caucasian, then signaled and asked her to pull over to the side. My mother pulled over as he asked, and before she could even get out of the car, the man rushed out and started yelling at her for cutting him off. This was normal road rage behaviour; it was when he started shouting racial slurs, banging on her window, that things started to take a heinous turn. “Go back to where you came from, women like you have no right to cut me off” were his exact words.

Up until listening to my mother’s story, being a woman of colour did not phase me in any way. It didn’t really cause me to be worried of being discriminated against or mistreated. Although I was fully aware that the world is imperfect and not always fair, especially when it comes to race, being a woman of colour in particular wasn’t something to be ultra-conscious of.

However, through experiences of my own and those around me, slowly I learned that sometimes the voices of women of colour are often background music, like soft jazz that hums in the background in a café. It seems at times, we are silenced and not taken seriously, whether it comes to a job interview or even just random by-passers.

Being observant of the world that is designed in a way that we were never meant to be equivalent, I started to identify myself as a minority. A person that belonged to a group of ethnicity that was misplaced here, an immigrant. It was as if I felt like it was normal, and to a certain extent, maybe even tolerable to be oppressed. My perception was that even though it is unjust to be treated in such ways, there is not much that we can do to actually inflict change. However, it is the way in which we react to this oppression that changes the condition. Ultimately, as they always say, perception is key.

Within time instead of identifying myself through words that belittled me, such as a minority, I started to include WOC in my vocabulary. It feels heavy and honourable. Now when I hear women of colour, warriors such as Alice Walker and Angela Davis come to mind. Their revolutionary contributions that surpassed the realms of feminism invokes a positivity about the identification of being a woman of colour. Suddenly, all negative ties to one of the ways of identifying myself was dismantled. To be a woman of colour means that we are the epitome of perseverance, empowerment, and humility. To me, identifying as a woman of colour means to stand in solidarity with my sisters, and to empower and recognize the unique and incomparable queendom of each woman.

This lead me to a path of curiosity to discover what it meant to others to be women of colour. So I decided to invite some girls, some of whom were close and dear to my heart and some of whom I contacted though Instagram, to come to a studio open minded and dressed in their traditional/cultural wear. With this project my motive was to capture fractions of their individuality and authenticity. I wanted to encapsulate elements of these women’s pride. My aim was to not only take the pictures, but to create an environment in which these women could be as confident and as assertive with this raw part of themselves as they want without feeling the need to blend in or explain this vital piece of their character. Also, I wanted to create an atmosphere in which these women (some of whom didn’t even know each other) could appreciate the beauty of other women of colour, and also hear words of admiration from one another.

At first they were shy and unsure of how to present themselves as I photographed them. But after a few shots they started to get more comfortable and more sure of how they wanted to be captured. Indeed, there were moments of pure confidence, and moments in which they appreciated each other’s beauty. Hearing them complement each other in awe, I felt vibrations of love and light.

“What does it mean to be a woman of colour to you?”

“Being a woman of colour means I have a certain responsibility for those who look like me or similar to me. It means to be in constant state of awareness of my surroundings and also being aware of what power lies within me, and finding equilibrium between the two.”

“To me being a woman of colour means responsibility. I believe that I’m responsible for keeping my culture alive. To show younger girls who are ashamed of their colours or cultures that they should own it, be proud of it, and preserve it. This responsibility can be hard to maintain when racial slurs are thrown at you, or you are discriminated against. However, I have become stronger and I hope other women of colour can feel the same way someday.”

“Being a woman of colour to me is prideful because I have a rich culture that no one really knows about. I think that I’m gifted that way and it pushes me to learn more about my roots.”

“To be a woman of colour for me, means to be disrespected in various ways and learning to overcome hate and rise above the negativity. Why I say this is because, coloured women are the most hated on. We go through issues with society hating or judging our hair, our face (thick lips, big nose, big booty) and because of these issues, being a coloured woman to me truly means being disrespected. But in another much happier note It also means being a queen, and embracing my natural beauty.”