Excerpts from Diane Balser’s Talks at the Women of Color Workshop

Diane Balser led a Women of Color Workshop in January 2000 near New York City. Here is part of what she said to the women there.

This is a group of women who should be at the heart of RC women’s liberation. What do we need to shift so this will happen? Women of color have the opportunity to make women’s liberation theirs. Yours. The reasons this has been a struggle have a lot to do with racism, sexism, and other outside forces. But at this workshop I want to emphasize what you have to do to turn around the internalized oppression. We all need to have a picture of the power that you have as females. Many of you secretly know the power of women of color, but it’s never felt safe to completely acknowledge that power. I want us to create a safe place for you to show completely who you are as females.

MAGNIFICENT WOMEN

Before we even look at the oppression, we need to look at your greatness as females and the greatness of the women around you. There is no reason you shouldn’t feel completely proud of yourselves, your mothers, and your sisters. One of the effects of sexism and racism is to install fear about being visible. It feels safer to hide out. Women’s real selves are often hidden. This is true for all women, and it’s particularly true for women of color. In a society dominated by white people and whiteness, women of color stand out more than white women and are therefore more vulnerable to both sexism and racism. Visibility has never seemed advantageous. However, we need to create a picture of visibility connected to your magnificence as women. Like all women, you are told that you have to wait to claim your strengths. However, you have an advantage over white women in that the Prince Charming fantasy has had a smaller role in the culture of women of color, and waiting for someone to discover you is more clearly absurd. You need to discover yourself. You need to claim your magnificence as females, as African females, as Asian females, Chinese females, Chicanas, or whatever group you’re part of. Let’s do a mini-session.

[After the mini-session, Diane asks women to say a few things about what makes them (or one other woman) magnificent.]

Your mothers were all magnificent women. They fought extremely hard oppressions. They struggled through big hurts. They made sure the cultures you came from continued. They did the best they could not to pass down the oppressions they came from. There is a reason older black women in the African American community command respect. There is a reason Native communities have a history of taking pride in Native women. At the same time, all these women were at least doubly oppressed, and they did pass down the internalized sexism and racism to you, their daughters. Many of our earliest hurts are connected with our mothers. While we may respect their strengths, many of us feel the hurts from their caretaking patterns, their attempts to control our lives, their abuse of us, and so on. Can we create enough safety so that we don’t have to hide what happened with our mothers, because of the vicious sexism and racism they experienced, in well-meant attempts to defend and protect them? So we can work on what our relationships were like with them? A big challenge in working on any oppression is the ability to tell the truth about one’s own experience. This is a struggle for any oppressed group because of deception and internalized lies.

Here are some questions for you to consider in your mini-sessions: What about your mother are you proud of? How did your mother stand up to racism and sexism? How and when did she give in to racism and sexism? Did your mother have caretaking and self-sacrificing patterns, and how did those affect you? How has your mother affected your life and your relationships?

[After the mini-session, several women share about damage from their mothers: racism, sexual distresses, insecurity about relationships, distresses about money, physical abuse, people-pleasing patterns, and hopelessness.]

In their cultures, women of color are viewed as great mothers, but from the outside they are put down and attacked. To be able to work on your mothers, you need to fully appreciate them and also to recognize the hurtful things they did because of the oppression. They don’t need to be blamed for what they did, but these things do need to be acknowledged.

WOMEN OF COLOR ARE FULLY FEMALE

Women of color, particularly those of African heritage, need to be at the center of the women’s movement. When, and if, African heritage women fight for all women, there will be an unstoppable power unleashed. If one reads feminist literature today, the racism of white women is usually blamed for the victimization of black women in the larger women’s movement. While there has been a history of racism in the white women’s movement (as well as a history of women who have attempted to stand up to that racism), there is one other pattern that I think is at the root of the underlying difficulty. That pattern says that women of color are not fully female and that sexism is not a problem for them. The pattern of denying the full femaleness of women of color is rooted in sexism and racism. It divides groups of women from each other. It tries to strip the most powerful women of an understanding of their femaleness. It has gotten internalized so that many women of color believe that they haven’t been hurt as females or believe the myth that they are not fully female. It can take the form of seeing white women as victims of sexism and women of color as victims only of racism, or it can take the form of internalizing the standards and myths of the white female. (While the beautification industry targets all women, there is a particular targeting of women of color that relies on the feeling that a mythical white beauty is the standard for all women.)

Every woman of color is fully female in every fiber. Every woman of color, like every other woman, needs to be fully proud of her body, including her breasts, her ovaries, her genitalia. Every woman of color, like every other woman, is fully brilliant and powerful. Sexism has affected the lives of women of color throughout the world, and all women of color have been targeted by both sexism and racism. During the slavery of African American people, sexism was used to force black women to have children for the work and profits of white masters. The work of black women as women was fully exploited. From slavery on, black women have also been targets of sexual abuse.

All the various cultural identities (Asian, Latina, and so on) have their own histories of sexism. I’d like women of color to claim women’s liberation work as your work.

In all of your cultures there’s a concept of womanhood, of women’s identities. There are black women identities, Asian women identities, Latina identities, and so on. All of those identities were formed out of the oppression. For instance, in the United States the stereotypical black woman identity is a strong black matriarch who has endured a lot of pain. She is the backbone of her people and has sacrificed herself completely for them. Although people are intimidated by her, she has never been fully appreciated. That identity has some truth to it. There are many women, especially older black women, who fit that identity at least partially. The Black Nation owes its survival to these women. We could have a week-long session just appreciating them. Some of you may even fit that description. This particular black women’s identity is a caretaking identity. And it’s not just caretaking nuclear families; it’s caretaking nations. Despite the strengths involved, that identity clearly came out of oppression. These women were not liberated women; they were very oppressed women. The traditional caretaking patterns installed on all women were installed on them.

Black women often get blamed when the Black Nation is not doing well. You are told not to speak up because you will hurt black men, or you are told that if you speak up for yourselves, you will hurt or betray your peoples. You are told you cannot show your own struggles and vulnerabilities. Black women have often become identified with your reproductive abilities. Mothering was not a choice. Within the oppression, you became intermediaries between the racist and sexist society and your children. Within the oppression, your job as a mother is to produce and train more oppressed people. You get blamed when the nation isn’t doing well because you are the intermediaries between the racist and sexist society and your children.

 Suggestions for a session: Each group claim its common identity—Chinese, Japanese, African American, and so on. What are the strengths in those identities? What are the patterns? What can you be proud of? What do you need to reject?

Claiming your full femaleness, being fully female in every fiber, is claiming femaleness as completely separate from the oppression. Unequivocally being fully female does not mean white female; it means female of all races and all cultures. It means the celebration of each and every female. Women’s issues are the issues of women of color. Women’s issues, such as having your periods, menopause, taking charge of your reproductive life, reclaiming your power, no limits, learning to speak up for yourself, leading men, reclaiming your physical power—all are issues for women of color. And women of color need to look at how you have been affected by the institutions of sexist oppression—the beautification industry, the sex industry, the economy, the educational system, politics, marriage and the family, and the health care industry (for example, reproductive health care with its genetic testing, reproductive technology, and abortion).

TO TACKLE SEXISM AND RACISM, WE NEED EACH OTHER

Similar to other oppressions, institutional sexism is much greater than any of us have wanted to acknowledge. Although we often point to the pretense of white women, no group of women have yet been able to acknowledge the extent to which sexism has affected them. This workshop needs to have groups on the sexual objectification and targeting of black, Latina, and Asian women, for example. We need to work on all forms of the victimization, whether it is sexual, economic, or other. We need to have discharge groups on the double oppressions in the workforce. In addition to exposing sexism, we need to look at internalized sexism. Where do you cooperate with other women? Where do you feel betrayed by other women of color? How does competition affect you? Where do you compromise yourself? Where do you compromise yourself with men?

No oppression is more important than another. Because of the way capitalism operates, racism is cutting-edge; but that doesn’t make sexism secondary. Once you examine what has happened to women’s bodies and lives in various cultures, you realize that it doesn’t make sense to compare oppressions. Where the biggest hurts are is where racism and sexism intersect. What happened to black women as females during slavery is a profound hurt, and the distresses still sit there. Wherever you have given up on any part of your humanness is where you have compromised. One of the earliest compromises is your integrity as a female, and it affects everything. Females are deceived and then trained to deceive ourselves. Once you learn to accommodate in this way, you are set up for racist oppression.

Institutional sexism affects all women. Sexism is that set of institutions and beliefs and theologies that, in an organized way, mistreat women on an everyday basis. For many women here, the question is how to take charge of a world that targets you with sexism and racism. You can’t do it alone; you have to have each other in that battle. You have to engage your mind and the minds of other women. You have to acknowledge the actual struggles, whether they’re economic, sexual, social, or ones that have to do with your physical appearance. But if the group of women in this room took charge, there’s nothing you couldn’t make happen.

Diane Balser


Last modified: 2016-08-22 09:11:22+00