Written by: Niroshini Mather
What does being a woman of colour mean to you?
This is not only a loaded question, but one I cannot give a concrete answer to. The significance of being a woman of colour has changed so drastically over the course of my life and will continue to change as I gain new experiences, meet new people and grow as an individual. As of right now, I see the term as holding a complex duality; a good and a bad.
I was one of the few people of colour (POC) in my classes growing up. However,I always saw my identity as a “woman of color” as a source of pride, a hidden superpower.
While this may have stemmed from my appreciation for the overt “uniqueness” it brought with it, I never shied away from vocalizing my love for my culture with my peers and embracing the numerous customs, art forms and languages. As I saw it, being Tamil was as much a part of my identity as being Canadian.
However, somewhere along the way, it all changed. Maybe I became a little less naive about the world or maybe the world around me became a little more intolerant. I don’t know what catalyzed this overt change, but it was most probably a culmination of events; experiences of overt racism, a disconnection from my peers or maybe just a sense of exhaustion from the continual subjection to daily microaggressions.
All I know is one day I was unabashedly proud of my heritage and the next, I felt ashamed when my mom spoke to me in Tamil in front of my friends. I began to feel consciously aware of my race during seemingly minute moments such as discussions about makeup with my friends or during a job interview. I had a growing realization that, in order to be taken seriously, I needed to put in additional effort and dedication than what was expected.
And even then, my successes were often met with a condescending sense of “surprise”. And then, just as quickly as the appearance of their feigned disbelief, my successes were overlooked once again.
Somewhere along the way I began to see my status as a woman of color as an impediment, an additional burden that only exacerbated the difficulties of teenage life.
What did I do? I guess you could say I took the “assimilation approach”. I tried to fit in. It started with minute changes like going on private mode on Spotify when listening to Tamil music to purposely mispronouncing my name during introductions so it would be “easier” to say. Looking back, I now recognize that in trying to fit in I not only lost my attachment with my culture, but part of my own identity as well.
So where does that lead me to today? In a full-circle fashion, I chose a university that, while esteemed in other regards, has a troubled reputation regarding its small POC population.While I was scared that this would push me further away from my cultural identity, the reality was the exact opposite.
Over the past two years at Queens, I have been able to regain the pieces of my cultural identity that I had lost and regain a sense of pride in being a Tamil-Canadian. I made the recognition that no matter how hard I tried to assimilate, I would always be “different” to some people. Thus, I regained a strengthened resolve to embrace those differences and learn to appreciate them rather than have them vilified.
I became more involved in the Tamil community by attending events and joining clubs like QWOCC that encouraged the sharing of cultural backgrounds. I recognized that while there are many additional struggles associated with being a woman of color, the benefits it provided, such as a secondary community, were incalculable.
Of course, this realization is not perfect. My appreciation comes in waves, as does my discouragements. However, seeing the rise and leadership of powerful women of color, such as the election of an indo-african American woman as the US vice president, Kamala Harris, has been inspiring and encouraging.
So, what does a woman of color mean to me today?
Embracing your cultural identity as a source of pride and finding a meaningful balance between both communities.