Written by: Sylvia Kathirkamanathan
My views on being a woman of colour have fluctuated my entire life, finally plateauing in recent years as this source of immense pride and appreciation. It is a slice of my identity that has always been undeniably mine and opened the gates for me to explore other aspects of my life. Although I had that feeling of love and adoration for being a woman of colour, I find that at times it is a weakness of mine when used against me or to put me down.
I would say I had what is considered a whitewashed upbringing as a Tamil girl. I grew up in a neighborhood lacking South Asian influences or people, I did not know how to speak Tamil, I did not listen to Tamil music, and I did not watch Tamil movies, and overall, I very much felt like I was Tamil in no way but appearance. Because of this, young me found being a woman of colour to be unique and something that set myself and my family apart from others. This in turn began to prompt an interest in looking into my culture and vocalizing what I was learning about myself. I would help spearhead school events for holidays such as Diwali, I would try and pick up Tamil from my parents and more. In those early years, there was an era of innocence and wholesomeness in the way I would try my best to represent my culture and being a woman of colour in how I carried myself and my actions.
As years went by, that innocent love for expression slowly but surely began to drop as I became more in tune with microaggressions and racist actions directed towards me that I was either not aware of before or were recent occurrences. Through comments and actions of other children and adults around me, I was hyper aware about perceptions regarding how I look, how I dressed, my complexion, and more. A specific instance I remember was in regard to my lunches. My mother would pack me one of my favorite South Asian dishes, kothu roti, every once in a while among other South Asian meals, which would be the absolute highlight of my day. I recall comments being made about its colour and smell by my peers and all of a sudden, I was throwing away my lunches or begging my mom to pack me a ham sandwich instead. Comments and experiences like these made me disconnect with who I was and tired of not being able to do enough to get rid of this part of me that is apparently flawed. I felt this overwhelming need to hide as much of what being a woman of colour meant because of this sense of shame that was drilled into my head by others. Somewhere in the haste of growing up, I decided that what others thought of me was more important than being authentically who I am. Thus I put an exhausting amount of time into pleasing the masses and placed this immense pressure on my younger self.
I would say this mindset stuck until high school, where I was all of a sudden in a new environment and meeting other people who looked like me without the shame I was carrying on my shoulders. I was making friends who made me want to reinvest my time into my culture and with time, I became once again, this powerful woman of colour and felt at peace for the first time in years. A big step for me was being open to bringing my mother’s amazing curries to school for lunch; I no longer felt the need to hide it and I would look forward to telling my friends about what I was eating. I even took it upon myself to relearn Tamil through practice with family and friends as well as LOTS of Tamil music. Having that sense of community among other people and specifically women of colour gave me perspective and that push into authenticity.
Today, I would say that being a woman of colour is something that gives me strength in different sectors of my life, although there are still times where I feel as though this part of me is a disadvantage. I believe I am better equipped today mentally to tackle these obstacles and have a better support system, but there are days where I ask myself “why me?” Every day, I continue to strengthen and embrace this part of my identity that is being a woman of colour, shying away from viewing it as a weakness and being able to warp what I thought was my kryptonite into my superpower.