Going through Customs

By SinhaRoy, Sanhita | The Progressive, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Going through Customs


SinhaRoy, Sanhita, The Progressive


Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman, with a foreword by Cherrie Moraga Seal Press. 432 pages. $16.95.

Reading Colonize This!, I was reminded of the experience I had growing up in various parts of the United States. I was sometimes told by classmates that certain things were or weren't done in America. At a football game in high school, for example, when I saw a classmate spiking his cola with alcohol, he told me that "in America," we didn't rat on other people. Others were watching too, but my face, which looked foreign to him, was the subject of his unfounded suspicion. It was always, "We Americans." Never mind that I have been an American citizen for most of my life. They might as well have said, "We whites."

I have a feeling that the women of Colonize This! would know exactly how I was feeling.

Edited by Daisy Hernandez, a former columnist for Ms. magazine, and poet Bushra Rehman, this aptly titled collection of essays by young women of color amplifies the voices of resistance in today's generation of female activists, artists, professionals, and educators.

These women take what they've learned about the struggles against traditional racism, classism, and sexism during the '60s and '70s and apply the lessons to contemporary, everyday manifestations of oppression. Whether they be issues inherited from their mothers' generation (the growing income gap, the racism of white feminism, gentrification) or more unique to the time (HIV/AIDS, the current Middle East crisis, the aftermath of September 11), the young women in Colonize This! put faces on these issues.

The collection of twenty-eight essays is divided into four sections that address family and community, mothers, cultural customs, and talking back.

The first part, called "Family and Community: A Litany for Survival," borrows its subtitle from an Audre Lorde poem. The editors write that they were especially inspired by a line in that poem: "We were never meant to survive."

"For the young women in this book, creating lives on their own terms is an act of survival and resistance," they write. "It's also a part of a larger liberation struggle for women and people of color."

That struggle for freedom comes through in essays like the one by Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz, who discusses growing up with a Jewish father and a Muslim Arab mother and feeling the pressure to choose one community over the other.

And it shows in Taigi Smith's story about gentrification in San Francisco's Mission District, a primarily black and Latino area, where Smith grew up and where her mother still lives. As dot-com professionals moved in, "abandoned warehouses had not been converted into affordable housing but instead into fancy lofts going for $300,000 to $1 million. The Army Street projects had been demolished, leaving hundreds of people, many of them women with children, displaced and homeless," Smith writes. Unlike many of the others who lived in the Mission, Smith was able to escape that fate because of her college degree.

One especially poignant piece is Stella Luna's essay on being diagnosed with HIV while pregnant. Instead of sinking into despair, Luna eventually enrolls in college and becomes an HIV/AIDS activist. She realizes that many of her Latina sisters were likely to die of the disease because "they couldn't relate to services that weren't culturally and linguistically suited to their specific needs."

The second part is entitled "Our Mothers, Refugees from a World on Fire." A recurring theme in this section is that mothers (and sometimes fathers) are often unwitting purveyors of feminist education. In the midst of their own struggles, they instill strength in their daughters, their nieces, and their granddaughters.

Siobhan Brooks's powerful essay is about the women who live in the projects in San Francisco where she grew up, and how they "prided themselves on raising children, supporting men and their families on low wages--without health care, let alone mental health care. …

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