When it was published in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color was a vermilion ink bloom on the crisp white wedding dress of the U.S. feminist movement. It was meant to be shocking. This anthology of prose and poetry by Black, Latina, Asian, Native American women was the first to express loudly, clearly, bilingually that the “sisterhood” could not be colorblind. Women of color are not the same as white women. They experience America differently. “I’ve had enough,” Donna Kate Rushin wrote in The Bridge Poem:
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody…
I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…
I’ve got to explain myself
It is an apt metaphor, woman of color as bridge. Always liminal. Permanently negotiating. A migrant between gender and race. That is what makes us different: we can never pick a side.
And here is another thing about bridges: they have to be strong. According to a recent report by the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU, Black and Latina women are disproportionately more likely to be poor, have trouble paying the bills, be worried about putting food on the table, and express concern about the accessibility of health insurance than their white counterparts, but they are among the least likely to benefit from the billions of dollars in stimulus funding being doled out to improve economic well-being in this country. However, I think it would be a mistake to view the women of color who face these challenges as passive “victims” of intersecting layers of oppression.
When I sit in church basements in the South Bronx, strategizing with a local community coalition, the vast majority of people I am talking with are women – women of color. The same is true of the immigrant rights organization I work with in Brooklyn. You cannot begin to comprehend the fight that is in the mothers I represent, who do daily battle with the health and education systems on behalf of their children. The foot soldiers of our modern-day civil rights movement are women of color, just as they were a generation ago, when women outnumbered men two-to-one in the local organizations feeding the Mississippi freedom struggle.
In a way, it is quite stunning that the group most disadvantaged within the socio-economic framework of American society would, historically and currently, be its most vital force for democracy. When historian Charles Payne interviewed civil rights activists to understand this trend in the context of Mississippi – for his masterful book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, which everyone must read – he found a few explanations. One had to do with the operating style of some of the most effective grassroots organizations from that period, such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Instead of duplicating gender-biased, hierarchical leadership structures of earlier civil rights groups, SNCC was “structurally and philosophically open to female participation in a way that many older organizations would not have been.” Another factor was the inherent liminality of women of color, or “the fact that historically Black women have had to adapt to so many different expectations and pressures they became relatively open to new situations.” In other words, the ability to see and touch both sides of things could be an engine for liberation as much as it was a source of frustration.
I would like to see today’s social justice movements tap into this creative energy even more effectively than we are. Certainly, there are innovative grassroots groups that support and encourage women of color leadership, but as one moves higher and higher into the ranks of major social justice organizations in the United States, we see fewer and fewer of the women who are so prevalent on the ground. Perhaps this means we need to re-think our organizational structures and unpack the visible and invisible barriers they may impose to advancement by women of color, particularly those without class privilege. I would also like to see women of color band together more effectively and harness our world-changing potential. Yes, we have to work harder, longer, better, louder. But that may be the source of our strength as much as it is a liability:
The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
I will be useful