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Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism
Edited by Daisy Hernández
Edited by Bushra Rehman
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Introduction to the Second Edition
I became a feminist because of an index card.
It was my junior year of college, and I found myself one afternoon in a room at the student center that had a very low ceiling and thin carpeting. I had shown up not because the event was organized by the Feminist Collective, but because it had been advertised as a workshop on sexuality. Being the daughter of Cuban and Colombian immigrants who had worked in factories, I thought of sex as taboo. Now here was the word on a flier like an invitation. That is how I ended up sitting in a stiff chair in a circle of mostly white girls, all of us with index cards and pens in our hands. On one side of the card, we noted our best sexual encounters, and on the back our worst. We were giddy, pensive, nervous. We glanced at each other, then at the cards. Some of us wrote too quickly. Others tapped the edges of the cards. I already knew my answers. I wrote swiftly.
The moderator collected the cards and began reading aloud from them. They were anonymous, of course, and she read the good ones first: multiple orgasms, the pleasures of receiving oral sex, hearing “I love you” after sex. I grinned like I knew what that was all about, but in reality I’d only read about most of these sexual joys in Cosmo. Here though were real women (my age!) confirming that sex could be good.
Then the moderator flipped the index cards and began reading the other side. Out came short lines about the boyfriend who wouldn’t take no for an answer, the friend who demanded sex, the family member who forced himself. We fell silent. I fell silent. I don’t remember now whether I wrote about the family member who had molested me as a child, but I do remember thinking: it wasn’t just us.
“Us” was me and the girls I had known over the years who had also been abused. I had thought sexual violence only happened to me and my friends. I had thought it had to do with the way we looked, the length of our legs, our dark hair. Now here was a stack of index cards from girls I had never met before, and the index cards were telling me that my experiences as a Latina girl in one corner of Jersey belonged to a much larger story of violence against mujeres.
Later, I learned that in the early 1970s, the writer Jane O’Reilly had called this the “click”—that moment when you realize that what happens to you because you’re a woman is happening to other women, too. A new awareness snaps into place. I was ready to call myself a feminist.
There was only one problem. My father.
When I was in my early twenties, academics were theorizing about the “voice” of the teenage girl—how it develops, and how she loses it—but for as long as I could remember I had used my girl voice to speak for my Cuban father, who is only fluent in Spanish. I interpreted for him at the factory where he worked and also at unemployment agencies and banks. It didn’t matter whether I was twelve or twenty-two. I was Papi’s voice. At home, he terrorized me and the women in our family with his rage and alcohol abuse, but out in the world, he relied on me.
Feminism for me had to address not only my experiences of gender but also of race, multilingualism, citizenship, class, and diaspora. By the time I left college and was harboring crushes on women and gender-nonconforming people, I realized that feminism had to also be about queerness. Was that a tall order? I didn’t think so. It was my life and the lives of the women I knew.
After college, I discovered that black feminists—Barbara Smith, for example—had been arguing since the 1970s that feminism had to tackle how black women experience gender in combination with race and class. Smith and her feminist comadres penned this argument in the now-famous Combahee River Collective Statement, and in 1980 Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga published the anthology This Bridge Called My Back, bringing together women of color to talk about feminism, raza y más. In that book, Cherríe wrote exactly what I was thinking about two decades later: “I want a movement that helps me make some sense of the trip from Watertown to Roxbury, from white to Black. I love women the entire way, beyond a doubt.”
I, too, needed a feminism that helped me make sense of the bus rides I took between my publishing job in Manhattan and my Latina neighborhood in Jersey, between my Chicana mixed-race girlfriend in the Bronx and my Colombian mother in Jersey. My experience with sexual abuse, racism, and classism was part of a larger narrative, but so, too, was my desire for a more expansive understanding of feminism. Again, I was not la única. My own writing and thinking belonged to a feminist of color tradition that exists in politics, scholarship, and the arts.
When Bushra and I began working on the first edition of this book, mainstream media outlets were not using the word “intersectionality”—a term and theory Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw created in the 1980s to identify how black women face institutional practices that recognize gender or race bias but not where those two meet. Today, the word “intersectionality” is all over social media and in national newspapers.
The contributors from the first edition of Colonize This! have been a part of this change. Since the publication of that edition, they have gone on to lead community organizations and create new scholarship about and by women of color. They have taken their feminism into their work inside and outside of government. They have served as doctors, penned their own books, and made films. They have led the way, in other words, by doing.
History, however, does repeat itself. We produced the first edition of this book in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when police, government officials, and the entire country, it seemed, were racially profiling brown, Arab, and Muslim men and women. More than fifteen years later, we worked on the second edition in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and the ban on people traveling to the United States from five Muslim countries. My father yelled at me over the phone to not protest against the white man in the White House, even though that man admitted to being a sexual predator and has openly supported white supremacists. “I’m going to the protest!” I told Papi. I bought cardboard and made signs. I called my Republican senator and left messages. I grabbed the bullhorn at the march downtown.
And I worked on this book.
This second edition of Colonize This! is, for me, a protest to the current political regime in our country. It is a response to the deportations of immigrant families, to the relentless killing of black people by police officers, and to the media outlets that describe the abuse of girls by old white men as “sexual encounters.” This book, being as it is a gathering of young women of color sharing their experiences and intellectual insights, stands in defiance of what is happening in the courts, in Washington, and on the streets of our country. That said, this new edition didn’t begin as a protest.
Initially, Bushra and I had wanted to see the stories from young women of color who have been at the forefront of key social justice movements for the past decade. From Black Lives Matter and trans visibility to organizing undocumented families and protesting at Standing Rock, young women of color have been working hard for a more socially just world. They have been creating new terminology: #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, UndocuQueer. I was hungry to read the stories of these young women of color. What does feminism look like for young women of color who grew up with the first black president? With a visible transgender movement? With social media platforms?
Bushra and I set out to find nine young women who could answer these questions and join the voices from the first edition. This new edition has essays about working as an abortion doula, handling call-out culture online as a trans Latina, and being catapulted into the spotlight after suing a high-profile university for failing to protect women from sexual assault on campus. The new essays address being undocumented and an artist, coming of age with Michelle Obama and Disney movies, and what happens when gun violence takes your big sister, and #SayHerName is not only a hashtag and a movement but your day-to-day life.
These young women of color are leveraging social media to their advantage. They are using it to organize and to break silences and also to learn about feminism and to redefine it. They have grown up in a more multiracial United States with faster access to the work of feminists of color, and as a result they are articulating an intersectional feminism that is rooted in the work of the women who have come before us. It is also equally true that institutional barriers—from a lack of daycare when you’re a teen mom to the war on black families—persist in the lives of young women of color today.
One new contributor asked, “And you’re doing this new edition with your original coeditor?” Yes. In a world where women are so often pitted against each other, and where social media makes bruising each other all too easy, Bushra and I have been blessed. No, that makes it sound like we got lucky. The truth is, we worked hard at staying connected over the years even as we published and promoted our own books, as she became a mother, and as I moved around the country. We also worked hard at intentionally making room for each other’s perspectives, trusting that talking it through would create a better book in the end. I believe we have succeeded a second time.
A final thought: Working on this new edition has affirmed for me the importance of focusing on what is happening in our communities of color and on being the ones who tell our stories. As Sonia Guiñansaca writes in her essay about undocumented youth: “We did the work to claim our lives.” This, I believe, is the way forward: we have to claim our lives and claim our stories. There is no substitute for the power that comes from doing so. It is energizing and empowering, and ultimately it makes everything else possible.
“We have to claim our lives and claim our stories. There is no substitute for the power that comes from doing so.”
March 28, 2018
Siler City, North Carolina
Introduction to the Second Edition
Daisy and I used to joke, “You’re Cherríe and I’m Gloria,” when we were editing the first edition of Colonize This! There was something about the softness and hardness we wanted to evoke. And yes, who was the soft and who was the hard and what did we really mean? But we were young, and we idolized, tried to imagine our lives by holding them up to the women before us.
So you can imagine our joy when Rebecca Hurdis, one of the writers in Colonize This!, invited Daisy and me to the twentieth anniversary celebration of This Bridge Called My Back taking place at the University of California, Berkeley. Rebecca had written movingly about her discovery of This Bridge (her essay inspiring my own discovery, because yes, I was just as misled by whitewashed history).
It felt like a family reunion. So many radical women had gathered: Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, and many of the writers from This Bridge. I was asked to read poetry; Daisy and I were asked to speak about Colonize This!, which had not yet been published.
My strongest impression from the conference, the feeling I left with and still hold with wonder, was the intensity of seeing a generation of women of color before me. It wasn’t until then that I truly began to believe I could have a future. My whole life, I was constantly told in direct and indirect ways that when I was old, I would end up lonely, without a family and a home, if I persisted with my resistance to marriage, my desire to write. But here at UC Berkeley, feminist, trans, and women of color writers and activists in their fifties, sixties, and seventies were full of life, friendship, and laughter.
I remember a light heart, but if I take another moment to truly remember, it was a light heart among the darkness, a feeling of emergency. It was February 2002, five months after 9/11. I am a New Yorker and a Muslim. Need I say more about the radical, antiwar, onto-the-bullshit-the-government-was-saying place I was in?
I listened carefully while Angela Davis outlined the deliberateness of the prison-industrial complex as a tool of oppression. I listened carefully while Barbara Smith talked about how the words “identity politics” had been lifted from the Combahee River Collective, and how the original intention of the term and the practice were meant solely for revolutionary purposes.
Gloria’s talk was almost wordless. She projected a series of images. Is it too dramatic to say it was a spiritual experience, and like every spiritual experience, felt like an odd dream afterward? She drew ripples, spirals, and stones, let us know it was a spiritual journey we were on, not a clamoring for awards and attention.
I was blown away by it all. And when the scholar-activist Nadine Naber, who had just returned from Palestine, began to cry while reporting on the torture, displacement, and murder of Palestinian children and families under Israeli occupation and colonization, I bent my head and cried too.
It’s not that I think feminism happens only at conferences. I was working on Colonize This! not because I was an expert on feminism (whatever that means) but because I wanted to understand and explain what it could mean to a woman like me.
Who was I at twenty-seven? Rebellious, self-destructive, malnourished, barely scraping by, a disowned daughter, a vagabond; most called me a freak. The only thread I held onto was the writing. It was something I knew, a secret I understood, this thing called writing. I was driven to it despite every force that tried to stop me.
Now, in Berkeley, I was surrounded by women who were further on the path of writing and creating revolution. It was at this gathering that Cherríe agreed to write the foreword for Colonize This! and Gloria agreed to write a blurb. Their generosity and kindness overwhelmed me. We were invited to Gloria’s home in Santa Cruz. Daisy, her girlfriend Kristina, and I planned a road trip to visit Gloria on Daisy’s birthday, but eight days before we did, Gloria, who had been ill, passed away.
Deeply saddened, we decided to keep our intention; we drove from Oakland and stood outside Gloria’s house for a moment. Daisy had visited her once before and remembered the tree that had been one of Gloria’s favorites. It grew by the ocean near her home. We knew for sure we had found the right one when we saw someone had put a candle at the foot. We sat beneath the leaves in the beautiful Santa Cruz sun and ate birthday cake Kristina had packed in Tupperware for the trip.
Now, we are a few years away from our own twentieth anniversary. I know the writers in Colonize This! have inspired me to have courage in the face of the constant barrage of choking oppressions I live and breathe. I know it has done the same for readers who’ve reached out to Daisy and me, readers who’ve told us Colonize This! changed their lives, brought them to activism, let them know they were not alone. There was only so long I could listen to the hate spewed by this current administration before realizing it was time to bring the voices of Colonize This! into the world again. And yet, I was exhausted.
I thought of Gloria, how well she had put this action in the face of weariness into words. I reread “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” one of her essays in This Bridge. The fog in my head cleared a little bit. Gloria was telling me to write; she was saying yes, she understood, that I was tired, overworked, frustrated, angry, weighed down by decades of sadness and guilt, centuries of brutality, and here I was craving sweets, doing everything but the writing, wanting to crawl up into a ball and sleep.
Gloria wrote, “Be simple, direct, immediate.” Gloria, I will try. As I write this, there are youth-led marches to end gun violence taking place all over the world. My partner is live-streaming the march from DC via Democracy Now! I am in tears from the power and eloquence of the speakers. It is the youth, and always has been the youth, who have carried the fire and the light forward.
My heart is with the marchers, but I am inside, trying to finish this book, in hopes it will continue to have revolutionary power. For the first time, I think of how Cherríe and Gloria must have seen us. Was it how I see the youth now, taking on leadership and fighting with love and rage against this sickening, violent, corrupt moment we are living in? I am filled with overwhelming gratitude that these young activists can be more radical than we were and humbled to know Colonize This! had some small part in moving the marker just a little bit more toward the light.
“It is the youth, and always has been the youth, who have carried the fire and the light forward.”
March 24, 2018
Brooklyn, New York
Introduction to the First Edition
December 7, 2001
This morning I woke up to the news radio. Women were throwing off their veils in Afghanistan and I thought about how for years the women I have known have wanted this to happen. But now what a hollow victory it all is. I am disgusted by the us-and-them mentality. “We,” the liberated Americans, must save “them,” the oppressed women. What kind of feminist victory is it when we liberate women by killing their men and any woman or child who happens to be where a bomb hits? I feel myself as a Muslim-American woman, as a woman of color, fearing walking down the street, feeling the pain that my friends felt as they were beaten down in the weeks after September 11. Solemnly, we counted as the numbers rose: two, five, seven… My friend telling me: They told me I smelled—they touched me everywhere—and when I talked back, they made fun of me, grabbed me, held my arms back, told me to go back to my country, took my money and ran. My other friend telling me: They punched me, kicked me, called me queer—they found the pamphlets in my bag, and I’m here on asylum, for being a queer activist—my papers were just going through—I’m not safe in this country as a gay man. My other friends telling me: We didn’t want to report it to the police, why just start another case of racial profiling? They’re not going to find the guys who did it. They’re just going to use our pain as an excuse for more violence. Use our pain as an excuse for more violence. This is what I hear again and again in a city that is grieving, that is beginning to see what other countries live every day.
But where does women of color feminism fit into all of this? Everywhere. As women of color feminists, this is what we have to think about.
February 12, 2002
At first I think the teacups have fallen. Broken, they sit on a shelf in the attic apartment Bushra and her sister Sa’dia share. The teacups look antique, etched with thin lines that loop like the penmanship from old textbooks. I imagine they have been in the family for years, but then I find out they were created by Sa’dia for her art exhibit. She made the cups and inscribed each one with the name of a woman from her family. Each cup represents that woman and is broken to the degree of her rebellions. Some are cracked a little, others shattered. They are piled on top of each other, as if someone needs to do the dishes.
The teacups broken and the women broken. That’s how it feels sitting on this thin carpet, editing these essays on feminism while Washington wages war against terrorism. Life feels like something broken on purpose. During the Spanish evening news, a man in Afghanistan says, “It was an enemy plane and a woman cried.” His words stay with me as if they were a poem. It was an enemy plane and a woman cried. I think of that woman and TV cameras in Colombia, my mother’s country. The footage shows bloodied streets and women crying. My mother refuses to look. I can’t look away. Her eyes are sad and grateful: my American daughter who can just watch this on TV. My aunt gives us cups of tea and tells me to watch what I say on the phone. Rumors are spreading that the FBI is making people disappear. My aunt with the wide smile. She tapes an American flag to my window, determined to keep us safe.
When we began editing this book, we knew only a little about each other. We were two dark-haired women who moved in overlapping circles of writers, queers, artists, and feminists. We had met in New York City through the collective Women in Literature and Letters (WILL), which organized affordable writing programs that were women of color–centered. It was while editing this book, however, that we realized how much a Pakistani Muslim girl from Queens could have in common with a Catholic Cuban-Colombian girl from New Jersey.
We both grew up bilingual in working-class immigrant neighborhoods. Our childhoods had been steeped in the religions and traditions of our parents’ homelands, and at an early age, we were well acquainted with going through customs, both at home and at the airports. We followed our parents’ faith like good daughters until we became women: At fifteen, Daisy left obligatory Sunday Mass and Catholicism when a nun said the Bible didn’t have to be interpreted literally, and no, Noah’s ark had never existed. At sixteen, Bushra discovered her body—and stopped praying five times a day.
Of course, there were also differences. Bushra had been raised knowing that violence was as common as friendship between people of color. Her family had moved from Pakistan to New York City to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and then back to New York City. Daisy, on the other hand, had grown up with white European immigrants who were becoming white Americans, and her familia had only moved from one side of town to the other. We broke with our families in different ways: Bushra left home without getting married; Daisy stayed home and began dating women.
Our personal rebellions led to a loss of family that took us on another path, where we met other not-so-perfect South Asian and Latina women also working for social change. It felt like it had taken us a lifetime to find these spaces with women who gave us a feeling of familiarity and of belonging, something that had never been a given in our lives. With these women we could talk about our families and find the understanding that would help us go back home. We began to realize, however, that working with our own communities was only the groundwork. To make change happen we needed to partner up with other women of color. To work on this book we had to venture out of our safe zones.
And then 9/11 happened. People from our communities turned on each other in new ways. Girls wearing hijab to elementary school were being slapped by other girls of color. Any mujer dating an Arab man was now suspect in her own community. People we considered friends were now suspicious of Middle Eastern men, Muslims, and Arab immigrants, even if they were immigrants themselves. Living near Ground Zero, we watched people respond to their grief and fear with violence that escalated in both action and conversation, and we felt our own fear close to home: Daisy was afraid that, with the surge of pro-American sentiments, her mother would be mistreated for not speaking English, and Bushra feared for her mother and sisters who veil, and for her father and brothers with beards who fit the look of “terrorists.”
In response to the war, we wanted to do “traditional” activist work, to organize rallies and protest on the street, but abandoning this book project didn’t feel right. Darice Jones, one of our contributors, reminded us of Angela Davis’s words: we are living in a world for which old forms of activism are not enough, and today’s activism is about creating coalitions between communities. This is exactly our hope for this book. Despite differences of language, skin color, and class, we have a long, shared history of oppression and resistance. For us, this book is activism, a way to continue the conversations among young women of color found in earlier books like This Bridge Called My Back and Making Face, Making Soul.
After many late-night talks, we chose the title of Cristina Tzintzún’s essay, “Colonize This!,” for the book, to acknowledge how the stories of women and colonization are intimately tied. But when we first sat down to write this introduction and looked in the dictionary, we found that “colonize” means “to create a settlement.” It sounded so simple and peaceful. We rewrote the definition. To colonize is “to strip a people of their culture, language, land, family structure, who they are as a person and as a people.” Ironically, the dictionary helped us better articulate the meaning of this book. It reminded us that it’s important for women of color to write. We can’t have someone else defining our lives or our feminism.
Like many other women of color, the two of us first learned the language of feminism in college through a white, middle-class perspective, one form of colonization. Feminism should have brought us closer to our mothers and sisters and to our aunties in the Third World. Instead it took us further away. The academic feminism didn’t teach us how to talk with the women in our families about why they stayed with alcoholic husbands or chose to veil. In rejecting their life choices as women, we lost a part of ourselves and our own history.
This is difficult to write, because initially, white feminism felt so liberating. It gave us a framework for understanding the silences and tempers of our fathers and the religious piety of our mothers. It gave us Ani DiFranco’s music to sing to and professors who told us that, no, patriarchy isn’t only in our homes. It is everywhere. There is actually a system in place that we can analyze and even change.
- One of "18 Books Every White Ally Should Read"—Bustle
- One of "19 Books on Intersectionality that Taylor Swift Should Read"—BuzzFeed
- One of "13 books Every Mujerista and Womanist Should Read"—Vibe
- One of the "100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time"—MS.
- "These contemporary 'sistah outsiders' don't shy away from sticky issues when addressing the complexities of their lives. Refusing to simplify in order to fit into someone's mold, these women dare you to dismiss them."—Bust
- "This is one of those books which should be required reading for every young sister out there."—Asian Weed
- "These women express a more radical, racialized feminism that broadens the movement beyond its early incarnation."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Jul 16, 2019
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Seal Press