What does it mean to be "A Woman of Color?"

Two decades ago, when I came to the U.S. as a music student in New York, I got a call from the NAACP. They'd gotten my name from somebody at my dorm--The International House--and wanted me to join their New York chapter.

"But I'm not African American," I demurred. "No matter," said the woman on the phone. I was Latin.

"But I'm not even Latin per se," I insisted. "My grandparents are Lebanese."

The woman on the phone once again insisted it did not mater, adding:   

"In this country, if you're African American, Latin or Middle Eastern, you are a woman of color."  


Back then I was newly arrived from Colombia, and didn't grasp any of this nuance. Bothered by the prospect of being put into a box, I declined the invitation.

Twenty years later, as I've shared panels with female writers from many different backgrounds--last week it was with two amazing African American writers and one Japanese American writer--the significance of the call finally hit me.

While "color" may begin with the color of the skin, it's really all about shared experiences.

We've all experienced being the "only one" in a room, in a company, in a luncheon, in a board meeting. We've all had to explain the most basic things about ourselves. We've all been expected to conform to others' notions of who we are (recently someone asked me, "Is your book only in Spanish?" "No," I replied. "It's only in English.")

As writers, we aren't expected to venture outside our ethnic beat or sphere. Conversely, what we do is often deemed not mainstream enough to merit the coverage others get.  

Hearing these women talk over the weekend, and all the other women I've sat with during the past six months, I found myself nodding in agreement. Yes, I've been there, I thought. Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

I have yet to sit in a panel with a group of Middle Eastern women, but I have a feeling it won't be much different. We are all women of color.