A heated exchange between actress Salma Hayek and Jessica Williams erupted during a luncheon at the Sundance Film Festival. The two were discussing issues of race, intersectionality, and women in Hollywood. The LA Times and Remezcla covered the exchange and called out Hayek for not “getting” the intricacies of the struggle of Black women. What stuck out to me about the exchange (and the coverage) was the focus on “who has it worse” from both actresses. Do Black women have it worse than Latinas? Do Trans women have it worse than Black women? Do Latinas from older generations have it worse?
What if instead of instead of focusing on who has it worse, we focused on our shared struggles? Then maybe, together, we could break down more barriers.
The exchange between Hayek and Williams reminded me of the time when Sonja Sohn, best known for her role as detective Kima in The Wire, called me “the palpable negro” during a panel at the Democratic National Convention. I was sharing my story of being an undocumented Latina who worked on Wall Street and the difficulties I encountered climbing the corporate ladder. Sonja jumped in and said that when a Black woman walks in with her afro, and then I walk in with my hair, I “become the palpable negro.” She was suggesting that I become what White people can swallow. My face turned red, and my body became hot.
“Sonja,” I said, “let me share a story with you.”
When I was in middle school, learning about the Civil Rights Movement, I erroneously thought that racism wasn’t something that I needed to worry about. As I wrote in my memoir, “I assumed that racism was a dynamic exclusively between black and white people.”
In the 7th grade, I was placed in an honors math class, I barely spoke English, but math is a universal language. When the names of the students who were placed in the honors class were read, and mine came up, a boy named Justin interrupted.
“Why is she in the honors class?” he said. “She’s a Mexican! She doesn’t even speak English!”
The whole class laughed.
I may have never read about Mexicans during the Civil Rights movement in my history books, but I realized right then and there that this kid, through his brown eyes, saw me the same way that White people in my books saw Black people. He saw me as “the other.” He didn’t differentiate between shades of color.
My eyes were opened that day; discrimination is something that extends beyond a Black and White dynamic.
“We may be fighting different battles, but we are fighting the same war. The war of equality,” I said to Sonja.
The history of our people may be different. Latinas were not brought to the U.S. in chains. Some of us immigrated, for others the border crossed them. Our countries were colonized, our women raped, and we came out all sorts of shades and colors. Our experiences in this country are unique and different from those of Black or Trans women, though many of these identities do intersect with the Latino community. But when it comes to fighting for equality, we are much stronger when we fight together, collectively, for one purpose.
Jessica Williams went on to say, “Hey, maybe [black women] have it a little harder in this country, because we do; black women and trans women do, if we’re having it a little harder, it doesn’t invalidate your experience.”
She is right that her experiences do not invalidate mine, and by the same token, my experiences don’t invalidate hers.
I will never know what it is like to walk around as a Black or Trans woman, and it is true that my skin is not black; it’s also not white. Jessica Williams will also never know what it is like to walk around Latina. Though she connects her struggle as a Black woman to that of a Trans woman, she will never know what it is like to walk around a Trans woman. As a Latina, we are often too dark for white people, too white for black people. We have accents in English, we have accents in Spanish, “no somos ni de aqui, ni de alla,” (we are neither from here nor there). We are told to go back to where we came from, even if we are U.S. citizens. Those are my experiences.
When I march for Black Lives Matter, in the Women’s March, and against the Muslim Ban, and chant, “No Wall, No Ban”, I don’t do it because I think my struggle is more or less than anyone else’s. I do it because I recognize that big or small, hard or harder, our struggles are connected.
Sonja and I kept having an open, intense, conversation during the rest of the panel. We exchanged phone numbers and hugged each other after the panel.
Issues of race are tough, and complicated and we can’t possibly solve them in one sitting.
It’s not lost on me that at a granular level, our struggles are unique, but instead of focusing on what makes our struggles different, we should focus on what unites us. Our futures are intricately connected, we need each other.