Becoming a proud woman of color: Strengthening my identity through community

For a local racial equity leader, growing up brown in Grand Rapids, surrounded by white faces, was complicated - and being adopted made it even more so. Erika VanDyke pens a thought-provoking piece on identity and race and reflects on the influence of communities of color on her own life.
This article is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Erika VanDyke, who has a master’s degree from Michigan State University in community psychology, and is passionate about social justice, particularly equitable public education.  She has worked with Kent School Services Network, FoodCorps and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids,  Kids’ Food Basket, and LOOP at Sibley Elementary.  Erika is currently spending a few months in Bogotá, where she is taking Spanish classes and learning about the many ways there are to be Colombian. You can follow her blog or reach her by email.

This past fall, I was honored to be chosen as a member the Transformational Leadership Program’s third cohort. TLP, a program of the Urban Core Collective, was designed to create a pipeline of leaders of color and equip them with “critical skills and knowledge required to fill positions of influence across Grand Rapids to support systematic change and to achieve racial equality.” As part of our graduation requirements, we had to write a final reflection paper answering several questions about our learning and experience with the program.  The following blog post was my response to the question, “What has been your most significant area of growth over the course of the program?”

One of the first things our leader, Paul Doyle, said to us when he was explaining where our TLP sessions were going to be held was that the sites had been chosen for a reason. He said that it was important for people in those places to see groups of people of color there.  That us being there mattered, that it was powerful. I felt the power of being part of that group from the beginning of TLP.  My most significant area of growth of the course of TLP has been the impact it has had on my identity as a person of color.

I have spoken in TLP about the complexities of my identity. I was born in Colombia and was adopted into a white family when I was eight weeks old. My primary and secondary education took place at schools affiliated with my parents’ church, and I can count the other kids of color on one hand. Even Grand Valley, while more diverse than anywhere else I had ever been, was still mostly white. Growing up brown, surrounded by white faces, is complicated. Being adopted makes it even more so. Imagine my dismay at discovering that the authors of one of TLP's main texts made “establishing a strong identity” their first step in achieving success and finding greatness.

I first found myself surrounded by other people of color toward the end of my Grand Valley years.  I started volunteering at the Cook Library Center, and then at Cesar Chavez Elementary, both on the southwest side of town, where a vast majority of families are Hispanic or Latino. In those spaces, no one was confused by my presence — no one did a double take when they saw me, wondering why I was there.  Indeed, parents would turn to me with questions, expecting me to speak Spanish. This was the first time I learned that sometimes, people are upset if you do not speak a language they expect you to speak.  I learned that sometimes, they will mutter rude things about your parents, thinking that they somehow betrayed the group by not bothering (or in my case, not finding the resources) to teach you. I learned that sometimes, you will feel a little betrayed by the inquiring party AND by your parents, both failing you in some way that you cannot quite explain.

For awhile, being a person of color started feeling like something I should be embarrassed of, or try to casually reject. Those feelings would come after someone made me feel like being Latina somehow made my accomplishments worth less. For example, I was chosen to be in the Grand Valley commencement video the year I graduated.  When I mentioned it in passing, a faculty member told me that I had only been chosen because I was brown. While Grand Valley (and really all universities) does have a habit of pretending to be significantly more racially diverse than it is, this comment, coming from someone I trusted and respected, cut deep. Of course, this was not the first time I had heard comments like that; it was along the same lines as the people who took issue with me receiving certain scholarships. That professor’s comment made all of the hard work I had done during my time at Grand Valley seem small. My study abroad trip, my strong grades, my invitation to do research with a professor, my involvement in student organizations…it was all reduced to nothing.  In his mind, the only reason I could possibly have been chosen for that video was because my skin was brown. Too brown to be good enough on my own.

Sometimes, I also felt embarrassed because it was clear that the way I had been raised excluded me from initially understanding certain experiences or feelings that people of color share. I had to learn language to express why certain ideas were offensive, or worse, learn the hard way that certain things WERE offensive at all. Every time I did, it was another reminder that I just was not Latina enough. When I was doing an internship at Cesar Chavez Elementary during my senior year at Grand Valley, I remember watching the Cesar Chavez Day parade on Grandville Avenue with my class of third and fourth grade students, most of whom were Mexican and Guatemalan, with a few white and African American students mixed in. When all the flags came by, they cheered for the flag they recognized, and asked me to point out “my flag” — they meant the Colombian flag.  A couple of minutes later, things devolved into a yelling match between several different contingents of kids over whose flag was best. Some were chanting U-S-A, others Me-xi-co.  They were urging me to join in, demanding I pick a side. I responded the way I had been raised — I told them that it did not matter where we were from. As soon as the words left my mouth, and as soon as I saw the looks on the kids’ faces, I knew I had messed up. Now, I have the language and the concepts to explain why the “I don’t see race” trope is problematic. Then, I just knew it felt lousy, and I knew I had let my kids down. Too “white” to be able to help those kids work through the ideas they were expressing.

I have grown since those first experiences. I have learned that sometimes, people of color will say they accept you as a Latina, until they have had a few drinks and they make a joke you do not have the cultural frame to understand, and then they laugh and tell you are not really Latina. I have learned that, sometimes, being the only brown woman in the room means that everyone looks to you to speak on behalf of all people of color. I have learned that both are unacceptable ways treat someone. I think the most important lesson I have learned over time, and certainly continue to learn day by day, is that I have to let myself be the only person to define me. I have also learned that having other people, people of color, around to affirm that I am not imagining things and that I am enough is incredibly powerful.

TLP has given me a much needed chance to feel proud to be a woman of color and powerful as a member of a group of color. It was a place where I could watch people of color disagree with one another, reminding me that I am not required to think the same as someone else just because we look alike. The people there made me feel like the positions I took were valid, and that my perspective mattered. TLP has allowed me to feel like a valued contributor to important conversations. It was a space where I was admitted both because I was Latina and because people saw potential in me — at no point did I have to decide which was more important. The kind of encouragement and affirmation that I have received, and that I hope I will continue to receive and pay forward as an alumna, has been more valuable to me than I can put into words.
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