TAHIA & ERYN ON SPACES FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR
Women’s Equality Day Interviews / 3 of 3
In 1973, the U.S. Congress declared August 26th “Women’s Equality Day.” This date commemorates the passing of the19th Amendment on August 26, 1920, thereby granting women the right to vote — but not all women. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act removed barriers for Women of Color. In celebration of this day, we spoke with six young women who are enacting change — and continuing to break down barriers. Here, we check in with Tahia Islam and Eryn Danielle.
Tahia Islam, 24, was born and raised in New York City. She grew up in Queens, helped organize Jackson Heights Community Fridge and founded Reclaimed Womxn Vintage. She’s @tahiatalks on Twitter and @tahia.co on Instagram.
I’ve lived through so much here — 9/11 and everything — but I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without taking the subway. I worked at 30 Rockefeller Center, and overnight my office got shut down. I’d never in my life seen an empty Times Square. On top of that, the neighborhood where I was born and raised in Queens, and where I’m currently residing, was the hardest hit area in New York City.
For multiple reasons. It’s super-dense. People live in multigenerational immigrant families. There’s a lack of language justice about social distancing rules and how to stay safe. Everything’s in English. Some communities left Manhattan overnight, but this is a predominantly low-income area, populated mostly by immigrants who are essential workers and still needed to go in to work all day, every day. Now things are opening back up, and people are being safe about masks. We had all these amazing protests for Black Lives Matter and it didn’t raise COVID rates here.
My family is from Bangladesh. They immigrated here in the eighties and they’ve built their life up in New York City, all over Queens. I’m first generation. I’m American. I’m a native New Yorker. Growing up in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst — 11373 is the most diverse zip code in the entire nation, in the world, something we were always really proud of — I never met a white American person until high school. Where I grew up are the people who make the city run. It’s all the dishwashers, the bus drivers, it’s the waiters, the servers, the cashiers, the janitors, the pharmacists of New York City. And we all just live together in harmony. When I say every single culture, I mean Tibetan, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Mexican, Thai, Nepali — everything. On the same block. In the same building. So for me, it’s like I had an international upbringing, but just in a New York City context.
I started Reclaimed Womxn Vintage out of my apartment two years ago to sell thrifted and vintage clothes at a budget-friendly price. First, to promote fashion sustainability. Second, I love style and fashion. It was something that felt very natural to me as someone who’s been thrifting her whole life and loves to collect pieces. At some point I started selling to friends and it just blew up.
For three years, I hadn’t bought fast fashion because of things like the Rana Plaza garment factory that collapsed in 2013 in Dhaka Bangladesh, where my family’s from, killing thousands of people. When that happened, I started learning about labor rights and lack of them, and how that ties to feminism and lack of feminism, and poverty.
I didn’t want to be a part of that system. But I still love fashion and was still following trends. I asked myself: How can I explore this trend, but through clothes that already exist in the world? I wanted to use the platform to share facts and figures about garment worker violations and pollution. Now it’s extremely pertinent because of the #PayUp campaign.
It was a really fun venture, and because I was selling clothes through the lens of activism, I was able to fundraise for causes like No Borders. When COVID hit, I was like, okay, I have a platform, let me sell some clothes to make some money to help my hard-hit community, but it totally extended beyond the vintage clothes thing. People were donating from all walks of life So we raised over $7K and it went to a variety of causes related to COVID relief.
I was going to Brooklyn vintage markets, which I grew up doing, and I was seeing how vintage had become this commodified, extremely white, wealthy, cool world that didn’t seem accessible to myself and my community. I wanted to have a platform for my friends, who are women of color and friends of color, to see themselves in vintage clothes, styled in a fashion-forward way and also budget friendly. I took photos, and I have friends who said, “It was the first time I saw myself on camera like that.” I felt really good. For my community, it comes from a deep place of love.
Black and brown communities, Indigenous communities especially, we don’t really waste a lot. Waste as a concept has been pushed by Western societies that tell us to buy more and do more, and that “progress” is the only way to show societal change. The idea of a circular economy already exists in my house. It’s not something I learned from a zero-waste white blogger on the internet. I learned it from my mom, who is the queen of saving every paper bag ever. I used to take my lunch in cream cheese containers and things like that. So I just learned from precedent. I learned from what I see my elders doing. That cream cheese container was once a source of shame. Now, it’s aspirational.
I have a lot of empathy for consumption culture. Coming from a low-income, working class, immigrant family, buying new clothing for your family is a sign of love: “We are working our best and we want you to feel special, even though we don’t have a lot.” Buying new things to adorn your body with — it’s a blanket, a hug. My mom will always see such-and-such an ad and want to aspire to that leisure culture. I never, ever want to shame anyone for aspirational buying, because that’s what’s fed to us. Under capitalism, there really isn’t much option for ethical consumption. If it’s a sign of showing love to your close ones, then do what you gotta do.
But I do think that as young women, we have an understanding that consumption is leading to discard. It’s polluting our environment and it’s part of systems and supply chains that are inherently hurting people. It’s mostly white people sitting around a boardroom without poor people of color in that room. Remember, people’s hands are creating this item. Once I realized these things, I was like: Why do I want to aspire to that in the first place?
You can ask yourself:
- Do I already own something that serves this purpose?
- How will having this item benefit me?
- How does this item exist on a larger supply chain?
- Does this item already exist in the world? Can I look for it in a vintage store, in a thrift store? Does my mom already have this in her collection?
- And — I think this is a key one — Can I buy this same item from a Black- or person of color (POC)-owned business?
Jackson Heights Community Fridge is about food justice and fighting food insecurity. Reclaimed Womxn Vintage is for fashion sustainability and diverse representation. I have a lot of intersecting identities. Anything I involve myself in is rooted in this and uplifts and advocates with — with, not for — low-income, working-class Black and POC communities.
However, it’s also crucial to me that I keep recognizing where I might have blind spots. It’s like that Audre Lorde quote, “I am not free while any woman is unfree,” and recognizing that, despite my intersectionality and struggles, I don’t know what it’s like to be Black in America. I don’t know what it’s like to be trans in America or to be trans, period. It’s about knowing places where I have privilege and making sure that I am constantly interrogating how my privilege has benefited me. It will be a lifelong journey and I’m ready for that.
The first word that comes to mind is love. Where are you sourcing your love from to enact this change? That’s a big question that I’m always asking myself. Also: Don’t be made small. They want us to feel small. They want us to stay within power structures, whether that be heteronormativity, whether that be white supremacy, whether that be the billionaire class, or whether that be your racist uncle at the dinner table. They want us to feel small because of our gender, our youth, our “lack of life experience,” which is inaccurate. If you have an inner passion, take all of that anger you might have about the injustices in the world and transform it into working from a place of love.
Eryn Danielle, 23, grew up in Baltimore, moved to New York, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her red-hot Instagram Allies Doing Work offers a “community driven space for intersectionality, radical accountability and active allyship.” Follow her on Instagram.
At Columbia, I studied both human rights and race studies with a minor in dance. I’ve been a dancer since I was three. Specifically, the work I did at school was committed to unpacking those intersections between human rights work, the arts and popular culture. I was interested in my struggles and those of other Black dancers. I realized it’s closely linked to how Black people exist in pretty much every job space. Allies Doing Work was the culmination of my personal thoughts and conversations I was having with friends.
I noticed that white people in this country have had a wake-up call and that mainstream culture was suddenly talking about these things. A lot of it comes from a great place, but many people, because they’re just starting to talk about this, aren’t yet truly informed. I felt that the discourse was starting to get a little simplified in the sense that being an ally is not something that just white people can do. It’s something that other people of color can take part in. I was trying to find a space to tackle the importance of talking about anti-Blackness in every culture and every country. I felt that we were starting to look at things from that white-centric point of view, and I knew we could go much broader.
Those conversations are very nuanced and need time. I was trying to start a platform that mirrors my personal experience: the ways in which I’ve made efforts to expand the company I keep and make sure that I’m checking my biases and not just relying on people who have had the same experiences as me. Really making sure: Am I understanding what’s going on with other people of color and are they understanding what’s going on with Black people? I felt that people didn’t know where they could go to have those conversations.
A lot of people are worried about “cancel culture,” and I’ve received lots of questions asking how I feel about it. But that’s a conversation I choose not to get really engaged in because I’m more concerned that we’re talking about harm and ways to fix that harm and making sure it’s not continuing to happen. This means making sure we’re holding people, brands, corporations, politicians and laws to a high standard and holding them accountable. That process is really uncomfortable for people, and sometimes gets conflated with being “canceled.”
I had no idea when I started the platform. I thought my friends would follow me and I would have like 30 people, and I was fine with that. Then it took off in a way that I couldn’t have foreseen. I also saw that lots of white people were following. I encourage them to follow if they’re comfortable and ready to accept the fact that not all the content will be geared towards them. I was getting a lot of questions like: “I’m white. What should I do?” When I saw that trend, I made sure to put out the call to action that this is a space where we’re going to be talking about Black people and people of color, and body and gender. It’s not going to be an oversimplified conversation. I think that white allies can get a lot of value from being comfortable with their experience not being center stage — that sometimes it’s a conversation between me and, say, an Indigenous person. And if they’re open to listening and learning, they can learn a lot from that.
Realizing that we’re in this for the long haul is also a very important reality for white people who want to be allies. They’re going to have to talk about this forever. They’re going to have to spend time with their parents. If they have children, they have to talk to their children about this. Because it starts at an early age. My friends and I recall experiencing some form of racism around first or second grade. That’s when it starts to click. If I experienced that in first grade, it means that a white child is capable of upholding this very system. It’s not something that just happens all of a sudden once you turn 18.
I think we’re all capable of it. Part of it is because lots of movements are happening on social media. We have to check ourselves: Why are we posting this? Why are we sharing this? Movements are being born on phones now, and on social platforms that by their nature have always been about trying to curate your life in a certain way.
It’s important to really look at yourself, at your life. You have to address the harm that you may have done, or understand how this world has been kinder to you in ways that are not possible for those who are Black with darker skin. You have to be able to look at yourself fully and clearly before you try to lead anyone else or before you make any bold statements or call yourself an ally. That has to be something that is earned and the goal should not be to have that title.
It’s really important to learn from Black scholars, from Black people, because they’ve always been there. They’ve been doing this work before it was trendy or before people were open to talking about it. So for me, those are the voices that really need to be heard and valued. It’s something that, if you’re new to being an ally, you might not understand fully yet, but just keep on learning and leaning in. Really try to resist the urge to make it about you.
This is a really nuanced conversation, not only with Black people, but with other people of color as well. As a lighter-skinned Black person, you are impacted by racism, but the more white-proximate you are, the better you will be treated. And if a darker-skinned Black person points that out to me, I do not need to try to make it about me.
My plan for Allies is to continue to bring to the platform people of different backgrounds — race, gender, differently abled, the entire spectrum — to help lead those conversations. As a straight Black woman, for instance, I cannot speak for an experience of queerness that is not my own. That’s not the way to go. On the other hand, if we have these conversations, we’re all learning and getting tools and knowledge to help impact this world. Being straight, white and cisgender does not have to be the norm.
It’s important that they realize their voting power, especially on a state-by-state or county-by-county impact. It’s not just about who’s president, as we’ve seen. To young Black women, I’d say don’t let whiteness be the lens through which you see yourself or other Black people. Don’t be afraid to speak out against those things out of fear of losing people in your life, because once you’re out of it, you’ll realize the world is so much bigger.
Blog Header Photo Credits:
Photograph of Tahia Islam by Chris Alfonso