For Poor Young Women of Color, Failure Has A Whole Other Meaning

Photo credit: Kevin Viol

When I was 17, I moved out of my mother’s house. I had endured years of mental and physical abuse there, but the choice to leave was still difficult and complicated. I didn’t want my mom to think I didn’t love her, but I knew I couldn’t stay with her.

I moved in with my aunt, and then went by myself to transfer to a high school closer to my aunt’s house. But the woman behind the desk at the school district office said I couldn’t — I didn’t have a parent or legal guardian who could sign off on the transfer. Instead, she told me, I had two options: I could drop out of school, or I could figure out how to get across town on my own every morning and keep attending the school I was currently enrolled in.

At the time, I was dealing with my trauma the only way I knew how: I internalized it. If I could be the perfect daughter and student, I thought, I could gain approval. I saw myself as something that I could fix.

But my attempts felt futile — I could attempt to be perfect all I wanted, but intention is only part of the picture. Like many poor women (and poor women dealing with trauma in particular), I didn’t have the resources necessary to succeed in school and life available to me. In fact, everywhere I looked, people seemed to be putting up hurdles, signaling that I should give up.

Like the woman behind the desk. I felt like she expected me to drop out; it was the stereotype about kids in my neighborhood, that they didn’t finish high school.

I did not drop out. Instead, I did what I felt I had to do: find my own way to school. I didn’t qualify for public transit tickets, so I obtained a part-time job at a movie theatre in order to afford bus fare. I got a special permission from my principal to enroll in night school to meet my requirements faster. Getting to school required taking two buses and a train, so I had to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to make it to class on time. After a day of traveling, school, and night classes, I would usually arrive home around midnight. On average, I slept 5-6 hours a night.

We’re told that people who work hard and make sacrifices for their education are role models, heroes. But no one treated me like a role model. In fact, everyone in my school system seemed to still expect me, and everyone else around me, to fail — from the ninth grade English teacher who didn’t bother to teach us proper grammar, to the English told me that I “was not academically talented,” despite the fact that I had earned the highest grade of any student in any of her classes that year. In the hood, we weren’t told about internships or summer opportunities. Funding for extracurricular programs or sex education was scarce.

For me, seeking perfection wasn’t just a matter of trying to prove people in my life wrong. Young women of color are constantly told, by statistics and film and TV stereotypes alike, that we will either get pregnant as teens or grow up to be criminals. I felt these expectations constantly, and constantly tried to fight them. I knew I couldn’t cut class, smoke weed, date anyone or try any other “normal” teenage activities, because one false move could be catastrophic for me.

What I didn’t understand then was that those expectations are a direct result of the negligence that occurs in poor communities, the lack of resources for both education and for coping with trauma.

But back then, I believed that if I failed, I would have no future. And, according to plenty of films, TV shows, articles, and the adults in my life, it would be my own fault.

The author at her college graduation. Photo credit: Isabel Sophia Dieppa

What I didn’t know then was how common it is for young women to be grappling with trauma. According to the National Center for PTSD, women are twice as likely as men to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is because women are more likely than men to experience sexual abuse, neglect, and domestic violence, which, according to a 2006 report published by the American Psychological Association, “may cause more emotional suffering and are more likely to contribute to a PTSD diagnosis than other types of trauma.”

I also didn’t know that the people most vulnerable to these types of violence are poor young women of color, who, according to a report by the National Organization for Women, are more likely to experience sexual assault, abuse and domestic violence than any other group. Girls who try to improve their situation by leaving the home they share with their abuser often find themselves arrested for running away or truancy, which a 2015 report by the White House Council on Women and Girls notes, “can be symptoms or outcomes of trauma and abuse. Once in the system, girls may be treated as offenders, rather than girls in need of support, perpetuating a vicious cycle that is increasingly known as the ‘sexual abuse to prison pipeline.’" The report also cites that these laws are more aggressively enforced towards young people of color.

And this is on top of lack of access to resources like counseling and tutoring, and the closing of many public schools in lower income areas, which has been documented to often lead to weakened academic growth for students.

I was praised by the adults I knew for “being so strong.” It never occurred to them that, instead of this praise, perhaps I needed emotional help and therapy.

By the time I graduated high school, I had moved in with a friend, after a family member raped me. Although I was able to overcome extraordinary circumstances just to graduate high school, I still fell short of the standards that would make me “extraordinary” enough to obtain a full scholarship for college. No matter how hard I tried to be perfect, I was never viewed exceptional.

My silver lining came when I realized my father had actually emancipated me when I graduated high school, in order to stop paying child support. Because I was emancipated, I could apply for FAFSA without my parents financial information, and get loans to pay for college on my own — something other people under the age of 24 are typically not able to do. Even if you have a negligent or abusive parent, don’t reside with your parents, or aren’t financially supported in any way by your parents, their earnings are still taken into account when determining financial aid, except in a very small handful of cases.

The degree of trauma I had experienced by that point had made me want to give up. But I didn’t give up, and thus was praised by the adults I knew for “being so strong.” It never occurred to them that, instead of this praise, perhaps I needed emotional help and therapy.

*

I had to succeed in college. That meant getting good grades, getting cast in school plays and being employable by the time I was done. It meant doing all the readings and being the smartest, most “talented” person in the room.

Once in college, I decided to major in theatre. I had dreams of becoming an actress and had read a lot of plays, my favorite being George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I loved the character Eliza Dolittle and saw myself in her; she, too, was abandoned by the people who were supposed to support her, but she knew how to make the most of herself and her situation. Like Eliza, it was important for me to prove that I could take what life gave me and turn it into something good.

By that time, I was aware of my trauma, but now felt I had to prove that it wasn’t going to drag me down. No matter how sad or depressed memories of my past made me, I believed I didn’t have time to deal with them.

My idea of success involved outrunning my trauma. What I didn’t know at the time was in order for to succeed, I had to deal with my trauma first.

My idea of success involved outrunning my trauma, making sure it didn’t decide the rest of my life story. What I didn’t know at the time was in order for to succeed the way I wanted, I had to deal with my trauma first.

As I got older, it became evident to me I still carried my scars. It manifested in my low self-esteem, insecurity, and constant need for validation. The only way I knew how to deal with what I called my “emotions” was through theatre. The rehearsal process was about making mistakes and reveling in those mistakes, instead of constantly watching yourself to make sure you were perfect. There, I dug deeper into my emotions, and learned real lessons. I learned to start letting go of perfection.

It was at 28, after I finished an intensive 10-week acting course at the school at Steppenwolf Theatre, that I started to realize my own power. It was through theatre that I learned how to be a storyteller and was given the time and tools to deal with my trauma. These tools empowered me to think about what I wanted. My voice, my words, my existence in this world, I realized, are valid not because I’m perfect, but because I’m me.

*

My experience, I learned, is not unique. Many poor women of color not only have to work twice as hard to get half as far as their peers, but have had to do that work while overcoming severe trauma, with little resources or help.

Leslie Rangel is a successful journalist today, but her childhood didn’t necessarily show her a clear path to success. Rangel's mother immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, to the U.S., where she gave birth to Rangel and her sisters. “When I was younger, I was homeless with my mom and my two sisters [for about six months,]" Rangel tells Bustle. “But for a child, obviously that felt like years. We lived in a domestic violence shelter, so we knew what rock bottom looks like."

Growing up under such extreme conditions meant that at an age when other kids were watching Rugrats, Rangle was cooking and babysitting for her sisters. She remembers having her family's laundry detergent stolen at the shelter, and feeling that she needed to steal it back because they could not afford to buy more.

The pressure to not fail was immense; even small issues were a lot to grapple with. While going to college — as the first in her family to attend — Rangel told her mother about her desire to switch majors, from journalism to kinesiology. Her mother worried that switching majors would require so many additional courses, she'd be unable to afford them. "And, so that was kind of one of those things where it was like, OK, well, I guess I gotta keep going.”

She held herself to near-impossible standards, and feared doing anything that might feel like letting her mom down, because "Mom had been a hero — she'd been a single mom, and had gotten us through all of this rough life.”

Rangel is not ashamed to say that she is currently going to therapy in order to deal with her trauma. And this topic of no longer carrying her family is one she is working through. "Being the oldest in the family," Rangel says, "I took it upon myself to be the one who was going to help get the family out.”

I am where I am today not because I tried to be perfect, but because I took the time to heal.

While many narratives depict the “failures” of poor women of color as our own fault, the problem is actually institutional. The constant closing of schools in our neighborhood holds us back. The lack of extracurricular activities, therapy, opportunity and growth hold us back. Being denied some form of a creative outlet, and the chance to be messy and make mistakes without dire consequences, holds us back. In my own life, theatre was a life raft and it provided opportunities I would not have had otherwise. But many don’t even have that.

That’s why making more resources and support available to young women dealing with trauma and poverty could make a huge difference.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported, and many survivors never get help. If we make more safe environments, equipped with counselors and mentors, women will have the opportunity to heal and not be defined by their trauma. Similarly, making it easier for students who don’t live with supportive parents to navigate educational systems would make a huge difference.

I always wished I could be someone else. I thought if I pretended nothing was wrong and I was perfect, I could survive. But now I know that that was a flawed coping mechanism; I am where I am today not because I tried to be perfect, but because I took the time to heal. I want more young women like me to have that opportunity.