Women of Wednesday: Olga Segura on Empathy, Objectivity, and Rejecting the Standard of Whiteness

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a weekly micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Olga Marina Segura, 27, Writer & Activist (New York)

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

I am a writer. It’s always been who I am, even when I wasn’t fully aware of it. I was born in the Dominican Republic and came to The Bronx when I was about 3 or 4 years old. Spanish was my native language but as kids do, I picked up the English language quickly. I struggled in elementary school often, particularly with reading and spelling, but my parents pushed me and helped me overcome whatever academic difficulties I had at the time. And that was the first moment I realized how important words were in my life. I was not only learning how to speak, how to write for myself, but I was also often helping my immigrant parents navigate these language barriers.

Professionally, I’m an associate editor at America Media. I’ve been here for almost 5 years. I write and edit articles on topics like race, women’s issues, immigration, and culture. My very first byline at America was a culture column, titled “Hip-Hop, My First Love.” I talked about falling in love with the genre because it’s always been a way for communities of color to tell their stories. Growing up, you didn’t really see stories, movies or television shows about places like The Bronx. But we had, and still have, hip-hop. It’s still one my favorite pieces I’ve written. It set the precedent for the articles I’ve written after. Every piece I create, every interview I do, I see it as an opportunity to highlight the experiences of women and people of color; my writing is my activism. In my latest articles, for example, I spoke with black Catholics about what it means to be black in the United States in a time of recorded police violence; I interviewed Ghanaian author Yaa Gyasi on her first novel, Homegoing; and I wrote about M. Tony Peralta, a Dominican, New York-based artist. I want people reading my work to realize that people of color do not just fit into stereotypes. We have so many rich, diverse experiences. I want my writing to reflect that; like Jay Z rapped, “I do this for my culture.”

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

First, my own self-doubt. It took me years to even become comfortable calling myself a “writer.” For quite some time I felt the word carried too much weight. I majored in English and Italian literature. In other words, I majored in mostly reading about dead, white men and how they constructed their experiences into novels, essays, whatever. I placed all of this on a literary pedestal; and I thought, I will never amount to that. I will never write like these authors. I had to actively begin deconstructing so much of what I had been taught, namely the notion of “whiteness” as the ultimate measure for excellence. And it took years. I had to actively go out — shout out to Black Twitter and all the amazing writers and works it’s exposed me to — and re-discover what literature and writing meant for people like me. It was — and often still is — difficult for me to just step back and appreciate whatever work I create. And this ties back into why I think writing, especially for women of color, is so damn important. I want to become a writer that young girls can look up to. I want them to read my work, look at me, and not have the self-doubt that I still carry around with me. I want them to think, “Wow. She looks just like us. She knows us. If she’s doing it, I can too.”

Second, working in a predominantly white space and field has been challenging. As I mentioned, the academic world taught me that “whiteness” was the standard by which writing, and much of the world, was measured. And despite working to overcome this fallacy, it was, and again still is, very difficult to operate in a space where you are one of the few non-white faces. Granted, I work with wonderful editors and writers, and I would not have evolved as a writer without the support and encouragement I’ve gotten at America. However, there are moments when issues we cover affect me on a much deeper level than it might my coworkers. For example, whenever I discuss police brutality, it’s difficult to remove myself because my father — and many men and women in my family — are black Dominicans. Like many writers of color, we don’t have the option of objectivity when it comes to certain issues. On the one hand, this inability to disconnect allows us to truly empathize in our writing, but on the other, it wears on you.

3. What do you need in order to continue your work in the way you envision?

First and foremost, I need to just keep writing and getting my work read! Even during the moments when it’s difficult, and there are many, I need to keep going. Because everything I write isn’t just for me, it’s for my culture, my people. Second, I need to continue immersing myself in the works of other writers, especially writers of color. Reading the work of other writers has been my biggest source of inspiration. It’s a total cliché, but the more you read, the more you grow as a writer.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

You can support my work by reading what I write. The dopest feeling for me as a writer is when I see audiences actively engaging with what I create, whether it’s a retweet or reaching out to me privately to let me know what you liked or didn’t like about my work. I want to create a conversation. And I want you all to be a part of it. You can find everything I create at America, or on my Twitter or Instagram.

5. What is your favorite quote?

My favorite quote is one I return to whenever I doubt myself or my work:

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world…The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” -James Baldwin.