Tania Canas

“Women of colour are more like urban guerrillas trained through everyday battle with the state apparatus.” -Aida Hurtado, 1985

As women of colour (WOC) we are actively and inevitably engaged in violent struggle against ongoing attacks on our epistemic, ontological, political, historical and holistic existence.  Our trenches are not the mountains, they are universities, schools, theatres, media, and the streets. They are sites such as theory, discourse and practice. We are constantly engaged in a struggle that is designed to oppressively wear us out and weed us out.

I am not the first to use the language of war to describe navigating the colonial, Western, neoliberal matrix of power. Terms such as traumatic, violence, trigger, genocide, struggle and oppression. There have been a lineage of woman before me that applied this language in publications such as: Presumed Incompetent: the intersections of Race and Class for Women of Colour in Academia (Muhs, Niemann, Gonzalez, Harris ed.); Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism (Grada Kilombra); This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour (Moraga, Anzaldua, Bambara ed.) and Methodology of the Oppressed (Chela Sandoval), to name but a few. Chicana theorist, Aida Hurtado, identified third-world feminism as a differential form of social movement, “by the time women of colour reach adulthood, we have developed informal political skills to deal with State intervention”[1]. This movement, or navigation, is something she likens to being in modern, urban guerrilla warfare.

In 1965 Brazilian guerrilla fighter, Carlos Marighella wrote the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla which was subsequently used throughout the revolutions in Latin America. The thirty-seven page manual covers practical tips, essential characteristics of a guerrilla – both personal attributes and training regimes. It is very much a manual for literal applied combat situations, but like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince its constructs can be drawn from, reimaged and applied to how one moves through a modern, capitalist, colonial context.

Drawing from this manual, other WOC writers and my lived- experience, this piece looks to provide strategies of navigation and survival within intuitionally white spaces in the arts and research.



As a social-political being, women of colour are positioned in contrast to the patriarchal, colonial and neoliberal regime. We are the ‘third-world looking’, refugees, asylum seekers, ex-detainees, diasporic that exist at the margins and intersections.

“The urban guerrilla is an implacable enemy of the regime, and systematically inflicts damage on the authorities and on the people who dominate the country and exercise power”[2]. This is particularly the case when we exercise autonomy over our collective, self-determination and self-actualisation and retain creative control over our own representation, processes and narratives.



“Subordinate people do not have the privilege of explicitness, the luxury of transparency, the presumptive norm of clear and direct communication, free and open debate on a level playing field that the privileged take for granted.”- Conquergood[3]

When I speak about sites of resistance in regards to terrain, it refers to the idea that modern-day resistance fronts exist at a multitude of spaces and sites. As a liberation front, in the ongoing wars of colonialism, we seek control of the means of self, communal representation. We seek matriarchy, decolonisation and the end to racism.

Resistance cannot and does not exist as it did in previous revolutions. Therefore to engage in resistance, as diasporic WOC, we must take something like the Minimanual and reimagine in this context: To situate it within what it means in regards our positionality, our specific time and place. Our resistance must look different. Movements in history have faulted by attempting to forcibly apply a template of revolution in completely different times and places. Resistance will not always look like the way we have historically framed it in the West, it will not look like classical guerrilla warfare, nor even protests on the streets.

Manifestations of resistance for WOC in particular take a different, less overt form. It is a sophisticated yet radical way in which we have learnt to navigate the world. For this reason, our resistance do not always take the overt form nor the most direct response. It is fluid, organised, and omnipresent. “Urban technique can never be permanent, can never defend a fixed base nor remain in any one spot waiting to repel the circle of oppression” [4]explains Marighella. This is because the forces of systemic oppression are aggressive, continuous and stronger than the singular version of us. Therefore we must pick and choose our battles, take time for radical love, know when to retreat, when to hide, when to perform. We are expert strategists, skilled in camouflage, making quick-decisions on when be the diplomat versus when to be the warrior. “WOC fighting capabilities are often neither understood by white middle class feminists nor leftist activists”[5]) explains Hurtado. In 1981 Cherrie Morgana defined US Third World feminism as guerrilla warfare as a ‘way of life’ as a means and method for survival. “Our strategy” she explains, “is how we cope ”on a daily basis. She continues, “how we measure and weigh what is to be said and when, what is to be done and how, and to whom… daily deciding/risking who it is we can call an ally, call a friend (whatever that person’s skin, sex or sexuality)”[6] We are speaking about oppositional consciousness and creating sites of resistance where we can as a form of power.



I recently read about the idea of Racial Capitalism, which is a process of deriving social and economic value from someone’s racial identity. We are looking at a systemic phenomenon and a value placed on race, but only in terms of how that is defined by Whiteness. This creates a framework to display diversity as ornaments in a white framework. This makes disposable voices of us, as extensions, additions, absorptions that do not challenge the power dynamics that exist.  This makes disposable voices of us. So I would say: beware of superficial aesthetic-only diversity.

To know the tactics however, we must first “know the terrain of the encounter” (Marighella, 1969, p. 14) which will inform us how to strategise – we must know the terrain of discourse, intuition and organisation we find ourselves in.

  • Be wary of placing complete and utter trust upon White institutions, they do not understand the social demands of code switching, and they are limited in their understanding of seeing the holistic, collective and plural version of you that exist outside of how you are presented within that institution. They do not exist for that trust. They have not warranted it, or earned it. And if anything it will be exploited.
  • The other thing is: stay connected to your community. My experience from predominantly White institutions is that they look to incorporate you and assimilate you.
  • If you are going to work for White institutions, do not work entirely in White institutions. Work on other projects too, stay connected to community, do volunteer work – there are so many ways. Working in exclusively White institutions as a POC can be exhausting and traumatic, and can also be a very lonely and increasingly isolating experience. And you will burn out.
  • Also try to understand how the institution works in a structural sense. That will give you a better understanding of your position and also the limits of your negotiating power.
  • Read WOC writers, artists and researchers. Even if you do not have the power to call out things as yet, it is important to know how to name them.
  • Retreat if you need to and save your resources, mental health to fight another day.
  • Guard you and your community’s ideas. They are precious. Academia and the arts, as it currently stands, does not have an inherent right to these narratives.
  • Understand radical self-care. As one of my supervisors said to me recently: know that you do not have to compromise as much as you think you do.

As with every day socio-being you will have to do double the work to be considered even remotely close to the playing field: You will need to publish academically, go to conferences, and understand academic language. However, unlike those absorbed into the ivory tower, those who theorise from above, it is your responsibly to communicate beyond these spaces: blogs, panels, etc. You exist in the in between – WOC as diaspora, as refugee, as in-between practice and theory, community and university to bridge gaps. Resist losing your inbetweenness that which allows you to resist from the intersections- otherwise you will be a lost cause, you’ll be a mascot for whiteness not for us. You will no longer be a guerrilla fighter but a prisoner of war.



To remain calm and cool in the worst of conditions and situations. Never to leave a track or trail. Not to get discouraged” – Marighella [7]

In institutionally white spaces you will be exploited, the question is how and by what margin, how conscious are you of it? What are you compromising in the process? Take power back through navigation, informed decisions, through refusal, through creating sites of resistance even within exploitative discourse frames.

We determine how the particular resistance in that moment looks like: overt, covert forms, self-preservation. These must be taken into consideration moment to moment. All are different configurations and create different, yet equally significant interventions- to maintain a continuous site of resistance.

With every opportunity ask yourself: can I create a site of resistance here?

Ask: is this safe?

And remember, you are not alone.


Conquergood, D. (2013). Cultural struggles: performance, ethnography, praxis. University of Michigan Press.

Marigella, C. (1969). Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. Independent.

Sandoval, C. (2000). Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

[1] Sandoval, 2000, p.59.

[2] Marigella, 1969 p.3.

[3] Conquergood, 2013, p.34.

[4] Marigella, 1969, p.13.

[5] Ibid, p.59.

[6] Ibid, p. 59.

[7] Marighella, 1969, p. 5

Tania Cañas is the Arts Director at RISE Refugee as well as a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at The University...


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