During my time at Wellesley, I had multiple conversations with other self-identified feminist (and/or womanist) students of color about how uncomfortable we felt in Wellesley’s flagship feminist organizations and spaces. I was often asked during my first year why I hadn’t joined a purposeful feminist organization since feminist activism was such a integral part of my identity as I entered Wellesley from high school. (Many of my fellow 2011ers know that I edited a feminist literary journal from ages 16-19, trained male allies for feminist causes and ran a feminist open mic in high school. For the rest of you, now you know.)
The honest answer is that I didn’t join feminist and pro-choice Wellesley organizations because I did not find them to be safe spaces for women of color. Wellesley prides itself on its “Safe Spaces” in their various capacities around campus. As an incoming first-year, I thought that the one guaranteed Safe Space would be the self-identified feminist organizations as we were at a womens’ college. I soon found through personal interactions, however, that this was not the case. In fact, other POC felt that these spaces were the least safe for POC. To that end, it should be noted that oftentimes members of these organizations did not consciously and/or knowingly make these organizations and spaces uncomfortable for myself and other POC on campus; rather, inherent structures perpetuated these problems.
Yet, there were times when members of these organizations actively engaged in activities that alienated POC. For example, commenting on Community threads about why they don’t understand the need for places like Harambee House or multicultural spaces and groups, or negative and presumptive comments about beneficiaries of affirmative action at Wellesley (for the record, Wellesley has no affirmative action policy), or not-so- privately discuss groups of people who SHOULD get abortions.
Yesterday, it dawned on me that many more of these conversations about alienation happened in private. I believe that if they had reached a public forum, the work of reconfiguring feminist organizations and spaces into safe spaces for all Wellesley students would have started earlier. During my time at Wellesley, members of these various feminist organizations would assert that they “reached out to women of color but none of them showed up.” To that, I think it would behoove each of these organizations to self-reflect and ask some honest questions about what they do to alienate students of color on campus. It is not a coincidence that most of those organizations are majority-white with just a handful of POC members, and it is wishful and naive thinking to believe otherwise.
I wrote about some of my experiences on my Twitter account last night, and got an overwhelming response from alums and current students of color who identified with the feelings of alienation*. Many of us had been the feminist during our time in high school (whether president of the feminist club, a pro-choice organizer, etc) and were excited to continue that work at Wellesley only to realize that those spaces were no longer comfortable for us. To that end, I think what I witnessed at Wellesley is also a microcosm of the wider problems in contemporary feminist organizations and movements.
Here are some concrete ways feminist organizations on campus alienated students of color. (Some of these experiences are my own, some are from other alums and current students):
1. Assume that students of color had no experience in feminist organizing or theory. I had classmates “explain” feminism to me as a first-year without asking first if I had any experience in organizing or theory. Had they asked, they would have found out that I had been doing this work since early high school. Other POC have shared similar experiences with me.
2. Privileging certain schools of feminist theory. Gloria Steinem is cool, but I identify more with bell hooks and Patricia Hill-Collins. Some of your Wellesley siblings identify as Womanists, Chicana feminists, Muslim feminists, and the list goes on. Educate yourself on the different schools of feminism.
3. Privileging certain types of feminist organizing over others. Organizing a trip to a slut-walk is fine but don’t be surprised when students of color don’t show up or when they complain about signs like this.
4. I am of the feminist camp that believes you have to be anti-racist/classist to be feminist but that’s just me. Further, simply labeling yourself a feminist does not mean that you are automatically anti-racist and classist and I think that assumption was often made at Wellesley. Being an ally to communities of color and other disenfranchised groups is a life long commitment that requires unlearning many insidious systemic prejudices. Labeling yourself “anti-racist” or an ally is just the first step of a lifetime of struggling and learning. None of us are going to be perfect allies in college.
Community is no more but when it was around, it really gave many people rope to hang themselves with. For younger students who aren’t familiar with old Community on First Class, let me say that it was crazy, and that’s putting it lightly. It brought out the worst in students. Everyone knew everyone that was involved in “flame threads” and those incidents didn’t just go away after the posting on Community stopped. When people made racist, classist, ignorant comments, it stayed with many students for a long time (hence Community discussion talk-backs and the creation of Culture Shock). After a “flame war” some students of color might not be inclined to work with peers who made disparaging comments on race, class, etc. On a campus as small as Wellesley’s it is easy to identify commenters on public forums and which organizations on campus they are members of. Thus, having more than a handful of members that repeatedly make comments such as the following:
a. Keep in mind that this is a direct quote. ”If [those] scholarships didn’t exist in the first place, the problem with people thinking minorities had things handed to them wouldn’t exist.” (I’m not going to go into the evident lack of a clear grasp of history and critical race theory that caused that comment…)
b.”Can you give me some examples of racism? How are white students supposed to know racism exists unless you tell us?” (also a direct quote)
c. “Why does Harambee House exist?” or general remarks questioning the place of multicultural space and groups on campus.
Remarks such as the aforementioned might make the associated groups of the commenters appear non-POC friendly. I don’t want to organize a pro-choice rally with someone who questions my existence on campus.
5. Not being self-reflective. I heard “We invited women of color but they didn’t come to our event” or “We invited everyone, I don’t know why they didn’t come” often as an excuse once the subject of POC alienation was brought up. Instead of having an honest and open conversation, the topic usually turned defensive quickly, leaving no room for improvement. As I mentioned in an above paragraph, it is no coincidence that these groups are mostly white and it’s not because POC on campus aren’t feminist. To think otherwise is naive.
I enjoyed my time at Wellesley and made some of my life long friends while there. I credit Wellesley with being one of the most positive influences on me today. That is why I am invested in making it a better place for the students who come after me. To that end, I recognize the institution’s role in perpetuating the cycle of students of color being responsible for educating the wider community on issues of diversity and inclusion. I hope that bringing this conversation to the table will make it easier for students of color in the upcoming classes to join or create their own feminist orientated groups on campus.
The creation of the Office of Intercultural Education is a gigantic step in eradicating that responsibility of community educating for students of color. But some stones have yet to be unturned. Wellesley still lacks a mandatory and efficient Multicultural Requirement that insures all students graduate with multicultural competency skills. Further, departments such as the Women’s and Gender Studies Department do not have nearly enough classes dedicated to different schools of feminism. For example, there is no dedicated course offered on black feminism (and you need a class, not just a unit, to fully grasp the nuances of black feminism/womanism). The absence of one specific course dedicated to black women’s experience/feminism puts Wellesley’s WGST department at odds with the other Seven Sisters and is particularly embarassing as Alice Walker is rumored to have aided in the creation of the WOST department at Wellesley. To give credit where it is due, the WGST department has made strides in the area of inclusivity by hiring Professor Mata and offering her classes on the Latina experience. Professor Creef also offers classes on the Asian historical narrative.
I don’t want to end this without highlighting that I am writing from a place of privilege. I was lucky enough to grow up in an upper-middle class community right outside of Chicago. As a junior in high school, I got the opportunity to join GirlSpeak, a feminist program of Young Chicago Authors. This is where I was introduced to feminist theory and organizing. I recognize that most young women did not have the same opportunities to study feminist theory in high school or college. At Wellesley, we were all very busy. During my time, I got busy with being a Peace and Justice Studies major and an active member of Ethos, SBOG, Society Zeta Alpha and eventually in College Government as MAC my senior year. Through it all, I took the time to research other types of feminism as well as self-educate myself on issues of diversity and inclusion that I was not familiar with. I only ask that my fellow classmates do the same.
Diamond J. Sharp
Class of 2011
*Many students and alums of color responded with examples of how environmental and queer groups alienated POC on campus as well. For example, assuming that POC students had no experience in environmental organizing, privileging international environmental issues while disregarding State-side urban environmental injustices, and ignoring the history of minorities in queer advocacy. So perhaps this can be a learning experience for the entire community.