As an undergraduate Woman of Color, I spent four years fighting for change within my college institution and had little time to think about my needs outside of my race and gender. As a result, I was often seen by the administration as the voice of Female Students of Color. Administration and faculty members recruited me to assist them in generating lists on how to better the environment for Students of Color and, eager to help, I happily obliged.
It was only after graduation – with time to breathe and the gift of retrospect – that I began to ask myself: Why didn’t the administration simply ask my fellow Students of Color and let them come up with plans of action that fit them best? In other words, why was the administration asking one or two Students of Color how to fix the problems of an entire group of people?
Although it wasn’t until I had time to recover from college life that these questions started to crystallize in a productive manner, I experienced certain realizations while still a student. By my senior year I fully understood what my fellow classmates meant when they said, “They (colleges) know how to recruit us (Student of Color) into their fancy institutions but have no idea what to do with us once we get here.” It seemed obvious to us that the college’s ability to deal with the needs of a growing Woman of Color student population, trailed behind its zeal to publicly proclaim itself a “diverse” campus.
This imbalance, which continues with little sign of change, may very well be the root of the problem. These institutions don’t know how to listen to the stories of Women of Color students, nor do they understand their experiences. While they continue to give Women of Color scholarships, venues to speak out, and even cultural houses to live in, they fail to give them a microphone to be heard.
And it would seem that therein lays the answer; when I looked back as a graduate and thought, “What could we do to help these women be heard?”, I realized a simple, but grossly overlooked, approach to dealing with issues of Women of Color in academic settings: “We should let them tell us.”
And so I started Refuse The Silence, a growing multi-media project that captures the honest experiences of Women of Color currently enrolled in elite liberal arts colleges throughout the United States. It is a space for Women of Color to tell their own stories using their medium of choice, be it through film, essays, music, poetry, etc. The stories are being compiled with the goal of presenting a suggestive plan of action to these institutions.
A few weeks ago, I returned to my alma mater, Middlebury College, to interview Women of Color on campus about their experiences. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, perhaps to realize that I had made a mistake and should stop before I got carried away. But when I listened to them, I knew that their story had to be told.
In an interview, one student told me,
I think there are major concerns on campus with women of color. However, I think one of the biggest problems is lumping them all as one major concern because we all come from very different backgrounds and everything that affects us is different. To some people their religion is a very important factor, to some people their skin color is a very important factor, to others its their culture and way they grew up… so its very different things that affects all of us.
One of the biggest problems that women of color on this campus do face is that… we are seen as similar. We are seen as having, umm, you know, one issue… so I think women of color face a lot of problems in being able to stand on their own. In the same breath [they have a hard time] having the campus see them as individuals and not just as one huge loaf of color.
…[T]here is a huge issue of generalization [at Middlebury]. And, I understand that, you know, you being able to make connections in your mind and categorize people makes it easier for you, but it makes it very hard on people to be themselves and to have their own personality. There is a lot of de-individualization that is going on… There is a huge difference between listening to someone and hearing them… [I] think that many of my classmates are hearing me but they are not listening to what I am saying.
Students continue to feel as though they are not being understood. They have to keep fighting, and be the voice for change on campuses. “If we don’t fight, who will do it for us?” another student wrote in an entry.
Another concern that a handful of Women of Color have referred to in their submissions is the influx of discussion groups on campus to address issues of race. Unsupportive forums on institutional diversity on college campuses and the visible lack of action taken angered the majority of students I spoke with.
Is it possible the colleges’ attempts to bridge racial divides are making things worse?
Refuse The Silence isn’t just about changing our education system. The focus is on giving these women a microphone to speak out. It’s not always about the right or wrong action to take, but about Women of Color knowing that they can speak, and that someone will listen.
So, today I ask: How can we better assist those who are currently in such institutions, including students, faculty, staff and the administration, understand the issues that need to be addressed if we don’t even listen?
I have found that academic institutions still have the conception that a publicly touted liberal idealism means that we live in a world without racism. I can only hope that Refuse The Silence will raise questions about how we deal with race issues in regards to Women of Color on elite college campuses. Furthermore, I hope that we will be able to understand the significance of their individual experiences.
If you would like to learn more and/or you are interested in submitting your story, click here.