By Page Forrest
According to the website CollegeData, as of a report completed in 2014, 85% of Sewanee students are white. While disappointing, it should not be surprising that that Caucasian-centric mentalities pervade most organizations and movements on campus – including feminism.On April 2, the Sewanee community took steps to address the lack of intersectionality in feminism at Sewanee. A panel titled “What’s Wrong With Sewanee’s Feminism?” was hosted by the Women’s Center, AAA, HOLA, OCCU, ACASA, Asian Sensation, the Auxiliary Board, and No Labels Sewanee. Featuring Sheana Algama (C’15), Obianuju Okonkwo (C’15), Gabby Valentine (C’17), Mary Perez (C’17), Tran Ly (C’17), Gabriela Ruiz Blake (C’16), and Adreyauna Lewers (C’16), the discussion tackled “the shortcomings of Sewanee’s mainstream feminism” and seeked “to develop a multicultural vision for Sewanee activism,” according to the event description, and was moderated by Armonté Butler (C’17).
The discussion followed a structure of audience members submitting questions to the panelists, and the women taking turns to answer. Topics ranged from feminism as a movement to feminist spaces at Sewanee. When asked whether or not they felt comfortable in feminist spaces at Sewanee, a range of answers followed. Blake stated “It’s not that I don’t feel comfortable, but I definitely sometimes feel different.” On the other hand, Perez said “I don’t feel as involved because specific events don’t always connect to me, or it’s not something that interests me. I’m not as involved in the Women’s center because I don’t feel included.” Okonkwo raised a fair point about comfort levels, and how easy reaching out to certain groups is. “It’s easier to reach out to more multicultural groups because we just feel more comfortable. Like this is the first year this multicultural specific to feminism topics has been addressed, and how long has the Wick been around?”
A good deal of the discussion touched on the large amount of sex positivity programming the Women’s Center brings to the community. Valentine pointed out “Something that’s been harder for me to grasp are conversations about sex and sex positivity, which is great. But as colored girls, there’s a whole other dimension to sexuality. Like as colored girls, we’re fetishized. In high school a guy I was dating kept saying “Oh I’m dating a Brazilian” and ignoring my black side. We need to bring the fetishization of different races into the conversation about sexuality.” Racial issues don’t only intersect heavily with sex positivity. Okonowo reminded the audience that while the feminist movement at Sewanee discusses the gendered wage gap and how women make 70 cents to the male dollar, women of color make even less than that, which is rarely brought up in Sewanee discussion.
Towards the end, the discussion shifted towards how we can change the Sewanee community’s attitude towards intersectionality and feminism. Algama said, “There needs to be more conversations about problems that affect smaller groups at Sewanee: religion, class, different cultural backgrounds, and people outside the US. I hear so many people say, “Why do we need feminism? Women are equal in the us.” But it’s not just the US that exists – women all over the world have problems and we can’t forget them.” Valentine tied it back to the discussion about race hosted by SAE on April 1.
“At the SAE race talk yesterday someone said ‘As a person of color, we’re always stepping out of our comfort zone at Sewanee.’ And more people need to do that – if you’re in the majority at Sewanee, step outside of your comfort zone. Make more effort to interact with multicultural groups. And then the other way around – if you don’t go to the Wick events a lot, do it. It’s okay if you’re going to be the only black person in the room, it’s not like the first time that’s happened.” Ly also raised an extremely important point about involving multicultural groups in events. “Being a student leader, leading a lot of organizations on this campus, I feel like we have very important roles on campus in starting this. I have a funny story about this event, a few days ago – I got an email from Kathleen Kelso (C’17) asking if Asian Sensation wanted to co-sponsor, and it literally said we wouldn’t have to do anything, our name would just be on the poster. But we don’t want to just cohost in name only – we want to do events. We want to help organize, not just donate money to buy pizza. And this is something that all campus leaders need to take into account.” Finally, the last question provided a leading point for the majority-white feminist community: “As a white feminist, I don’t think it’s my place to lead battles outside of my own experience? How I can help understand everyone’s experience without overstepping other voices?”
Okonkwo thanked the person who submitted the question for his or respect. “I appreciate you acknowledging you don’t understand our experiences, but at the same time, I think it’s okay for you to help lead these movements – I’m from Africa but I still try to help lead white-centric feminist movements. Step out of your comfort zone. Just because it’s not your experience doesn’t mean it’s not your issue. We’re all so tunnel vision in our own experiences that we block others out. We need to stop focusing on ourselves so much and think about what we can do to help others.” Lewers reminded the audience about the importance of doing research, in order to be able to speak accurately on issues. “Do your research – get out there and talk to people, look up terms that you need to, talk to professors and faculty, and understand people’s perspectives, so that whatever you decide to lead, you do it effectively.” Perez remarked, “You don’t have to lead a movement to help or support somebody –but if I tell you about my issues, help and go and get those issues out there – tell your friends and raise awareness. I guess you as a white feminist, if you carry that experience, you can tell other people, and spread other people’s stories, and spread awareness,” and Valentine echoed her sentiment, saying, “There are so many ways to be a leader, but you don’t have to be a leader to be involved. Don’t be afraid of wanting to care about these issues, but be open to allowing the multicultural standpoint to be the spotlight.” The panel ended with a reminder: “This shouldn’t be an end to conversations about intersectionality in feminism at Sewanee.” Talk about these issues, raise your concerns, and most importantly, step out of your comfort zone.