Columns, Opinions

Allums ’21: Who is the ‘we’ in WE@Brown?

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, February 22, 2019

From Feb. 7 until the Feb. 9, I had the pleasure of representing Brown at the 24th Annual Black Solidarity Conference sponsored by Yale. Hundreds of black undergraduate students gathered to attend workshops, network and foster connections with one another. During a moment of free time, I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across an advertisement for “WE@Brown,” a women’s empowerment conference to be held in Salomon Hall March 9. I was momentarily intrigued by another opportunity to be a part of a large group of undergraduates to celebrate our common identity.

However, as I learned more details about the conference, my burst of enthusiasm was replaced by growing wariness. The headlining speakers for the conference include three women who are each prominent business and entrepreneurial figures. Keynote speaker Lisa Caputo ’86 is the current executive vice president of marketing, communications and customer experience for Travelers. The opening remarks will be delivered by Haley Hoffman Smith ’18, author of “Her Big Idea.” The closing remarks will be delivered by Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, a graduate from Harvard and co-founder and CEO of Her Campus Media. As I stared at the photos of these speakers, I found it ironic that, while at a conference where I felt included and validated, I was reading about an event where all the leading speakers will be white.

At a historically white institution like Brown, the implicit racial bias that is apparent to me in the selection of speakers for WE@Brown did not surprise me. I was more so disappointed to see yet another example of the centralization of white womanhood in today’s feminist movement.

This past January, the organizers of a women’s march in Eureka, California canceled their Jan. 19 event due to concerns that the participants would be mostly white women, thus lacking crucial perspectives from female minority groups. The group did acknowledge on their Facebook page that the event had been planned in a way that focused on the perspectives of the majority white leadership, and so the group postponed their event so that minorities would have the opportunity to co-direct the march. The planned event has been rescheduled to March 2019. Going forward, the individuals organizing WE@Brown would do well to mimic this act of self-awareness.

There is an argument to be made that if women of color are excluded from the mainstream feminist movement, then it is best we create a movement of our own. Such is the origin of Womanism, a term that author Alice Walker first used in her book “In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose.” Walker describes Womanism as “another shade” of feminism, one that highlights the experiences of black women and women of color in general. Womanism arose from the dearth of minority representation in the feminist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the middle-class white women who led the movements often neglected the nuanced forms of oppression that ethnic women suffered.

I am in full support of affinity spaces for ethnic minorities. Additionally, however, I argue that we cannot rely solely on these spaces to further diversity and inclusion efforts at Brown and elsewhere. Women of color must assert their rightful space in the mainstream feminist movement. If we do not insist on dismantling majority white spaces, those leading them will never be forced to reevaluate their narrow perception of successful women who deserve to be included in the mainstream. White women who are already included will continue to operate under the false impression that either the issue of race is solved by means of affinity spaces or that representation is not a pressing issue.

I know that we as women of color are all exhausted with spending our mental and emotional energy on making our white counterparts aware of racial bias. Therefore, I recommend that, only if we feel able, women of color should attend WE@Brown in large numbers. Attend the workshops and ask the industry leaders how well integrated women of color are in the workplace environments of their respective companies, not just numerically, but professionally and socially. Overall, I imagine that the optics of a crowd of women of color will force the coordinators to confront the diversity of women to whom they are accountable if their mission indeed is to empower women at large.

I do not mean to insult those speaking on the WE@Brown panel; they are impressive women who have every right to be there. I am mainly arguing that the event should expand to include women of color as leading speakers.

Therefore, for the coordinators of WE@Brown, I implore you to reflect on your planning process for the conference and confront the reasons why the leading guest speakers do not include ethnic minorities. Attending this event as a woman of color would not have to be so mentally and emotionally draining if the event appeared to be conscientious of women of all backgrounds. When you are planning WE@Brown for next year, do make a concerted effort to include more women of color as speakers and workshop facilitators in order for your conference to be more intersectional. Ultimately, you are responsible for redefining who exactly the “we” is in WE@Brown.

Jordan Allums ’21 can be reached at jordan_allums@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

10 Comments

  1. Three speakers and none were black. That bothers you. But none were hispanic, Eskimo, Bulgarian, Indian (east or west), none are trans, none are disabled, none are Palestinian, none are Chinese, none are Pacific Islander, none are mentally disabled. Did I miss any excluded groups?

    I’m guessing that as a self-identified black woman you only seem to care about black women. So why should any white person, male or female, care about you?

    • This student very clearly says that we should have someone who classifies as a POC – i.e., someone who is not white. That does not mean the speaker has to be black. Your guess that this student “only cares about black women” is not supported by facts.

      • All right, I’ll bite. Why would a black woman who begins her article by expressing how rewarding it was to be one of a large number of black women at a conference would be satisfied if the all-white panel she criticizes had an Asian on it?

        • Probably to express how rewarding it can be to feel like you belong? Or to simply say she was at a conference when she saw this other conference, and noted that all the women on this panel for WE@Brown were white? This doesn’t mean that she believes the panel should have only specifically a black woman on it.

  2. TheRationale says:

    Another piece about how everyone but enlightened Brown students is racist.

    • If you don’t see a problem with having a conference for all women but only representing white women, that’s on you…

      • TheRationale says:

        No, the problem is on grouping people by what they are rather than who they are and what they’ve done. If it were all minority women, someone would complain that perhaps they were all straight, or all affluent, or that none were international. The term “oppression olympics” exists for good reason. If you think you need to look like other people in order to feel accepted, then you’ve got some serious ethno/gender/whatever-centrism going on you need to fix. That kind of attitude keeps people from accepting each other because they think what someone looks like is more important than who that person actually is.

        Besides, it’s hypocritical to happily attend a conference focused on your own ethnicity while complaining that some other conference that isn’t even focused on ethnicity doesn’t conform to your personal ethnic statistical tastes.

        • The difference between attending a conference made to rise up Black women versus one meant to represent all women is that it is evident that the focus will be on Black women in the first, whereas there should be a diversity of women at the second.

          There are many women who have also “done things” that are not white – the author is saying that having a panel that is only white is not necessary when you are having an event that is supposed to be representative of all women. That doesn’t mean that someone has to necessarily LOOK like you, but that having more representation is good. You’re making it a bigger deal than it needs to be, and assuming that “someone would complain that perhaps they were all straight, etc.” – go complain about those things in places it is happening, because it’s not here. Again, the author has just said, “If you’re representing many different kinds of women, why only one type of woman represented?”

          • TheRationale says:

            Why on earth is do you think only “one type” of woman was represented? Just because their skin pigmentation is not arrayed to your liking, they’re all automatically “one type”? Does that mean there was only “one type” of woman present at the conference for black women? I think this is ignorant thinking that belongs 60+ years ago.

          • What do you mean “to your liking” – I have no preference at all. Women with different backgrounds, which is influenced by race, have different experiences, and can provide a variety of perspectives that would be useful. Stop being so salty and petty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*