Upon returning this fall, the outside of the campus center might not have appeared dramatically different, not even slightly modified since students departed last spring. Yet the inner workings of it, specifically, the inner workings of the Center for Student Diversity received a significant and fashionable overhaul.
With the hiring of Roxie Patton, the new Associate Director for Student Diversity, last spring came an acknowledgment of William and Mary’s diversity-related deficiencies and a willingness to claim unconventionality as a means to fix them. Patton has had an extensive and varied career focused on developing inclusive environments and safe spaces for marginalized students in higher education.
In regards to her first impressions of William and Mary, Patton confessed that she was still familiarizing herself with students and organizations across campus. Nonetheless, she observed that our institution is predominantly white and predominantly affluent. “That happens a lot with historic institutions, particularly prestigious institutions,” Patton commented. However, William and Mary sits uniquely as having one of the largest socioeconomic disparities in the country. She noted in response to this observation that it’s important to think about who has access, who feels heard and represented. “For me, I think there are a lot of gaps that we are working on as a community to start to address.”
She continued by highlighting William and Mary’s underdeveloped resources for students with physical disabilities and the extent to which disabled students, especially those without physical symptoms, are overlooked in a similar manner as those from LGBTQIA+, Islamic, and Latinx communities.
Patton’s expansive and well-informed conception of diversity goes beyond just skin color and gender, and encompasses characteristics like socioeconomic status, religion, age, and ability, which as a part-time cane user, has personal implications for her.
She made note to refer to these groups as “minoritized,” a more intentional moniker than the often-generalized term “minorities,” emphasizing the distinction being in that minoritizing someone “is something that we do as a society to people, not something that is innate in who you are.”
This insight is crucial in understanding the extent to which marginalization is not passive. However, in the current politics surrounding diversity, it’s difficult to express this in a way that makes those who are advantaged understand without feeling defensive. As Patton explains, “what makes it difficult is that whiteness, masculinity, ableism – all of these things are very fragile. So, for people who feel like they’re in the most privileged position, having those conversations is really challenging because it feels like they’re being attacked. What I try to help people understand is that it’s not a case where you did anything wrong. We’re talking about systemic structures that have existed since the dawn of time…That we have valued whiteness and masculinity over all else. I would say that whiteness and masculinity to me are the core, the root of all the other isms because they establish what was valued and what wasn’t, and they still do.”
However, achieving some sort of understanding about the diversity hierarchy is crucial, especially for those at the top, in a collective attempt to dismantle it. For many, especially those who are most privileged and most able to make substantive change to these systems that perpetually reinforce inequality, allowing the conversation to carry some personal implication is the challenge that needs to be overcome. Patton notes,” I think one of the challenges around talking about diversity and intersectionality is that…we have to have people understand that there’s a stake in it for everyone. We need to recognize that diversity is never a ‘them’ problem, it’s an ‘us’ situation. We’re all already partaking in the game…It’s just whether or not we recognize our role in it.”
At William and Mary, we call ourselves the Tribe, and what that means is that we’re all part of this.
The most recent Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) protest held on campus on September 8th, 2017, was nothing if not indicative of the truth behind this sentiment. During the relatively impressive display, DREAMERS both named and unnamed were surrounded by allies and other like-minded students united in their opposition to the cruelty driven by the Trump Administration. However, the crowd was full of the politically-invested students and community members you would expect. “We didn’t anticipate that the whole school would show up, but that it would… be a lot of people who were already engaged. Unfortunately, when it comes to diverse topics, you end up in a lot of preach-to-the-choir situations, where the people who are already passionate about it are the people who show up,” Patton commented.
For those already engaged, the moment was one of formidable solidarity.
However, the struggle to persuade the larger William and Mary community to claim their stake in diversity has proven a challenge yet to be met with a solution. Patton described talking with students after the protest, relaying that “Some students I know say, ‘well, I didn’t go because it doesn’t directly affect me,’ and I’m like, ‘but it directly affects the students you care about.’ At William and Mary, we call ourselves the Tribe, and what that means is that we’re all part of this. We’re supposed to be this united community… [and that] means regardless of whether or not you agree with someone politically, agree with their religious ideology, whatever it is, you have a responsibility…to show support and create a welcoming environment.”
This organized display of resistance was powerful in its own right. Yet, Patton noted that for some, small displays like wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt can represent a subversive act in itself.
For someone as aesthetically inclined as Patton, fashion and the way she chooses to present herself can serve a variety of purposes from rebellion to self-care. In terms of leveraging fashion as a means of protest, she explains, “I think a lot of people use fashion to express things they can’t articulate in other ways. For me…being able to come up against systems of oppression can be very, very difficult. So, especially for people who are most marginalized, you’re sitting there and you’re going, ‘What can I even say and do? I feel like if I’m yelling all the time, I’m just going to be yelling all the time. I can’t necessarily challenge everything.’ But the little acts that make you feel like you have some control are really empowering.” Implicit in these words is a powerful idea that fashion doesn’t need to be disruptive for it to be impactful.
On a grander scale, fashion also serves as a medium to push back against notions of acceptability. This is undoubtedly true for Patton. She explains that she is able to adopt a “rebellious sort of attitude with fashion,” and relish in the fact that fashion doesn’t have rules. She notes that “it’s about engaging with yourself in a positive way, and also challenging this sort of hetero-patriarchal culture that tells people what they have to look like in order to be respectable.” Patton explained that as she became more invested in her queer identity, she started to more seriously ponder the ways we view femininity and masculinity, as well as androgyny. She said, “I started really thinking about the ways we view femininity and masculinity and androgyny, and how we can play with a lot of those things to not only shape the way other people perceive us but to shape the way we perceive ourselves when we feel the most authentic.” For Patton, fashion has always been a form of rebellion, and she maintains that today.
Navigating her place of work and the norms surrounding what is deemed “professional” has also been a journey for Patton. She explains, “I work in a very professional setting, and I hate the concept of professionalism. I hate concepts of respectability.” Challenging these ideas every day has very much become a part of her stylistic rebellion.
On a more day-to-day basis, Patton allows her style choices to communicate her mood or simply allow her to have fun with how she looks. She values integrating color, saying “even in the way I decorate my office, you know, a lot of people when I painted it purple were like ‘I cannot believe you painted your office purple. Who does that?’ But I told them, I’m a big believer in colors and how we think about the things around us, and purple has been shown to relieve stress, to make people feel happier, to make people feel welcome. So incorporating that even in fashion is really important. I definitely dress to how I feel on a certain day.”
The magenta-hued walls of her office pale in comparison to the passion and breadth of knowledge artistically dressed in the exciting patterns and creative makeup she usually champions. Patton is undeniably a force on campus, not only as a fashionista but as an advocate and resource, encouraging those around her to find their stake in diversity and inclusion.