Radio Silence

Managing and Copy Editors Emmel El-Fiky and Peter Makey sit down with some remarkable women on campus to discuss this year’s 100 Years of Women campaign – how it inherently excludes women of color, what measures we have taken as a community, and what is still to be done.
Click each name below to read the individual’s full interview:

Zauhirah Tipu

Camryn Easley

Samyuktha Mahadevan

Ka’myia Gunn

Roselyn Buensuceso

Karina Lizano-Blanco

Mohini Jodhpurkar

Shadin Ahmed

Gloria Cruz Olea

Olivia Leon Vitervo

With the 2018-2019 academic year marking the centennial of women’s admission to the College of William & Mary, the slogan, “100 Years of Women” can be found around every corner. Given that this anniversary coincides with the inauguration of William & Mary’s first female president, Katherine A. Rowe, for many it is as much a fitting symbol of William & Mary’s progress is as it is a cause for celebration. Yet, to provide integrity and transparency to the College’s slogan requires an addendum. Realistically, it should read “100 Years of (White) Women.”

It’s all the more ironic that the pomp and circumstance surrounding white women’s attendance at William & Mary follows directly in the footsteps of last year’s celebration of 50 years of black students in residence. Literally and figuratively, the contrast is black and white. We wanted to take a step back and examine the ways women of color at the College are reacting to this year’s highly publicized celebration, especially those with committed involvement at a school they would have been excluded from historically. Camryn Easley, class of 2020 and the Undersecretary of Multicultural Affairs for the Student Assembly, commented that, “Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that the school is really showing out this year with all of the events, guest speakers and programs celebrating the presence of women at the College; I just wonder where this enthusiasm was last year when it was the 50th anniversary of Black students in residence? Where were the banners and wall decorations with pictures of Black students at W&M? If we as a “tribe” are committed to celebrating these anniversaries, we need to [maintain] the same energy.” However, the inequity goes beyond the dissimilar celebrations of these respective anniversaries. For women of color, the implications are much starker. Zauhirah Tipu, class of 2019 and the Secretary of Diversity Initiatives as well as one of the co-presidents of the Muslim Students Association, puts it plainly: “While that is still something to celebrate, one should be mindful of exactly what this milestone represents. I wouldn’t have been able to go to college here 100 years ago.”

The admission of women of color following the switch to coeducation at William & Mary may seem reason enough for the College to absolve itself of its not-so-inclusive history. Throughout the last 100 years, or even the last 50, William & Mary has been far from equal, both in terms of gender and race. Roselyn Buensuceso, class of 2019 and a lead member of the Filipino American Student Association, recalls sharing a conversation with an alumna who went to William and Mary in the 1970’s. Apparently, “men and women had various different rules during her time here. For instance, [female] students had a curfew and weren’t even allowed to stay at the library past a certain time… Even though this school became co-educational 100 years ago, they obviously did not treat their students fairly for quite some time.” Obviously, even with a co-ed student body, there was still a ways to go to not only offer the mere opportunity of a higher education at William & Mary to female students, but to ensure that it was an education on par with the experience offered to men.

The fact that women of color still shoulder this burden reveals the passive pace of progress at an institution with a problematic history of race-and-gender-based relegation.

From the top down, the largely-white, male makeup of the faculty and administrative staff implies a pervasive trend of inequity. There is a stark dichotomy between the experiences of male and female professors, one that appears even more stark when distinguishing between the experiences of female professors of color and their white peers. The College’s prioritization of white professors has far-reaching impacts that affect female students and professors of color alike. The scarcity in terms of faculty of color, especially female faculty of color, on campus has left many students feeling without mentorship and places a disproportionate burden on professors of color who do have positions at the College. In shouldering this burden, they nod back to the pioneering African American women who lived in residence at William & Mary just over 50 years ago. The fact that women of color still shoulder this burden reveals the passive pace of progress at an institution with a problematic history of race-and-gender-based relegation.

Yet, with this deficit comes opportunity for William & Mary to correct for it’s negligent past. According to Gloria Cruz Olea, class of 2020, “I believe that one of the many ways William & Mary can make campus a more inclusive community for POC, but especially WOC, is by hiring more faculty of color across all departments.” Shadin Ahmed, class of 2019 and one of the few executive members of color of the Health Careers Club, echoed Cruz Olea’s desire for more representative faculty, explaining that doing so has benefits for both campus culture and student wellbeing. She explained, “In order for POC and WOC to feel like they belong on this campus they need to see themselves represented in higher education. This would allow students to feel more comfortable reaching out to these professors and gaining access to resources and opportunities. The burden is often placed on students of color to have to explain their background or situation to others and having representation would alleviate some of that burden. Not only would having more diverse faculty benefit students of color, but it would also benefit other students by educating them about being more inclusive.” This push for a more representative faculty at the College is a movement gaining in popularity as of late. In 2018, a petition demanding increased investments in hiring faculty of color circulated the campus, garnering signatures from students, student organizations, faculty, and staff, which resulted in a commitment to hiring more faculty of color. Yet, for students like Cruz Olea and Ahmed, as well as many others, this movement should go beyond just a hiring initiative that happened by popular demand. As Ahmed reflected, “It is important for us to acknowledge our progress, but to also hold ourselves accountable and to reflect as to how to do better in the future.”

Investing in women of color at the professional level is important, but it is merely the tip of a blindingly-white iceberg when it comes to fostering a culture that appreciates and supports students of color on campus. Mohini Jodhpurkar, class of 2019 and president of the Hindu Sikh and Jain Association, shared that her experience as a woman of color highly involved in multicultural organizations is a tokenizing one. Jodhpurkar commented, “Sometimes it feels like the school or members of the school [are] only supportive of cultural events and only promote them when it knows it can use it to draw [in] new students and funding, but isn’t willing to deliver when those organizations and members of those populations are struggling.” It does no good for the administration to be superficially supportive of students of color when it looks good, but to meet need with radio silence when it actually matters.

It does no good for the administration to be superficially supportive of students of color when it looks good, but to meet need with radio silence when it actually matters.

Even as William & Mary endeavors to diversify and provide for students of color, there are female leaders of color on campus who are making their mark in ways that don’t necessarily always go acknowledged, left in the shadow of the “100 Years of Women” banners. Ka’myia Gunn, class of 2019 and president of the African Cultural Society, noted her admiration for Professor Suzette Spencer of the Africana Studies department. “She taught me about my identity as a Black woman. She showed me the shoulders on which I stand, which include Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Ida B. Wells, my mama, and my grandmother. From my experiences in [her] courses and our conversations, I further developed confidence in myself. Professor Spencer looks for the gold in her students. She wants every student to shine and she’s not afraid to get in the weeds to do so.” Likewise, Karina Lizano-Blanco, class of 2019, expressed her appreciation for a number of notable and experienced leaders. “Dania Matos, Katherine Barko-Alva, and John Riofrio – all of them are Latinx people whom I have come to count on and admire so much for their respective work in their fields. Professor Barko-Alva’s passion was what inspired me to go into education, Dania Matos drive inspires me to keep on fighting for what I believe is right, and Professor Rio reminds me to be patient with others.”

For students of color, being patient is something forced upon them, something necessarily ingrained. Now, that patience is interwoven into their experience at William & Mary, whose student body might consider itself progressive, who are perpetually urging its administration to catch up. Samyuktha Mahadevan, class of 2019 and a 3-year Orientation Aide, expressed her appreciation for her classmates who are cognizant of the problems that surround the 100 Years of Women commemoration. She shared, “I really appreciate the effort that has been put in by students to acknowledge that 100 years of women is 100 years of white women. In fact, I’ve had more people than not address the fact that this celebration is limited in its application to many of the women currently on our campus.” Even with its limited progress, Mahadevan finds it necessary to “find joy in the steps that our institution has taken to become slowly more inclusive, however limited those steps may have been in their scope.”

Many of the women we spoke to share a belief in the incremental nature of progress. With this year’s celebration of 100 Years of Women, and with the resulting acknowledgement from a growing portion of the student body that this campaign refers to just white women, we’re making small strides in the right direction. There is hope in the reality that women (of color) at William & Mary are starting to take the microphone and embodying the change they wish to see, and the rest of us are finally taking notice. While it looks starkly different from 100 years ago, this is the state of William and Mary women today. As progress begets progress, and women of color continue to become empowered at William & Mary, hopefully the future entails a more inclusive legacy 100 years from now.

Photography by Andrew Uhrig. Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 1.

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