The Necessity of Climate Change: Women of Color Speak from the Ivory Tower
Morgane Richardson graduated from Middlebury College in 2008 feeling that American colleges recruit women of color, but have no idea how to address the issues they face once they are enrolled. As a result, many of these women suffer depression, anxiety, and isolation in silence. Morgane decided to do something about this situation, and less than two years later, she has collected submissions from women all over the country who have had to navigate issues of race, class, and gender at elite, predominately white college campuses. With these stories, Morgane created Refuse the Silence.
Morgane is planning to publish a book and present a report to college administrators with a suggested plan of action to improve the college climate for women of color. In this interview, Morgane discusses the various misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding women of color in academic environments and the ways her website tries to support these women.
How do you determine which submissions should be part of Refuse the Silence?
All of the submissions we receive will be a part of Refuse the Silence; if not in the book, then definitely on our website or in our final report on the status of women of color in elite institutions. The decision about which entries will be reproduced in book format will be made by a handful of people, including the team that is selected to generate our final report, our editors, and the publisher.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned about the concerns of women of color at elite colleges?
To be honest, nothing. Thus far, none of the stories I have heard have been surprising. I know where these students are coming from because I either experienced it myself or know friends who did during their years living on these campuses. What I am really surprised by is the reality that little has changed. Students of color have racial epithets written on their walls every semester. College judicial boards and health centers are inadequately prepared to deal with women who are victims of sexual assault. The list goes on and on.
Are there ways you intend to address the issues of women of color who are neither members of elite academic communities nor part of the academic community?
I chose to focus on women of color in elite academic settings because that is what I know and what I can speak to. That being said, I have found that many of the stories and issues I hear from the women who are sending in submissions can be applied to women of color as a whole. White privilege, interracial dating, and the cost of an education are issues that affect all women of color. And the truth is, as a feminist, I work to give all women of color a voice.
Refuse the Silence is just one project that seeks to empower a specific group of the women of color population. Eventually, my hope is that this model can be used to help a wider demographic of women of color. I just need a lot more time and funding to make it happen.
Given the shortage of women of color as mentors, not only within the academic world but also the corporate world, what is your advice to women who are either in school or graduating looking to connect and learn from other women of color?
My main advice is to share your story! No one will understand what you are going through if you don’t make your voice heard. So many women of color feel as though they must keep their "issues" or experiences to themselves in an attempt to remain strong. Often times young women and men of color see their independent, strong, single mothers push forward without asking for help and grow up believing they must do the same. Refuse the Silence tells women they can also be strong by sharing their stories.
On a more tangible level, I recommend women of color find a mentor with whom they feel comfortable speaking. They can reach out to faculty and staff members, but also to alumni networks. As alums, we understand what they have experienced, and most of us are willing to listen and guide them in whatever direction they choose.
Do you think it is a misconception to believe that minorities in academic settings only want to seek out students within their ethnic or racial group?
Even at a young age there is a natural gravitation amongst people of color towards each other, especially in predominantly White settings. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, especially when you are assimilating to a White culture, and when you have to be a part of that culture in order to succeed. The reality is, not everyone can survive in a predominantly White, elite, academic institution. On top of the stress of being a woman, searching for your identity, studying, and trying to make friends, people automatically separate you on the basis of your race. That added stress is overwhelming, and while some women of color can survive it, others need the support of a group of people who can understand it.
What are your thoughts on the argument that single-sex and all-Black colleges are no longer needed?
On a personal level I am as weary of an institution that is predominately Black as I am an institution that is predominately White… or an institution that is all-male or all-female. Academia is meant to be a place where you learn about theory and read from textbooks. But it is also a place where you learn about our society and how people function within it. I don’t believe you can obtain an honest and clear understanding of your global community if you are only surrounded by people who share similar experiences or come from a similar background.
That being said, as long as we continue to live in a White, male dominated society, I do believe we need these kinds of institutions. For me, it wasn’t the right setting, but for others, it might be.
What do you say to women of color who are worried that sharing their stories may backfire and hamper their success?
Actually, that is something we are dealing with right now. I recently received an email from a young woman we interviewed last year who has asked us to take down her video entry. She asked us because she is tired of dealing with people in her community who approach her and feel sorry for her after having seen her entry online. This is the first time this has happened with Refuse the Silence, but there are many women of color who decide not to share their stories because they don’t want to deal with the difficult outcome. I think this especially happens in elite institutions where your personal history and resume mean everything.
I recognize that it's a personal decision to fight, and then to fight loudly. But how do we move forward if we are afraid to speak out? How can we expect anyone to listen to us if we don’t say anything?
Based on your research so far, are there resources you recommend to women of color in college that will help them through their college years?
Find your peers and local women of color organizations! If anyone knows about what you are going through, it’s the people around you. I am not that far removed from college, and I remember how difficult it can be to reach out to those communities. So, I also recommend that women of color go online and start using social media to find people who are interested in fighting for a similar cause. There are tons of activists blogging about race and gender. There are feminists on Twitter speaking about women’s rights. And there are professors and heads of large organizations looking to see what is happening in the world. If a story on Refuse the Silence moves you, reach out to me and I will put you in contact with that person.
Many women of color do not identify as feminists. What are your thoughts on this position?
I have always said that I am a Black woman or, more recently, a Black feminist. No matter what my political and social beliefs are, people will always see my race before they see my gender, and that automatically separates me. I am not fighting solely for my freedom to be a woman. I am fighting for my freedom to live equally in this world as a Black woman.
I come from the understanding that feminism is about women and, in theory, should be race-neutral. But it is not. The feminist movement—and I’m sure everyone has heard this a thousand times—is rooted in White, middle class privilege. We live in a racist society, so it should come as no surprise that women of color can feel alienated within feminist groups.
I use this quote often, but I think there is no successful feminist revolution without an end to racism, among other -isms. Not all women can benefit from feminism if those systems are still in place. While I make a conscious decision to incorporate race as part of my identity as a feminist, others choose not to or may not see a reason to. So, to directly and simply answer the question, I understand why some women of color choose to not identify as feminists.
Can you share a personal goal you have and a goal you have for the site in the next year?
I recently made a big move out to Los Angeles, and I am terrified that I will be losing the feminist community I found in New York City. So, my personal goal is to make sure I find, and also create, a strong feminist network here that will provide me the space to continue growing and learning. As for Refuse the Silence, our team is working hard to make the project financially sustainable.