Panel discuss struggles of minority women
At the end of Saturday's fifth annual Women of Color Initiatives Symposium, Katelyn Hunt was in tears.
The School of Arts and Sciences junior rose in front of about nearly 100 women in the Multipurpose Room of the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus to talk about how she — like many others in the room — often felt she did not meet society's standard of beauty.
But Hunt said that standard cannot define what is real.
"We don't see ourselves being doctors or lawyers on TV," she said. "But we can be that. Whoever we want to be, we can be that."
Hunt's words encompassed the theme of the event, "Contemporary Women of Color: The Identity Spectrum Defined," where minority women explored this idea through an opening speech by keynote speaker Robyn Rodriguez, an assistant professor of sociology at the University, a multicultural panel and a workshop led by life coach Dee Marshall.
Panelist Roopa Singh said although images in the media often shape what women of color think about themselves and each other, they are not the only factors that determine how they interact.
"When we're exposed constantly to the same 10 songs on [the radio], then we end up acting in certain ways toward each other, almost like we're enforcing laws on each other," said attorney, professor and hip hop artist Singh. "[But] we also look out for each other."
Panelist Melinda Gonzalez stressed the importance of women being able to rely on other females, especially older ones, and look to them for advice.
"I've always mentored a lot of people, and I think that that is the most fundamental way that we can impact other women of color or other people of color — let's not forget our brothers," Gonzalez said. "If we want to make a difference, we really have to target the kids, because the Xbox and TV and the movies, they're targeting them."
Livingston College alumna Cynthia Douglass, also a panelist, agreed that a sense of camaraderie among women of color is important.
"There's so many spaces where there's so little of us, that we start to fight each other and push and pull against each other," Douglass said. "But people don't realize that as a collective we could be something bigger and greater if we work together."
She went on to say that among women, particularly black women, even hairstyles, which for some are political statements, have contributed to the division.
"The whole hair situation — I don't think we talk about it enough," Douglass said. "Wear your hair natural or nappy, whatever you want to call it. Let them see you when you walk into the room."
Douglass College alumna Shawnna James said the solution to the animosity among women of color, or people in general, is understanding that as human beings, simply existing gives people a way to empathize with one another.
"I am connected to you, because we're both human beings. My humanity is your humanity," James said. "I might not be able to understand your struggle, but I can understand that you're struggling. When I call you a ‘spic' or I call you ‘poor,' I'm calling myself a ‘nigger' at the same time."
Gonzalez agreed that a lack of understanding is often a cause for judgment or discrimination by others.
A doctoral student at the University and the first in her family to go to college, Gonzalez said that as a Newark native, she was surprised to be one of only five Puerto Rican students in her entering class during her first year at Franklin and Marshall College, but issues of class also played a role in her struggles as a minority student in higher education.
"I was relatively race unconscious until I went to college. [Before] for me, it was just that people are people," Gonzalez said. "[Other students said] ‘You get free money because you're a minority ticket.' I'm like ‘No honey, I get free money, because I'm smart.'"
Gonzalez also said there is also a gap in cultural understanding between minority students and their white counterparts, something she has noticed throughout her postgraduate experience.
"Even now, being a Ph.D. student, I feel behind," she said. "A lot of the people in my department have read all these dead, white German, Russian, etc. theorists. I'm like ‘I know who Cherrie Moraga is.' Your life experience will put you at an advantage they don't have."
Douglass encouraged the women to speak up when others' comments or actions bothered them, a sentiment with which part-time lecturer of creative writing and poetry Tara Betts agreed.
"Don't work around it.Talk to those people, because that could be a teachable moment," she said. "They just might need to learn what they're not learning from the TV. That might be your job."
Tara Betts, part-time lecturer of creative writing and poetry at the University and a co-founder of GirlSpeak, a writing workshop in Chicago, also encouraged women to speak up about what they think is wrong, but be thoughtful and respectful while doing so.
"We have to choose how we respond to people's intentions sometimes," she said. "[We have to ask ourselves] how do we do that so it's not something that's tied to our emotions?"
Although she identifies as a Hindu, Singh also identifies with a country that has a large Muslim population, as she is of Indian descent. At times she has chosen to wear a hijab, a choice she said led to a painfully memorable situation in the nation's highest court and led her to consider more deeply how many Muslim women feel every day.
"I was asked by the chief justice, who was then Justice [William] Rehnquist, to take off my headwrap or leave, because [I was] ‘bothering some of the justices,'" she said. "I see the Supreme Court as an institution of higher purpose, and I [was] told I can't be there because of the virtue of how I look."
Instead of trying to understand one another, James said too often people choose to ignore their differences, something she has experienced as a gay woman.
"We're so quick to not talk about the queer community," James said. "Even here, we say ‘LGBT' and I'm sure some people don't even know what that means. I'm going to say ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex and allies,' because that's me saying ‘Hey, these people are here.'"
Following the panel, Marshall pushed attendees to find out more about themselves and their personal values and emphasized her motto "Do you. Love you. Be you."
"I dare you to go and really focus on the vision for your life and your personal mission statement," Marshall said. "Throw out all the voices in your head distracting you. I dare you to dream. I dare you to think big."
Eileen Tavarez, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said Marshall's portion of the symposium made her think more deeply about the questions of identity she has been dealing with lately and enjoyed the panelist overall.
"I thought it was really good. I'm a [sociology] major, so a lot of these things I talk about a lot," she said. "It was good to have some professional feedback on it. The fact that all of us are really interconnected resonated with me."
Chinwe Oriji, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said she was glad to hear so many views from different backgrounds and find out the importance of defining her purpose and identity in an effort to escape the box society puts her in.
"I'm going to use this to remind myself to not doubt myself and not fear and really just speak my mind and live what I believe in, just knowing that God's going to use me in mighty ways," she said. "This was just an awesome event, very inspirational.
Christabel Cruz, an intern with the Office of Academic Engagement and Programming, worked as a key organizer of the symposium.
Cruz, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, wanted the conference to be an engaging conversation with speakers who would talk openly and honestly to inform the audience, a mission she felt was accomplished by the event's end.
"Those people could change the way one student thinks for the rest of her life," she said.
Cruz said coming together with other women of color to talk about issues that affect them felt like a large-scale lunch with girlfriends, which she said does not happen frequently at the college level. While many other events touch upon some of the conference's issues, they cannot compare to the symposium, she said.
"This is definitely one of the hidden gems at Rutgers," she said. "At any university, I feel like there's not enough of this dialogue. We can talk about ourselves in different areas — [on campus] I can go to a Latino thing or a women's thing or an LGBTQ thing, but those are just pieces of me."
Cruz said she hoped the ladies in attendance would leave the conference empowered to share what they learned.
"I'm really looking to the women who were here to take that somewhere else, and go with it," she said. "More people need to know our stories."