Dark Skin in Ivory Towers

Hey, Free Agents! Happy June. I am allergic to all the pollen that has been floating around New England these past few days. If I have written anything unusual in this post, forgive me. A severe sinus cold is cramping my style. I spent Friday afternoon and most of Saturday at my undergraduate alma mater, Wellesley College for my five-year reunion. I am a proud member of the "Red Class" of 2012; find me in the picture below on the far left side. 

Wellesley College Class of 2012 Graduation Day
Wellesley College seal

Wellesley is an elite women’s college located about fifteen miles south of Boston, Massachusetts. I love the campus (the pollen, not so much). The school trains women who have a commitment “not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” The words are inscribed on the seal in Latin "Non ministrari, sed ministrare." Wellesley undergraduates are women who will make a difference in the world, and alumnae are making a difference in the world. In a world where women’s bodies and minds are under siege, I am passionate about supporting Wellesley (and other hubs of women’s education) that cultivate women's intellect.

Now, here’s the problem. My alma mater has set lofty goals, and time and time again we miss the mark. Many a student who belongs to a marginalized group has left Wellesley emotionally scarred and bruised by a million little injustices she endured either during her time on campus or in the alumnae community. So, I was thrilled to find a random green sheet of paper among my reunion information from members of the Class of 1977 inviting alumnae to engage in a conversation about a proposed five-year initiative on racial justice. To me, the paper signified that other Wellesley alumnae were brave enough to name at least one of our problems. To be honest, I had been reluctant to show up to my reunion because my time at Wellesley (socially, spiritually, and academically) was hard. Today I am going to focus just on one of the social challenges, being a woman of color, specifically a black woman, in an intellectual and social space designed to serve non-black and brown women.

Wellesley College sign

One of the biggest lessons Wellesley taught me was the importance of retreating into black and brown groups for the sake of my mental health. I felt my blackness profoundly during my time at Wellesley because it was a women’s college. Before Saturday, I had never been a room with white Wellesley women who said aloud that they thought it was important to talk about racial justice among Wellesley students and alumnae. As a brief aside, the other social issue lurking just beneath the surface at Wellesley is social class. Wellesley is a school designed to serve elite (read wealthy) white women. One of my best friends from Wellesley, a white woman, was the granddaughter of a Wellesley alumna but even as a white woman, there were barriers for her at the school as a woman from a working-class background.

The problem Wellesley faces is not only the demographics of the students and professors at the college, but it is also the social dynamics of the town of Wellesley. Wellesley has a population of almost 29,000 and is 79% white. The census data reports that they are also 11% Asian, 4% Hispanic, and 2% black but also includes a small cross icon to indicate that those percentages might be incorrect because the “margin of error is at least 10% of the total value.” The town is predominantly white, and its population is mostly wealthy. The census data says the median salary of Wellesley residents is $163.5K a year; the chart shows that although that might be the median income, 40% of Wellesley residents earn over $200K per year. 47% of Wellesley homeowners own homes valued between $500K -$1M. Suffice it to say, although the town of Wellesley is home to three colleges, its expense and lack of racial and ethnic diversity make it an uncomfortable home for many college students. When I was at Wellesley, we would take a bus into Boston when we needed to get away from campus.  

I worked for about a year at the Ann Taylor in the town. I am not the best retail employee, so my supervisors eventually began a habit of starting my shift by telling me to try on a piece of clothing that was new to the store that we needed to sell. I would try on the garment, and consistently, another woman would walk into the dressing room and ask whoever was helping her to find whatever I was wearing. My slender young body made me the ideal unpaid in-store model. On several occasions, I would field questions from patrons wondering about my origins. Every time the comment confused me. On one occasion, I told an inquisitive customer that I was from Virginia. She said that she could tell by my accent. Her response was bizarre because I had not been speaking to her before the exchange and because I do not have a southern accent. Another time a woman at the cash register commented that I must be from out of town and wondered aloud whether I attended the college. I asked her how she knew I went to Wellesley and she, perhaps a bit caught off guard, said, “you seem like you might be smart.”

I repeat, I love what Wellesley is, I love what Wellesley represents, and I am most proud of the work I did there. It was a privilege to attend a college where women’s voices, minds, and bodies mattered because that is not the case on most American college and university campuses. However, in the decades to come, we need to do better. We must go to bat for students with mental and physical disabilities. We must cultivate and care for first-generation college students. We must honor racial diversity and do the work of justice for all students, regardless of race. It is time for us to dig into the social class issue. From the staff to faculty to students to alumnae, we all have work to do. College campuses like Wellesley that serve young people ranging in age from 16-24 are a microcosm of our world. They are laboratories where we can learn and practice behaviors that we want to perform in the real world. Colleges must be about more than just book learning; they must be about practical learning and personal growth also.

Wellesley College 5-year reunion

I was incredibly apprehensive to attend my reunion—I mostly went because it was a milestone and I only live about eighty miles away. After the reunion, I have mixed feelings. On Friday evening, I spent time with a former professor and his family (and another alumna). I thoroughly enjoyed that time because we had a compelling conversation about racism and classism at the college. Having that time before Saturday’s events put me at ease because it confirmed that my observations about Wellesley were not fabrications of my mind, but rather the experiences and learnings of other people of color.

I am eager to see the strides that liberal arts colleges and universities make in the coming years to deal with the issue of racial justice. The members of the Class of 1977 who organized the strategic meeting on Saturday eluded to the fact that their leaflet was separate from other materials because some other alumnae felt that the gathering would make people “uncomfortable.” What was interesting to me as an individual who attends and facilitates many conversations about race in America was that it was the most “comfortable” discussion I had ever attended. Perhaps respectability clouded my judgment, or perhaps well-educated and passionate women really are poised to change the world. I will keep you posted.

View of Tower Court across Lake Waban