Left: Vernā Myers (left), Sesae Felicity Mpuchane ’72 (center), and others celebrate at Reunion 2017; below, Myers with Deborah Feyerick
I attended June’s Barnard Reunion with a group of fabulous women: architects, entrepreneurs, professors, chemists, dancers, doctors, recovering retirees, and brave nonprofit leaders who renewed my faith in women’s power to make the world a better place. I also had the honor of participating in a panel discussion titled, “Still We Rise: A Panel of Barnard Alumnae Activists,” where I experienced the incredible ability of authentic conversation to bring understanding and deep connection.
The panel was a diverse group, all Barnard alums, doing amazing work in the areas of racial equity, housing and education reform, gender violence, and LGBT rights. The skillful moderator, alum Deborah Feyerick, who was then a CNN national correspondent, inquired about our backgrounds, school experiences, and the issues of bias, sexism, racism, and classism that informed our work.
During the conversation, I mentioned the Alumnae of Color Dinner I attended on the first night of Reunion and how exciting it was for me to see so many vibrant and confident women of color at Barnard; there had been so few in my class year—’82—and we knew little of the women who had come before us. I hadn’t expected it, but I got emotional describing the dinner and explaining how my time at Barnard really incited my activism, my decision to go to Harvard Law School, and my work as a diversity and inclusion specialist in the C-suites of corporate America, and in the communities in my hometown of Baltimore.
Then quite unexpectedly, Deborah decided to get real. She turned to me and with great skill and a blameless curiosity posed the question that so many well-meaning white folks rarely feel safe asking a black woman, “Why an Alumnae of Color Dinner?” And then she added, “Do these type of events further separate the minority group from the larger population and exclude others? Wouldn’t it be better if we had events that brought everyone together from different groups, but with like minds, so that they can bridge the gaps and solve issues collectively?” These were questions I had heard many times before, but mostly as accusations. Usually what follows these questions is defensive, guarded and blaming talk by both sides or a silencing pretense so that we can “all get along.”
I thought for several moments and then responded with as much truth and compassion as I could, hoping to match the courage and spirit the inquiries elicited. So, I answered first in the affirmative: “Absolutely, yes, of course, we need spaces where we can all come together.” But then I began to explain that in order to bridge the gaps, build inclusive institutions, and solve the problems we confront in this world, we need lots of spaces. This was something I learned at Barnard—a women’s space, after all. But also a place where I first felt the sting of racism and the impact of my race in my daily life.
Before I came to college, I didn’t even know I was black. I mean, I knew, but I didn’t know my racial identity was relevant. I grew up in an all-black neighborhood, attended a diverse high school, and my parents never talked about present-day racism with me or my siblings. At home, I thought racism—personal and institutional—was over. It was at Barnard that I felt the daily effects. The black student organizations were often under-resourced and our activities were constantly questioned or denied funding. Some students, teachers, and clubs treated us with disinterest or thought us not as valuable or as smart as others. Moreover, my history class at Columbia only discussed slavery and civil rights as part of U.S. history; blacks were missing from the wars and the Depression; Jim Crow was never discussed. Though we were located in Harlem, there was no mention of the Harlem Renaissance.
However, it was also at Barnard that I discovered a broader and deeper narrative of African Americans—one that included not only the struggles of black folks across the globe but also their extraordinary brilliance, resilience, and achievements despite those struggles. This new information came to me by being in spaces with other black people who affirmed this new, exciting but disorienting reality.
Being in the minority around some salient aspect of your identity, as I was during my time at Barnard, exacerbates your loneliness and isolation. When you couple that with the dominance and power of white, elite, and Western norms that shape every aspect of the institution and larger society—what and who are valued, what is expected, how one dresses, speaks, and how one shows intelligence and confidence—minorities experience an exhaustion and invisibility that the majority rarely understands. So, when students of color get together around their affinity, they are truly finding community—a place to rest, restore, support, and celebrate not only themselves but also their worth and their culture. In addition, they can do some reality testing and problem solving with others like them in the face of the subtle and unconscious biases they face every day.
At the panel, I pointed out that as a single-sex school, Barnard itself is the ultimate embodiment of the benefit of affinity-group efforts. Barnard has not accepted men as students because it believes there is still a space needed where women can come together, discover, and be strengthened by the untold stories of women’s achievements. Functioning as a women’s college allows students and alums to develop the confidence and capabilities to go out in the world and make a difference. Barnard women know the world is full of men. But it’s truly a gift to have a place where women are supported to find their best selves and defy the limitations that male norms and patriarchy dictate.
I didn’t realize the impact the Alumnae of Color Dinner and the power of the space the Alumnae Activist panel discussion created until Reunion was coming to a close. Women of every background and age came to me throughout the weekend to tell me how much they learned and how much they appreciated my comments and the way I answered Deborah’s questions. Conversations about race don’t always end up with the positive outcome ours did. But Deborah dared to bring us into an authentic conversation in a mixed group and we discovered that we can ask each other almost any question if we are genuinely interested in the answer, come openhearted and without blame, shame, or attack.
As I often say, “Conversation is a contact sport.” We have the possibility of true connection and relationships when we are not tiptoeing around each other or trying to ignore our differences. We have to be willing to notice, respect, and support the differences between us. Women of color need their spaces to fortify and celebrate. White women also need their spaces to understand what it means to be white in this society and how to use their privilege to break down racial and ethnic bias and exclusion. When we give each other these spaces, we do not solidify divisions. Rather, we give ourselves the best chance for powerful and productive work, both together and apart. •