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The Daily Femme Interviews Morgane Richardson

November 3, 2010

Interview with Morgane Richardson, Founder of Refuse the Silence, a Site Collecting Stories of Women of Color’s Lives at Elite Colleges in the U.S.

Morgane Richardson graduated from Middlebury College in 08′ 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 of 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 and predominately white college campuses. With these stories, Morgane created the website Refuse the Silence and is planning to publish a book as well as 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 site tries to support these women.  She also shares her views on affirmative action and the continued need for both single sex and all black colleges.

Your project, Refuse the Silence, collects the stories of women of color students and graduates from elite liberal-arts colleges in the United States; can you tell us where you are in the process of collecting submissions? How do you determine which submissions should be part of the project?

We just completed our first round of submissions on September 1st. However, we are about to launch a new site and extend our call for submissions this week.

As for the second part of that question, 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 used to create our final report on the status of women of color in elite institutions. The decision as to 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, as well our editors, publisher and the like.

Given that your project works with women of color as they navigate issues of race, class, and gender at elite and predominately white college campuses, what would you say is the most surprising thing you have learned when it comes to the concerns of women of color at elite colleges?

To be honest, nothing. Thus far, none of the stories that I have heard have been surprising. I know where these students are coming from because I either experienced it myself or know of friends who did during their four or more years living on these campuses. What I am really surprised by is the reality that Ihave heard it all and still, 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. I mean the list goes on, and 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?

This is a question that I get often. You know, I chose to focus on women of color in elite academic settings because that is what I know and what I can speak to. Also, as one of the goals is to eventually create a plan of action to better the environment for women of color, I needed to be able to work with a focused group so that I could make change happen. That being said, I have found that many of the stories and issues that I hear from the women who are sending in submissions can be applied to women of color in all colleges and universities, but also to women of color as a whole. White privilege, interracial dating, the cost of an education, etc… those are issues that affect all women of color. And the truth is, as a Feminist, separate from Refuse The Silence, 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 the Refuse The Silence 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… hopefully one day soon.

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 speak out and share your story! No one will understand what you are going through if you don’t let your voice be 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 is telling women, “but you can also be strong by sharing your story!”  On a more tangible level, I would recommend that women of color find a mentor whom they feel comfortable speaking with. Reach out to faculty and staff members, but also to your alumni network. As alums, we understand what you have experienced and most of us are willing to listen and guide you in whatever direction you choose.

Do you think that it is a misconception to believe that minorities in academic settings only want to seek out students within their ethnic or racial group? If so, what needs to be done to address this?

While I wouldn’t use the term, only, I don’t believe it is a misconception that minorities in academic settings want to seek out students within their ethnic or racial group. Of course it’s going to happen… 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 especially 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? Do you believe these institutions still serve their communities and can you share why you decided to go to a school that was neither?

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, yes, but it is also a place where you learn about our society and how people function within in it. I don’t believe you can obtain an honest and clear understanding of your global community if you areonly surrounded by people who share similar experiences or come from a similar background.

That being said– and this goes back to the last question – as long as we continue to live in a white male dominated society, I do believe we need these kinds of institutions.  Not everyone can succeed in a white male dominated setting, especially when you always have to be conscious of your race and gender instead of your education. For me, it wasn’t the right setting, but for others, it just might be. On my end, I did not make a conscious decision to go to a school that wasn’t all black or all women. Growing up with a French mother who was unaware of the American education system, I knew very little about what my options were. In France, you go to your nearest college and pay for books and voila! And I thought that’s what I would do. However, at the beginning of my senior year, I was recommended as a Posse scholar and was told to apply to Middlebury College by High School teachers. I got accepted early decision and decided not to apply to any other school… all without visiting the college.  So for me, I was more conscious of the fact that I was getting a scholarship to go to a college that everyone viewed highly than I was of the make-up of the college itself. It was a good school; I was going for free and with a Posse… that was all that mattered at the time.

What would you say to the women of color who are worried that sharing their stories and opinions (in an academic setting and beyond) may backfire and hamper their success as they try to achieve certain goals?

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 in an academic setting because they don’t want to deal with the difficult outcome. To many women, it isn’t worth it… they think, “I’ll just keep my mouth shut and move along so that I don’t embarrass myself and can achieve certain goals in my career….“I think this especially happens in elite institutions where your personal history and resume mean everything. It makes me so upset when I hear and see young women of color doing that. I do recognize that it is 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?

Yes, find your peers and local women of color organizations!  If anyone knows about what you are going through, it’s the people around you. That being said, I am not that far removed from college… I remember the cattiness and how difficult it can be to reach out to those communities. So in those situations, I would recommend that women of color contact their alumni network, but also go online and start using social media to find people who are interested in or 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, there are professors and heads of large organizations looking to see what is happening in the world. But also, if a story or experience on Refuse The Silence moves you, reach out to me and I will put you in contact with that person.

What are your thoughts on affirmative action programs on college campuses?  Do you believe they are still very much needed?  Do you want to see them revised and if so, how?

So, by definition, affirmative action is the set of public policies and initiatives designed to help eliminate discrimination based on race, the color of one’s skin, sexual preferences and the like. Unfortunately, we still live in racist, sexist, ageist, and homophobic society and so I know that we are not at a point where we can abolish affirmative action. As for how we can revise affirmative action, I don’t know.  I would first like to see it actually be implemented andaccepted and we can go from there.

As you know, many women of color do not identify themselves as feminists.  What are your thoughts on this position? Do you understand it? Do you agree with it?

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 and so it should come as no surprise that women of color can feel alienated within the feminist group.

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.

Personally, I have always said that I am 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. So, to directly and simply answer the question, I understand why some women of color choose to not identify as a Feminist.

Can you share a personal goal that you have and a goal you have for the site in the next year?

Just one? Well, I recently made a big move out to Los Angeles and I am terrified that I will be losing the feminist community that I found in New York City.  So my personal goal is to make sure that I find, but 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.

Written by: Cherie, The Daily Femme

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7 Responses to The Daily Femme Interviews Morgane Richardson

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