Incuding the Excluded

Choate embraces diversity, yet important minority groups remain largely unnoticed. While students and faculty make an effort to discuss identity during events like Diversity Day, those conversations seldom continue into everyday scenarios. For women of color at Choate, this phenomenon is particularly hard to ignore.

Ms. Judi Williams has been passionately involved with these issues since she arrived at Choate in 2014. She believes that while Choate is certainly a welcoming community, there is an evident need for effective dialogue about women of color. “I don’t want these girls to feel dismissed or like they don’t have someone they can talk to,” she said.

In fact, for many at Choate, even the definition of “women of color” is murky. Ms. Williams said, “In the past, I think Choate has defined students of color as black and Latino,  though for me, the term includes all non-white students.”

Similarly, Mehreen Pasha ’18 expressed uncertainties. “I feel like stronger parts of my identity have to do with the country where my parents came from. If someone were to ask me what I identify as, I would probably tell them that I’m Pakistani.” Though Pasha ultimately does consider herself a woman of color, questions about what the term truly means, as well as what the experience of being a minority woman entails, are still unsolved. Pasha is not alone in realizing the difficulties  that traditionally unrecognized women of color face. As Cecilia Zhou ’17 added, “Because Asians in particular are held to high standards of academic achievement, I frequently feel conflicted between trying to adhere to that expectation versus not wanting to seem like a stereotype.”

Esul Burton ’16 is currently attempting to address such concerns. “We put together a framework that we want to present to some faculty members, and, with luck, we’ll graduate leaving behind a more supportive network for all students of color. I’m also hoping to establish a discussion-based group for Asian students.” 

Furthermore, Ms. Williams has created a safe space for young women of color by leading the Young Womyn of Color Book Club. Regarding the name, Ms. Williams used the feminist adaptation “womyn” because the traditional spelling — women — implies that women are a subset of men.

Ms. Williams elaborated on the idea: “The book club is basically just an opportunity for young women of color on campus to bond and read literature by and about women of color, as well as to share their experiences and get different perspectives.” The group has thus far focused on discussing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah — the tale of a young Nigerian woman’s experiences as an immigrant to the U.S.

Recently, Young Womyn of Color has become more than just a club. The group has realized they are not just students with common backgrounds: they are also a community. Burton, a member, said, “I really found solace in being among other women who identified similarly to me, even if we were from different racial groups. I think many of us have gone through similar if not parallel experiences, so it was comforting to know that I was not alone.”  This sense of togetherness allows for an unparalleled level of understanding of and empathy for these women of color, who are able to share experiences without fear of judgment or misunderstanding.

In addition to sharing experiences within group settings, student-driven initiatives seek to portray these stories to the whole of the Choate campus. Michelle Bolt ’16 leads one such endeavor. After watching the documentary Who Cries for the Black Girl?, a series of interviews about black women’s experiences at Amherst College, Bolt realized the impact of discussing identity for women of color. “I was really inspired by the documentary,” stated Bolt. “I tried to watch it again with my friends, and we only made it through 15 minutes into the movie because we kept stopping it to talk about how similar it was to our experiences.”

Afterward, Bolt sought to initiate similar discussions at Choate. She has spearheaded a photography and film project to explore the experiences of women of color on campus. “The first part of the project is a photo series about women of color at Choate, kind of like Humans of New York,” Bolt explained. “I’m asking a range of questions about things like aspiration, race, gender, sexuality, cultural identity, immigration status, that kind of thing.” After completing this stage of the project, Bolt plans to post the photos and interviews at key locations around campus — the goal is to raise as much visibility as possible.

“I feel like when we talk about race, we either speak in generalities or we discuss the black male experience,” said Bolt. “We don’t ever really shift the conversation.”

In a school so dedicated to diversity, listening to every voice is crucial. Initiatives like Bolt’s seek to make women of color heard. As Anika Zetterberg ’16 put it, “Everyone has different experiences, but when we accept and listen to the experiences of others, it brings us together in a way that is truly beautiful.”

One Comment

  1. Seriously? This is the womyn (spelled on purpose) who Shady Side Academy hired? What direction is the Academy taking at this juncture? Is SSA more concerned about being a New England Prep School instead of the standards that made SSA stand out for over a hundred years? Will the parents of the Chinese students presently attending SSA be actively involved in fund raising? Will the asian students “come back” for homecoming? Will Judi Williams truly make a “better” impact at SSA by promoting her so-called “womyn of color” agenda?

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