‘UnHerd’ voices discuss: Who gets to speak?

Dr. Myra Washington spoke about the critiques of mixed-race activism

Elizabeth Worthington, News Co-Editor

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“Who gets to speak?” This was the question posed by Dr. Myra Washington to her audience on Oct. 17 at her talk entitled “Who Gets to Speak on Behalf of Communities of Color: Complicating Mixed Race Leadership and Advocacy.” The talk took place in the ELC Forum at both 12 p.m. and 7 p.m. and was the second event in the UnHerd series of in-depth social justice training and workshops. The idea behind the series is that “in order to promote equity, we must be willing to listen to the voices silenced by oppression and also break away from the mainstream narratives and dualities that keep us from making progress,” according to Rosalie Rodriguez, Director of Multicultural Student Services (MSS).

The series is entirely organized by MSS, and Rodriguez chooses all of the speakers for the series. She met Washington at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) last year and recognized a gap in the racial discourse at the University from Washington’s talk on the experiences of biracial and mixed race individuals, as well as from such students at the University who expressed their feeling of being ostracized on campus.

Washington led a conversation in which students were able to talk to one another in small groups and with the speaker in the context of a larger audience. Rodriguez affirms that the UnHerd talks are not meant to be lectures, but rather open dialogues in which people have space to learn, ask questions, and practice a new skill.

Rodriguez also commented on the timeliness of the events, in light of recent critiques of mixed race activists such as Colin Kaepernick and Jesse Williams. Washington also talked about these activists, among others, to frame the broader discussion about the politics of race, agency, power, and advocacy. Critics of mixed-race activists maintain that they don’t share the same experiences as someone who might have a darker skin tone and as such, they should not be able to speak on behalf of that race, Washington explained. For example, she asked, “Who gets to decide who is ‘black enough’ for Black Lives Matter?”

Students and faculty members both seemed to appreciate the open forum style of the talk.

“The presentation helped us all think about the boxes we use to categorize and judge people. In reality, folks do not fit neatly into discrete identity labels.  Beyond physical characteristics and genetic heritage, there is a lot of overlap and fluidity based on people’s lived experiences. It’s best not to make assumptions and pre-judge, but rather be open and curious about how individuals see themselves in the world,” Janice Butler, Director of Civic Engagement & Service Learning said.

TreyLonte Gaither ’21 said, “Dr. Washington’s talk on Tuesday provided a stepping stone for some students and faculty members to begin to push back against societal norms that cause division within Bucknell’s campus[…]it was concluded that no one has the right to deem what should be culturally accepted or culturally denied.”

In another effort to provide more open spaces for mixed-race individuals, Caitlyn Manahan ’20 has started a new organization called the Multiracial Student Association. From both her personal experience on campus and that of other multiracial students she met, Manahan recognized the need for a space for these students to discuss the multiracial identity on campus. She wants the organization to serve both as a place where multiracial individuals feel they belong, and as a place of learning for those who do not identify as mixed-race.

“In my first year, I encountered a number of people who hadn’t encountered multiracial people before, so they struggled with how to place me […] I hope to partner with other cultural organizations on campus to prompt discussions about the marginalized people, like multiracial individuals, who find themselves at the intersections of identities and the importance of being welcoming to individuals with intersectional identities,” Manahan said.

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