Black History Month Symposium tackles feminism, colorism

FAU’s National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter, a feminist student organization, hosted the second annual Black History Month Symposium in the House Chambers and discussed feminism, racism, colorism and microaggressions in the Black community on Feb. 25.

Attendees+and+panelists+who+attended+the+second+annual+Black+History+Month+Symposium.+Left+to+right+standing+up%3A+Ryan+Daniels%2C+Joi+Dean%2C+Sheivon+Tribble%2C+Marcela+Callejas%2C+Maria+Yepes%2C+Ananda+Edmonds%2C+Abby+Dove%2C+and+Simone+Stewart.+From+left+to+right+the+panel+sitting+down%3A+Aleia+Dennis%2C+Rachelle+Saint-Louis%2C+Naheelah+Wallace%2C+Alexa+McCalla-Johnson%2C+Arielle+Francois%2C+and+Lillie+Feller.+Photo+by+Destiny+Harris

Attendees and panelists who attended the second annual Black History Month Symposium. Left to right standing up: Ryan Daniels, Joi Dean, Sheivon Tribble, Marcela Callejas, Maria Yepes, Ananda Edmonds, Abby Dove, and Simone Stewart. From left to right the panel sitting down: Aleia Dennis, Rachelle Saint-Louis, Naheelah Wallace, Alexa McCalla-Johnson, Arielle Francois, and Lillie Feller. Photo by Destiny Harris

Destiny Harris, Contributing Writer

Graduate student Alexa McCalla-Johnson said she was very stunned during an icebreaker in her graduate class. 

“I said I want to be an attorney — then my teacher pauses and says, ‘I think you’re going to be a great attorney. You know why? Because you don’t have the African-American accent.’” 

McCalla explained that calling out one Black person for speaking well implies that all Black people under normal circumstances do not speak fluently. 

That story and more were shared by students during Tuesday’s second annual Black History Month Symposium. 

The FAU National Organization for Women (NOW), a feminist student organization, hosted the symposium in the House chambers and discussed feminism, racism, colorism, and microaggressions in the Black community. Panelists opened up about experiencing microaggressions on campus with their fellow students as soon as the first week of classes. 

“I think it’s a matter of survival,” said FAU NOW Treasurer Simone Stewart. “My parents raised me and my siblings to speak a certain way because they knew we would be in danger if we didn’t.” 

The symposium lasted from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and included a panel of six Black student leaders on campus: 

  • Aleia Dennis: President of the Student Health Advisory Council and Owls Care leader
  • Rachelle Saint-Louis: First-generation student and PEP Talk director 
  • Naheelah Wallace: Owls Care leader
  • Alexa McCalla-Johnson: Organizer for the Palm Beach branch of Florida Immigrant Coalition
  • Arielle Francois: College of Medicine Student Affairs employee
  • Lillie Feller: FAU NOW presidential assistant

FAU NOW President Joi Dean spoke about three waves of feminism that involved the early 1900s suffrage movement, 1960s civil rights movement, and 1990s focus on intersectionality, LGBTQ+ rights and breaking down gender roles. 

Here are some of the issues the panel tackled:

Is feminism a Black issue?

Kimberle Crenshaw is a professor of law at Columbia Law School and the University of California Los Angeles, and has written in the areas of civil rights, black feminist legal theory, and race, racism, and the law. 

According to the Columbia School of Law, Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” as a way to help explain the oppression of African-American women.

Dean said that if intersectionality is not involved, then it is “not real feminism.” 

Saint-Louis is from Haiti, and said she has seen Carribean and Latinx people not get involved in the wave of feminism because they perceive it as American. 

“I think feminism is an everyone movement, but I think equality specifically as it affects Black individuals is highly underrepresented,” said Feller. 

What is dating like for a Black woman?

The panelists talked about their dating experiences and how they believed Black men are more likely to marry someone of a different race than Black women.

“Women of color, in general, are often fetishized. Dating or having sex with women of color is seen as exotic or earning points,” said Feller. 

Other panelists like Wallace dated men who favored lighter complexions over those women with darker skin tones. 

“For my experience, dating while Black kind of sucks for me. It’s almost as if I’m treated like I’m disposable,” said Saint-Louis. 

Francois talked about some women’s lack of self-confidence as a result. 

“Black women sometimes don’t see themselves as pretty enough or we don’t think were enough and try to change features about ourselves because we want to be accepted. So I feel like to me it’s an issue about standards of beauty” said Francios.

Dennis spoke about the perception of interracial couples that relates to colorism, or prejudice against people with darker skin tones, the dating experience for Black women comes with. 

“The lighter your partner is, then that gives you status. It’s frustrating and I don’t tolerate anti-blackness … it’s on a personal, political and social level” said Dennis. 

Have you ever experienced colorism? 

Dennis said, “Growing up you would see in the media favoritism for lighter skin over darker skin.” 

McCalla-Johnson discussed the difference between class vs. race privilege. 

“It has to do with power, I don’t feel that Black people have power compared to our white counterparts because institutionally they do have more privilege than us,” said McCalla-Johnson. 

Saint-Louis shared how she fell victim to colorism. 

“I remember a conversation I had in middle school … I was like 13 years old and they made me think about how I’m not light-skinned but I’m not dark-skinned, I’m brown-skinned … so that carried over into high school,” she said.

Francois spoke about her personal experience with class privilege. 

“I believe that Black people can have privilege within the Black community. I’m from Haiti, I was born and raised there and … I have access to education that people back home don’t have.”

What’s more harmful: microaggressions or explicit racism? 

According to Marriam-Webster, microaggressions are “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.”

“I feel like explicit racism is easier to recognize whereas microaggressions are easier for us to overlook or not talk about them or recognize the issues, so I feel like it’s worse because we can’t always recognize it,” said Francois. 

McCalla-Johnson said, “Microaggressions are harder especially for people of color because you’re afraid to call it out. But not calling it out perpetuates microaggressions which perpetuates ignorance.” 

“Overt racism can be worse when it is violent, so in the form of lynchings, mobs, etc. But microaggressions add to systematic racism,” Saint-Louis added. 

Dennis described how she normally wears box braids, but once when she changed her hairstyle, her lab TA came up to her and asked, “Are you in this lab?”

Wallace spoke about her name being confused with the only other Black student in her class even though they share no similarities other than their race. 

FAU NOW Vice President, Ananda Edmonds said, “On a daily basis, it happens a lot, when my hair is straight, or when I speak really well like it’s something I’m not supposed to do but I’m blessed that I have this ability. 

Destiny Harris is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected]