Zendayagate

It was the Monday night after the Oscars and I can remember browsing through my Twitter feed to see what interesting information about the world I could learn about on this particular night.  I can vividly remember coming across a tweet of a video of Giuliana Rancic, a reporter from the television channel E! on the infamous style show Fashion Police. Now I love everything about fashion and try to keep as up to date as possible on the latest styles and trends. I used to be a loyal fan of the show Fashion Police as well, but the comments that Giuliana Rancic made about Zendaya Coleman, an 18-year-old actress who is known for her strong fashion sense, boiled my blood to say the least. In the tweeted out video, Rancic is seen making a comment about Zendaya’s outfit of choice and hair for the Oscars. Rancic makes the joke that Zendaya’s hair (which were faux locs) probably “smells like patchouli oil or weed.”  Dreadlocks is a hairstyle that can be worn as an expression of deep religious or spiritual conviction, ethnic pride or fashion preference. mica blog post photo 2The first example of dreadlocks has been dated back to North Africa and the North Africa. In America, this is one of the many hairstyles of the African American community and is normally not an acceptable style in a professional setting. So when I heard the comments uttered by Giuliana Rancic, I would be lying if I said I was shocked and surprised. However, I was still deeply offended, as was Zendaya. Oftentimes, Black people are told that our hair isn’t good enough and that in order for it to be good enough, we have to chemically modify it. It is rare that you see a Black celebrity wearing her natural hair. She often has some type of extensions in and her hair is always straight even though Black people’s hair is naturally curly.  Rancic’s comments were also completely ignorant. She made reference to weed and patchouli oil when critiquing Zendaya’s hair.  These two references are common stereotypes of Black people. The patchouli oil reference refers to the common notion that all Black people carry some type of odor. The weed reference refers to the stereotype that young Black people often smoke weed, particularly those with dreadlocks. I think the lesson from this incident that is to be learned is not only the importance of intent vs. impact but also on how uneducated public figures are about different cultures. Rancic had no idea how offensive and ignorant her statement was and even tried to defend it initially after it blew up on social media. I think this example shows just a small part of the struggle Black women have to go through in a public space.  There are so many things about a Black woman that are not seen as good enough. This is just one example of that. I think the best part of this whole incident is Zendaya’s response. She perfectly sums up the feelings of most Black women and the ridicule we face just for displaying our hair in all of its natural glory. And of course, this still isn’t good enough. Here is her statement:

Mica blog post photo 3There is a fine line between what is funny and disrespectful. Someone said something about my hair at the Oscars that left me in awe. Not because I was relishing in rave outfit reviews, but because I was hit with ignorant slurs and pure disrespect. To say that an 18 year old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or “weed” is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive. I don’t usually feel the need to respond to negative things but certain remarks cannot go unchecked.  I’ll have you know my father, brother, best childhood friend and little cousins all have have locs. Do you want to know what Ava DuVernay (direct of the Oscar nominated film Selma), Ledisi (9t time Grammy nominated singer/songwriter and actress), Terry McMillan (author), Vincent Brown (Professor of African American studies at Harvard University), Heather Andrea Williams (Historian who also possesses a  JD from Harvard University, and an MA and PhD from Yale University) as well as many other men, women and children of all races have in common? Locs. None of which smell of marijuana. There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair.  My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.  To me locs are a symbol of strength and beauty, almost like a lion’s mane. I suggest some people should listen to India Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” and contemplate a little before opening your mouth so quickly to judge.” If I was faced with the same criticism as Zendaya about my hair, I honestly couldn’t have said it more eloquently. She perfectly responds respectfully and graciously to such offensive comments. 

This post encouraged me to keep being proud of my hair and make no apologies of how different it is from society’s standard of beauty.  It definitely reminded me that “I Am Not My Hair.” This incident serves as an example as to the importance of intent vs. impact. Black Hair is beautiful.   mica blog post pgoto   Mica Cunningham is a 3rd year Chemistry/Pre major and a Medical Sciences Minor and a 2nd year WILL participant.

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Truth and Dare

Last week, Jalisa, a member of WILL, shared a powerful blog post on how she was attempting to “navigate race through gender” in her WILL experience.  She wrote,

“…my experiences of racism are being invalidated… The fact that you identify with being a woman takes precedence over my identity as a person of color, and that gender biased is somehow worse than any other form of oppression.   The intersectionality of race and gender are messy, but this act of completely ignoring race as a factor of oppression reinforces the cycle of oppression.  In a group that I look to for liberation in having that shared experience of fighting a system of oppression, it is very disheartening.”

This was both difficult and inspirational to hear.

Not surprisingly, reading Jalisa’s post was tough. First, I heard this criticism on a personal level, as someone who cares.  I care about Jalisa, WILL, and the feminist movement.  To know that despite our best intentions in the group (and in feminism!) we continue to perpetuate racism and oppression was, as Jalisa expressed, “disheartening”. I also heard this criticism as the staff person who coordinates this program and who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that our work aligns with our mission and purpose.  It was challenging to hear this because it meant I/we failed.  It meant I/we let one of us down.  It meant I/we were oppressive and silencing and marginalizing, even as we were working actively not to be.    Even still.

Jalisa’s sharing her personal experience and telling her truth holds us all accountable to confront that which is so difficult to acknowledge: my/our privilege.

bell hooks breaks it down: “The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”  (hooks, 2000; p.23)

In order to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression, we must tell our truths.   The work of feminism, of social change, is to continuously tell our individual and collective truths.  It is an everlasting story, a perpetual narrative.

And it ain’t easy.

According to the Social Change Model of Leadership (SCM), which grounds our work in WILL, there are seven principles that enable social change, that facilitate truth-telling. These principles are based in three different, interrelated, and dynamic systems: individual, group, and community.  To tell our own individual truth requires consciousness of self, congruence, and commitment.  Truth-telling in a group calls for collaboration, common purpose and controversy with civility.  On a community level, citizenship is necessary to practice truth-telling.  WILL intentionally and strategically fosters these principles—this is the work of WILL.

Here’s where the “inspirational” comes in:

Jalisa’s brave act of truth-telling demonstrates that we have created a culture in WILL where we do hold ourselves accountable to this truth-telling and to the principles that foster this practice.  It is inspiring because it means that we are doing something right, even as we’re not.  Even still.

Racism is ugly.  Revealing it is a beautiful and revolutionary thing.  Only then might we overcome it.

WILL is not alone in confronting these truths.  Just yesterday, in response to recent expressions of racism on campus and a subsequent newspaper Staff Editorial calling for truth-telling, the campus paper ran an article in which campus leaders  challenge the campus community to “Engage More, Not Less” .   Although WILL (nor any other feminist leadership program, for that matter) was not among those cited as examples of how to “engage”, WILL does stand as a model of “engaging more”.   This is precisely what WILL does–intentionally, deliberately, and with care.

Our development as feminist leaders challenges us to call out oppression and to always be looking and listening for ways in which we operate out of privilege.  We are compelled to confront this privilege so that we can dismantle it, and in doing so, challenge systems of oppression and create social change.

Always both difficult and inspirational work.   This is the work of WILL.  This is the work of feminism.

Amy Howton is the Associate Director of the Women’s Center and Program Coordinator of WILL. She can be reached at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.

So, what does WILL “do”, anyway?

Ultimately, WILL is a feminist leadership program aimed at creating social change.  All year, I’ve wondered about this goal.  What does it mean?  How is it “measurable” (yes, I’m that person)?  What will look like?  Last weekend, during a presentation at the UC Student Leadership Conference, a student  attending our session posed this question in very straightforward terms, “So, what does WILL do, anyway”?  We had been talking about the theoretical framework of WILL and sharing WILL values.  The question was a good one.

Honestly,  I wasn’t completely prepared to answer it.  I stumbled.  I had been struggling to clarify for myself the impact WILL was making in terms of social change.  I too was wrestling with this question.  I shared this doubt.

Being the inaugural year of WILL, we have been very intentional in focusing energies on developing the program itself—establishing our values, laying the theoretical groundwork.   The plan was to get our business in order before focusing energies on the “real world”, the world outside of WILL.  For a program explicitly aimed at creating social change, this decision might seem counter-productive.  It certainly feels counter-cultural.    Leadership and activism is after all about the business of making a difference for others, right?

At  last night’s WILL meeting, I was reminded that sometimes it’s enough (maybe necessary) to start with ourselves.  That if we do, and do a good job at it, then we are creating social change.   Our self-growth leaks out into the world, into interpersonal relationships, into our organizations, into our communities.  The change ripples out well beyond our own selves.

As WILL discussed the citizenship component of the Social Change Model of Leadership, it became clear that personal growth and development are key to being active citizens of the world.  Members began by sharing diverse perspectives on meanings of citizenship.  The role of power and privilege became a theme as members contemplated these ideas: strategies of citizenship are determined largely by one’s power and privilege.   Therefore, recognizing one’s own power and privilege are fundamental in being effective change agents.

While WILL members shared different opinions on what constitutes citizenship, when posed the question, “How has your WILL experience impacted your citizenship?”,  responses became more common.  WILL has fostered citizenship through fostering: “self-confidence”, “mindfulness”, “self-awareness”, “self-consciousness”,  “selfishness”.   Members shared examples of ways in which personal behavior has directly impacted others, whether colleagues, friends, fellow activists, classmates, other WILL participants.

While focusing on our personal selves and the WILL “self”, we were doing a lot.  We were changing our world.

I am learning so much from my own WILL experience—a true testament to the fact that as a community, we are co-constructing knowledge.  I was reminded last night, by these amazing WILL women, that the “business” of activism can be distracting.  We should not worry about busy-ing ourselves.  There is a need to quiet ourselves, make time for reflection, be with ourselves.

So, what does WILL do, anyway? WILL does WILL.


Amy Howton is the Assistant Director for the University of Cincinnati Women’s Center. She is also advisor to the WILL program. Amy can be contacted at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.

On the Outside of “Normal”

I’m standing in the elevator on the UC campus with my partner. A professional looking man gets on the elevator and says to my partner “Oh, you brought your son to work today?” I am reluctant to say anything, but their conversation continues.

My partner: No, she’s a girl.

Man: Oh you brought your daughter to work today.

My partner: No she’s my girlfriend.

Man: Oh, okay cool, your daughter, uh…I mean, your daughter…

This was an awkward moment of about five seconds of this guy stumbling over his own words, but was saved by the elevator doors opening through which he quickly escaped.


About a year ago I was shopping in a local Kroger. My eye for all the sweet, sugary treats had me in some sort of daze as I stood there glaring at the assorted donuts, cookies, and cakes being unable to make the right decision. A grandmotherly woman approached me thinking that I was much younger than my 26-year-old self. Our conversation went something like this:

Strange woman: Does your mother know where you’re at?

Me: Well, she knows that I live in Cincinnati, but I don’t think she knows I’m standing in a grocery store if that’s what you mean.

Strange woman: Come with me. You can’t be in here all alone. We’ll find somebody to help you.

Me: Look lady, I’m 27 years old. I can be in in the donut aisle if I want.

She couldn’t believe I was a day over 11.


More recently, I was shopping at Sam’s club in Illinois on a Saturday afternoon when the aisles are filled with employees serving up free samples of various food items. I went up to the stand in which an employee was serving small slices of pizza. This is what happened:

Me: Hi can I have a sample?

Employee: I’m sorry no. You’ll have to come back with a parent.

Me: I’m not a kid. I’m 27 years old.

Employee: Um, No your not.

Me: Hey Dad, can I have some piiizza?! (I yelled, in the best kid’s voice I could muster to my partner’s father who was at this point too far away to hear me anyway.)

By this time there is somewhat of a small crowd building. I take off the beanie hat I was wearing thinking that I could look a little older without it (not that it makes any difference). Another employee in the crowd says, “oh she looks old enough, I think it’s okay to give her a sample.” I get to have a sample and the employee says, “So, what’s your secret?” I replied, “I don’t know. I just look young.”


More often than not, I have experiences like these. I do realize at some point in my life, I will begin to look aged and will relish in the memories of today. While some stories that I share do give my friends and family a bit of a chuckle, navigating today’s social world looking like an adolescent but carrying the responsibilities of an adult has a real impact on my daily life. Ageism and heteronormativity quite literally limits my choices and actions.Image

When people pick me up as they hug me, all I can think is put me down; I’m not four years old dammit!! When I go car shopping or apartment hunting, not being taken seriously completely rules over the interactions I have with people. Often, people comment on my weight. “Is everything okay?” “Are you eating?” Even the health professional at the UC clinic said to me multiple times, “If you’re having trouble, or you feel the need to throw up when you eat, it’s okay to tell me. You won’t be in trouble.” At a military veteran’s service I was told, “Oh, I’m sorry but these pins are for veterans only” because I looked far to young to have ever possibly worked with bombs and missiles as an USAF ammo troop for eight years.

People are people. We come with various shapes and sizes. We have our own thoughts, desires, and experiences. This blog is a space for me to share some of my stories. I encourage you to truly see and listen to those around you before claiming your personal assumptions as somebody else’s truth.


Niki Dorsett is a 3rd year student majoring in Communication and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She can be contacted at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.

VOICE–

The concept of voice is one that has long intrigued me, both personally and professionally.   I have struggled to find and use my voice and interestingly—and likely not by coincidence—my work has involved the centering of those voices often silenced.

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As a young, white girl raised in a rural, Southern town, I learned that my voice should be soft, sweet, and agreeable.  When I went away to school,  others made me acutely aware—all of the time—of my strong Southern accent.  Some even accused me of “faking it” for attention.  This attention exacerbated my already existing struggle for voice.  I questioned my voice.

My first semester in college, I distinctly remember a professor sharply advising me to not use the word “like” so much when I spoke, that she had a hard time “even listening  to me”.  Her admonishments came in front of the whole class and largely silenced me for the remainder of that class.  I hated my voice.

I also learned that I could easily instigate a laugh, probably in large part due to my accent, but that when I attempted to make an argument or share a critical insight, I struggled to value and use my voice and as a result, others lost attention quickly.  I felt embarrassed and invisible when this happened so chose to stick mostly to using my literal voice to poke witty jokes or in humor.

On the other hand, writing was my thing.  It has always been the vehicle through which I make meaning of the world.   I was five years old when I received my first journal and used this gift to create stories and poems.   More importantly, I wrote to process life’s experiences, to make meaning of myself and my world.  As I grew and struggled to find and use my voice, my relationship with my writing deepened.  I became dependent on my writing and hid behind it in some ways.  Just as I was receiving messages that my literal voice was not valued, I was assured that my writing was valuable. My writing became my voice.  I told myself this was ok; in face, this was preferred.  Academia justified my thinking in its value placed on the written word.

I recall in a graduate course, a well respected scholar and theorist (and one of my very fave teachers of all time), Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, challenged me to share my thoughts with my peers in class.  She called me out: writing was not enough.  “Who is your audience?” she asked.  Simple question.  Hard to come to terms with the answer.  I didn’t want to just “talk” with academics.  This meant I could no longer hide behind my writing.

As I emerged from academia a practitioner, my struggles with voice continued.  As a feminist committed to shared power and creating participatory processes, I pay close attention to my use of voice and to the voices of others. In fact, perhaps I am hyper-sensitive to this and yes, sometimes I’m ashamed to admit I hide behind this, as well.  Sometimes we pay such close attention to something that we suffocate the very thing we are trying to protect, just as Lenny did to that pup in Of Mice and Men.  I know there are times when I silence myself because I tell myself that I should let others speak.  That is bullshit.  And not in any way empowering.  Voice is not about whose voice is literally being heard.  Getting stuck on this prevents the recognition of the very complicated ways power and privilege work.

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I have learned that voice is an evolving process.  It is not that you wake up one day, do some hard self-reflection, discover your voice and that’s that.  My voice is a reflection of my identity: a complicated, multi-faceted, contextual expression of who I am.   For me to find and use my authentic voice, I must pay constant attention to myself and my relationships with those around me.  I know when I am most present and honest with myself, my voice feels most like my own and can be used in ways that are congruent with my values and purpose.   Many times, my body responds to validate this: my face flushes, my heart races, my hands sweat.  These times I know I must speak, that I must raise my voice.

Other times, I try to be aware of my selfish, egotistical-need-to-be-heard so that I don’t use my voice as an empty SOS call: “Look, here I am.  I know, I know.  Don’t forget about me!!”  When I do this—and I do—I don’t feel authentic because I know that I am only reacting to what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me.  I don’t want to define myself in others’ terms.  This means at times, I use my voice to not speak.

I study the ways others use their voices.  Some of the loudest, most recognized are voices that are empty.  Sometimes I pick up on this fast.  At other times, I come to this realization with a sense of betrayal and disappointment to find that a voice I had listened to with hope and expectation turned out to be mostly an echo.

For me, I want my voice to be authentic, thoughtful, emphatic  strong.  I want to use my voice to reflect my values, to express myself and to amplify voices silenced.  I want to use voice to make change, to disrupt the status quo, and challenge systems of oppression.  I want my voice to be heard, taken seriously, and respected.  I want my voice to bring laughter and in the acknowledgement of life’s truths, bring tears.  I want my voice to matter.  I want to choose when and where and how to use it and when I do, for it be my own.  Southern accent, “likes,” and all.


Amy Howton is the Assistant Director for the University of Cincinnati Women’s Center. She is also advisor to the WILL program. Amy can be contacted at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.