Understanding intersectionality and identity is the solution, not the problem

Ebun Kalejaiye, Staff Writer

The week before spring break, a peaceful protest demonstrated the ability of the Westmont community, people of color (POC) and white people alike, to come together united against a campus culture that is not conducive to POC. This show of unity helped create a crack in the many barriers preventing Westmont from uniting against systematic institutions that oppress people of color. Students, faculty, and staff displayed their support for students who are being silenced and those that feel like they don’t belong at Westmont. Despite this powerful demonstration, the walls still remain on our campus and in our nation with ignorance about race and ethnicity doing its best to fortify the barrier. Understanding intersectionality, individual identity, and intersectional identity politics will help continue to break down the walls between us and finding true unity and identity in Christ. 

According to Dr. Felicia Song, associate professor and chair of the sociology and anthropology department at Westmont, intersectionality is “a concept that is premised on a sociological understanding of people’s status in society.” In order to understand it, we have to “first understand that from a sociological perspective each of us has a societal identity that consists of lots of different aspects of who we are like race, social class, sexuality, gender, able-ness, and others.” Dr. Song explains that these aspects of our personhood are then associated with different levels of power and it’s not necessarily how much power you perceive yourself to have, but rather, how much is systematically attributed to you. Song continues, giving an example: an upper-class man is given a certain kind of power that is different from that of an upper-class woman; this same dynamic exists in the lower class. Oftentimes literature on intersectionality, especially in our society, focuses on how race intersects with these other aspects. She clarifies, “Speaking in terms of how much power someone has is kind of an abstract way of thinking about it,” and that “to be more concrete you might frame it in a way that says if someone doesn’t have power they might experience some form of discrimination based on their social identities.” Those identities can be comprised of any “combination of race, gender, sexuality, economic standing, and other aspects” that provides a unique perspective and experience of the world. 

Intercultural Programs (ICP) is one of the only places on campus where students of color feel like their voices will be heard when the society around them, which includes Westmont, continues to ignore their pleas. 

ICP is specially designed to help all students, not just POC, to understand racial and ethnic identity as a part of intersectionality. In its vision statement, it states that [ICP] aims “[f]or Westmont to be a campus that is actively engaged in learning about multicultural identity and the rich diversity of the kingdom.” Students can better understand their place in the kingdom if they are able to understand who they are and who God made them to be. One of the goals listed by ICP is to “[c]reate space for learning, dialogue, and education for students to become more socially conscious of their own identity and the identity of others.” This goal is directly aimed at helping Westmont community members to better understand their neighbors and therefore better love one another as Christ calls us to do in John 13:34 where it says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” ICP aims to provide that on-campus space where students feel like they can ask questions without being judged and attend events to learn more about the people around them. 

ICP has helped many students better understand who they are while giving them a space to voice frustrations and feelings of anger at a society that is built for a certain race and ethnicity. Jackie Takarabe, a biracial student, explains, “ICP has given me a voice when I feel voiceless. It’s encouraged me to embrace my racial identity when my whole life I’ve been told to throw it away.” She continues by emphasizing that going to ICP meetings and events “prepared [her] for conversations that [she has] had at Westmont, at home, and will continue to have throughout life until the day [she] dies.” Takarabe also wants to emphasize that ICP “not once encouraged [her] to be violent or divisive in any way. All it has done is encourage [her] to analyze racial identities as a whole.” 

Ella Quinney, a white student, says of ICP, “I never really engaged in those conversations growing up and I get uncomfortable engaging in them because I feel like I have so much to learn, but my friends who are a part of ICP make me feel like I can ask them questions that I have and even support me on my journey of race and identity.” She continues by explaining that, as a white woman, it can often be difficult to feel “qualified or really invited to engage,” but she is grateful for the support ICP has given to her friends involved in the organization to be able to in turn help her take the steps to enter in with grace. 

The cries that students have been silenced often get thrown out by many who say there is no evidence or proof that any censorship or silencing has occurred. However, a blatant example comes from the email sent out by Dr. Edee Schulze on March 5 about Westmont’s poster policy. It came immediately after a silent protest involving posters taped to the bridge connecting upper and lower campus became more publicized. The problem is not the policy or that she was attempting to enforce it. The problem was her timing, especially since no email was sent out regarding the ‘ring sizes on Stalkernet’ posters. Takarabe echoes this sentiment when she says she understands the need to emphasize rules, but “the timing made it seem as though she was trying to attack students who were involved in ICP Org[anizations] and consequently made it feel like she was trying to attack students of color on campus” when we can all agree that she did not intend to make anyone feel targeted. 

Quinney says that for her, “it was just so heartbreaking” to see her friends “who have supported, encouraged, and loved [her] be so forcibly silenced and cast aside.” She references the lack of permission and interference that other posters, like “Ring Before Spring, Minecraft, etc.” received from the administration and calls it “blatant proof of … silencing students in the conversation of race and identity.” 

Students being told not to talk about race and racial tensions because it is “too divisive” is also a form of silencing. A culture where students feel like they can’t call out faculty when they inaccurately represent a people group is a form of silencing. Students being told their speech is too racially-oriented for chapel is a form of silencing. When all forms of student protest are prohibited unless they are approved by the people that are part of the systems being protested, that is silencing. The minimizing of the pain resulting from microaggressions is a form of silencing. The silencing and censorship often occurs unintentionally by Westmont culture and it starts at the top of the community pyramid and trickles down onto faculty, staff, and students. 

On March 2, an incident occured at a Gaede Institute event entitled, “Race, Memory, and Monuments After Charlottesville.” An older white gentleman, under the guise of a question, uttered the n-word not once, but three times. Nobody in the room cut him off and for several minutes, nobody acknowledged the words from this man’s mouth. Dr. Kya Mangrum, one of the only three black faculty members at Westmont, had to take it upon herself to respond to this man’s comments. According to people present in the room, she was still able to speak eloquently through the pain and insult she was feeling. Yes, it was horrible that the man had the audacity to utter the extremely offensive slur multiple times, but what is more worrying is that the burden to respond fell on the only black faculty member in the room. 

Student Skylar Peterson, who is biracial, attended the lecture and says of the racist incident, “What I learned from this interaction or rather lack thereof is the deep[-seated] discomfort that many white people have at Westmont when it comes to correcting or calling out anyone who makes inappropriate, offensive or outright racist comments, even when they hold positions of power.” Peterson goes on to explain how her experience in that room deepened her “discontentment with Westmont and how they handle issues of race.” 

African-American senior Alesha Bond, who was also present at the lecture, voices that she felt “belittled and angry” and that some of that anger and frustration is directed at “faculty and staff who consider themselves allies to students of color and faculty of color but failed to act and failed to speak up.” Bond highlights a major problem within the realm of Westmont faculty and staffthe lack of racial awareness training. 

The faculty and staff in the room who weren’t black didn’t know how to respond to the man’s racist terms and it’s not entirely their fault. Opportunities for education for everyone, not just faculty and staff, are so limited on Westmont’s campus and are restricted to ICP or Focus Week. How are students supposed to connect with faculty members who have no clue what they’re going through or how to help? Takarabe weighs in with her disappointment at the lack of racial awareness training when she says that “there is no one for students to lean on except each other and that is not a healthy dynamic” in the long run for students who are all trying to find answers for the same questions. This lack of racial awareness and understanding on campus is why we have so many problems surrounding race. People don’t think these problems exist because of the normalized white narrative that has been continuously pushed, unknowingly, by the Westmont administration.

Let’s be clear, the Westmont administration isn’t the enemy the white Westmont culture that they cultivate is the problem. Normalizing white narratives like a white Jesus (when we all agree that Jesus wasn’t white) is the problem. Again, the fault for this white-normative culture cannot be put on anyone but society. Its perpetuation, however, can be blamed on the lack of joint effort by all areas of the Westmont community outside of ICP to actively promote other narratives. The “culture shock, isolation, loneliness, difficulty, and fear that too often defines college life,” which one student wrote in their Op/Ed article last week, are indeed experienced by everyone, white people and POC alike. But the people who argue this point are choosing to ignore that the white students on campus are automatically made to feel more comfortable by the presence of other white people and resources, which helps to decrease all the aforementioned emotions.

Quinney expresses that “as a white woman, it is very easy to unconsciously live through the lens of my own culture, and especially growing up in a primarily white community, it can be really easy to live within the box of my own thinking, lifestyles, traditions, and other aspects of culture.” She calls out Westmont’s practice of “practicing diversity” by having a few chapel speakers of different ethnicities and being intentional about pointing out whenever they sing a song in a language other than English. To her, these are “really obvious ways of trying to cover up the white normative culture on campus because they don’t really want to change it” and that because of this, “white culture can remain the norm of the campus” with no interference. 

As a Christian institution, we often talk about being unified in Christ and finding our identities in Him, but we ignore what is said in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” In order to bear each other’s burdens and share the weight of suffering, we have to understand each other as individuals and that means understanding racial and ethnic backgrounds. John 15:12-31 states that yes, we are all part of the body of Christ, but it also explains that we are all different parts and that in the diversity itself there is unity. If we were all the same, the body wouldn’t function to bring about the change that Jesus wants us to bring. The ear has a function different from the foot, and the foot’s responsibility is different from the arm. 

Quinney emphasizes that Jesus “distinguished the Jew from the Gentile from the Samaritan,” but instead of treating them differently, He “used their culture and traditions to meet them where they were at, and humbled Himself before them.We are all beautifully and wonderfully made by our Creator, but He made us all different and it was no mistake. We all have different roles to play with our unique perspectives that can only be achieved through embracing different narratives and normalizing them all — not just the one of the dominant majority. So by accepting and even pushing the narratives of others through our proper understanding of intersectionality, we are better equipped to understand the beautiful diversity there is in the Kingdom of God.Understanding Intersectionality and Identity is The Solution, Not The Problem