Reflections on Privilege and Ignorance

Kimberly N. Williams, assistant director for the Black Cultural Center, and Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity.
Kimberly N. Williams, assistant director for the Black Cultural Center, and Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity. Photo by Edmée Rodriguez-Hasler.

Tuesdays are my busiest days this semester. I’m not sure what it is, but once Wednesday is finished, it seems like the rest of the week is a breeze. But Tuesdays, man, those are tough. The Tuesday before Valentine’s Day is especially rough for someone whose only date was with her books at the library. But for some reason, that Tuesday I felt called to attend an event at Newman Library called, “A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor.” I guess the idea of getting extra credit for one of my classes helped, but I already had an A in the class, so why was I really going? Whether we realize it or not, we, as students, come to Virginia Tech because we have a craving to learn. Studying is hard, tests are even worse, but expanding your knowledge is so exciting! Or is that just me? Probably.

As a cis-gender, white woman who has lived overseas half of my life, I come from an incredibly privileged background and I believe that it is very important that I learn and strive to improve the lives of every person and bridge the gap between privilege and oppression. My privilege allows me to ignore these issues if I so choose but choosing to ignore the discrimination still so prevalent in our society is what causes it to still exist. The speaker for this event was Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke, who is the vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity, as well as being a member of Virginia Tech faculty. The purpose of the event was to promote and discuss Dr. Pratt-Clarke’s book, which shares the title of her lecture.

Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke’s mother was one of eight children raised by a single mother in a sharecropping family and her father was born in Sierra Leone. They both earned doctorates and were married for 32 years while raising their children. Her father experienced extreme discrimination in his role as a faculty member at a university and did not receive tenure, despite the fact that he worked harder and had more achievements than his white counterparts.

She spoke about intersectionality in feminism and the importance of the inclusiveness of all identities. She spoke about how powerful the “me too” movement is, however she was disappointed that it took privileged, white women speaking up to start the movement, when these things have been happening to black women for centuries with no backlash or outrage from society. This seems to be a common trend with feminism – many middle and upper-class women are fighting for equality of all women, but by not including minorities and underprivileged women, they are only fighting for equality for themselves.

Dr. Pratt-Clarke spoke about education and how important that was for her and her family. She also spoke about her mother, who had her Ph.D. and was a professor at an established university. But the way she remembers her mother from her childhood is as a mother who cooked for her family, took care of the house, and tended to a garden. This shows that feminism and equality do not look like one specific thing but can manifest as multiple identities. We are not fighting for equality so that we do not have to stay home and take care of our children. We are fighting for equality so that we can stay at home with our children if that is what we choose, or we can work outside of the home. The beauty of feminism and equality is that it gives women the choice to do what feels right for themselves or their family.

While she spoke about how deeply she believes in the power of education, she also expressed her conflicting feelings toward the academy, because of how women and people of color, including her father, have been treated. She said that because of how hard her ancestors worked and how much they had to deal with, that she, and others, do not have the choice to quit. She spoke about how their shoulders are the shoulders that they had to stand upon and now they have to be those shoulders for the next generation. Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke’s presentation was a revelation to me. I am encouraged to continue to broaden my horizons and gain exposure to things that have never affected me but are affecting and hurting those around me.  

It is simple, especially for those of us who come from a background of privilege, to proclaim that discrimination is no longer a problem within our world and our country, but as allies we must be empathetic. We must listen. We must support. In a blog post on her website, Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke wrote, “There is a responsibility in society to work towards the elimination of inequality, whatever the cause, for inequality lessens the humanity of us all.” As Hokies, and as humans, I think this is a message that should be engraved in our minds as we strive to eliminate discrimination on campus, in our country, and in our world.