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Akron Not Resolved Yet: Why I Made a Ruckus at NWSA 2000

September 9, 2000

Below is a report Emi Koyamawrote in response to the incident that took place during the Program Administration and Development pre-conference of the 2000 National Women's Studies Association conference at Simmons College, Boston. The report was submitted to the newsletter of NWSA for publication, but was rejected.

In this year's NWSA conference, Program Administration and Development Advisory Council (PA&D) organized, upon the request from Women of Color Caucus (WOCC), a panel discussing "lessons learned from the Akron experience" as part of the PA&D pre-conference. In addition, PA&D invited many women of color students and scholars to attend the pre-conference (and the actual conference itself) for free, as a way of attracting more women of color into leadership positions within women's studies programs. I highly appreciate PA&D members for their effort over the past year - especially Inez Martinez, who was the WOCC representative to PA&D.

However, what happened at the "Lessons" panel was very disappointing. Aside from the fact that all but one presenters appeared white and had much higher position within academia than the sole woman of color on the panel, none of the white women addressed the real problem: racism. That is, they seemed to assume that women of color have some special needs that white women don't, and suggested strategies to encourage women of color to seek careers in women's studies -- without taking responsibility for what white people, including white women, do to make the environment unsafe for women of color or talking about how white women can stop sabotaging women of color within women's studies.

Many white women have historically absolved their responsibility in racism that they perpetuate by accusing everything else - KKK, white men, patriarchy, etc. - as the real source of racist oppression, while painting themselves as our allies. I consider this an avoidance tactic designed to protect racism within feminism and women's studies.

Later, as I was reading the conference program once again, I suddenly understood why the panel failed to deal with the real issue. The panel description reads, in part: "This panel focuses on changes within women's studies since the 1990 NWSA conference at Akron, where controversies about diversity threatened to destroy the association altogether." In other words, it was not racism that was the problem, but it was "controversies," as if everything would have been okay if women of color did not speak out about the oppression that targets them. The purpose of this panel, according to this description, is not to strive for the social justice or to empower those who are marginalized, but to do just enough to protect the association from its self-imposed implosion. After realizing this subtle message in the description, it suddenly made sense how the panel turned out.

Contrary to how white women seemed to have interpretted my comment in response to the panel, the issue I am taking is not whether or not more women of color should have been on the panel, though that would have been nice. If white women were actually talking about how to be allies to women of color, I would have wholeheartedly supported it even if only white women were speaking; but if they seek to dilute their responsibility and speak for us as if they know more than we do what our needs are, I cannot just sit back and listen.

PA&D waived my registration fee because they wanted hear voices of women of color, and I am glad that I have been able to reciprocate by speaking up.