CIA Week’s Intersectionality Panel Deconstructs the POC Umbrella

by Tiffany Wang

Swarthmore students gathered in Bond Hall on Monday, October 30th at 6pm to address the issues of intersectionality and the use of the term “people of color.” This event, hosted through CIA Week, seeked to unravel the threads of the term and bring nuanced conversation into the large umbrella term. First, attendees pondered the discussion questions placed on their tables: How would you define intersectionality? Is there a such thing as POC solidarity? After brief chatter on these two questions, conversation quickly moved onto other topics as they awaited the group discussion after dinner: classes, Halloweekend, the temperature of the room.

As everyone finished their meals, co-moderators Alexis Riddick ‘20 and Maya Henry ‘20 opened up the panel by describing the history of the term “intersectionality.” Originally coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in her paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrines, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” to explain the oppression of African-American women, it has now become a term to encompass one’s many identities, not only including race and gender but also sexual orientation, religion, and multifaceted interests.

The first question posed to all panelists—Amber Sheth '18, Julius John "JJ" Balisanyuka-Smith '21, Ken'delle Durkson '20, Tiye Pulley '19, and Umi Keezing '19—addressed their personal experiences with the title of “person of color,” sparking intense conversation. All panelists agreed that after attending Swarthmore, they had gradually begun using “POC” to describe themselves. Yet, many of them still harbored mixed emotions as a result. Some embraced the term: Sheth described her choice to associate herself as POC after the election of Donald Trump last fall. She did so as an effort to find a safe space where she could fit in.

Others like Pulley explained their complex relationships with the term. “I could put POC down [as one of my titles] so that people could understand it, but it’s not the first thing I would use to describe myself,” he said. “POC feels like a weird blanket term. It feels like an othering from whiteness.”

Balisanyuka-Smith mentioned that it “feels like it’s submitting to ‘What are you really?,’” drawing murmurs of resonance from both the other panelists and the rest of the audience. As he went on to describe, “you can’t be multiple things, you can only be one thing… you have to submit to the one thing of otherness.”

Even beyond that, panelists pointed out the nuances within Africans and African Americans, emphasizing the clear divide between the two cultures. Durkson, who identifies as an Arab North African Egyptian said, “I don’t identify as black, except for the purposes of making it easier for people who don’t understand what an Egyptian is, or what an Egyptian looks like.” To him, the term “black” does not acknowledge the separation, as there is a lot of anti-Americanism among first-generation immigrant—they don’t want to be “corrupted by American blood.”

Onwards, panelists agreed that in many POC cultures, discussion about sexuality is completely ignored. It’s dismissed as a “white person thing,” Pulley stated.

“There are very few places where I can be all of myself, and I’ve gotten used to code switching,” Sheth said.

As the question and answer section of the panel opened up, in response to Sierra Sweeney’s ‘21 question about ‘women of color,’ Keezing acknowledged the double struggle of this identity. “Women who are not POC only talk about women’s issues whereas POC who are not women only talk about POC issues.”

“‘Woman of color’ holds a lot of weight, since you’re putting yourself at the bottom of both the racial and gender food chain,” Sheth said.

Josie Hung ‘19 again considered the dinner’s discussion question of POC solidarity. Durkson voiced that there are simply too many injustices and power dynamics within the very small subsets of the POC community (colorism, sexism, and countless others) that need to be addressed before moving out to the entire POC community.

Referring to the model minority myth and idea of pitting different groups of POC communities against each other, Pulley laments the “faux-solidarity” between POC. “There needs to be cross cultural communication, but it needs to be contextualized. There needs to be more cultural exchange. Right now we only see the gross stereotypes of other groups.”

The questions of intersectionality, POC groups, and POC solidarity certainly cannot be solved in one night, but it gave attendees a lot to think about it. Sarah Smith ‘21 says, “I didn’t consider myself POC until I got to Swat. I don’t consider myself Asian, but I don’t consider myself white, and now I just have more questions.”

Still, as Sheth said at the beginning of the night when asked why she chose to participate in the panel, “I always come in [to identity events] feeling like ‘oh, I’m not enough of this, or not enough of that,’ but when I leave I feel a lot better...I want to do that for other people.”