Roxane Gay delivers keynote address on diversity and identity politics at Smith College

By Alvin Buyinza

(Eva Blue/ Flickr)

New York Times contributing columnist Roxane Gay delivered a keynote address in celebration of Smith College’s Otelia Cromwell Day; a holiday commemorating the achievements of Smith College’s first African American graduate.

Gay is an award winning author of several works including “Bad Feminist,” “Difficult Women” and “Hunger.”

Entitled “Roxane with One N,” Gay delivered her address in Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall. The event began with the Smith College chorus performing the late James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Following the performance the Co-Chair of the Otelia Cromwell Day Planning Committee, Kim Alson, spoke. She gave a speech on the life and accomplishments of Cromwell.

After the speech, Traci Williams, a senior at Amherst College, performed a poetry reading of Nikky Finney’s “Maven.”

Audience members then watched the short award-winning video, “The Life and Legacy of Otelia Cromwell,” which chronicled her life and the Smith College holiday bearing her namesake.

Gay began the talk by speaking to the problems she finds when people discuss the issue of diversity.

“Oftentimes we talk about it for one day or one month and we think ‘that’s enough,’” Gay said. “We can be on our own for the rest of the other 11 months of the year, or 30 days of the month. And that’s simply not how progress and change work.”

Gay retold the story of how shocked she felt the day after the 2016 election. She recalled how she refused to get out of bed the next morning, despite text messages she received from her mother telling her everything would be alright.

She spoke on how she regretted the fact that she was not more public with her support for Hillary Clinton, and detailed her fear to admit how much she supported her.

“It’s not that I believed I would have [swung] the election one way or the other, but I know that I had an opportunity to raise my voice and I had squandered it.”

After the election, Gay said she focused on what to do in what she calls “The Age of American Disgrace.” She read a long list of controversial acts that have been issued under the Trump Administration, such as the immigration ban, his verbal attacks on Black women and his behavior on Twitter.

Speaking on the use of language she saw after the election, Gay recalled phrases such as Michelle Obama’s famous quote at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: “when they go low, we go high.”

Gay disagreed with this phrase, calling it something that millions of people who had no understanding of the world would utter.

“Too many people were invested in the idea of purity and accountability to realize that there is no purity in the ideas that Donald Trump represents,” Gay said. “When they go low, we must be willing to go subterranean.”

She spoke about the reactions from liberal white Americans who were outraged by the result of the election. Gay said that a lot of the sentiment expressed by white, liberal Americans during this time were of shame, which she believed was counterintuitive.

“…The good white folk who voted for Clinton keep centering their whiteness every chance they get; they are ashamed of their country and they keep voicing their shame, but I don’t want your shame; I want your fight.”

As her speech came to a close, Gay touched upon issues of diversity, identity politics and alliance-building, which she refers to as a “comfortable distance.” She also stressed the importance of participating and focusing on local politics.

At the end of the keynote address members of the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions.

Lorretta Ross, co-founder and national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, asked Gay to speak about the “white tribalism” of the left, and how white liberals have thrown out discussion of identity politics to focus on the economic anxiety.

“White people on the left, especially those who are into politics, are using identity politics as an offering and say ‘Hey, we’re going to blame identity politics and get on board with Bernie Sanders and economic populism, so that we can get forward, and then we’ll come back to you,’” Gay said.

According to Gay, the biggest disservice to people of color and marginalized groups is the phrase “identity politics.”

“It allows people to dismiss really important issues, and that people are so willing on the left to know better and to be better to throw queer people, people of color, working class people…[anyone] not white under the bus just shows so that white tribalism supersedes all.”


Alvin Buyinza can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @abuyinza_news.