3 women, a poem in honor of Fezeka

.      .      .   Durban was on fire all of last week thanks to the Poetry Africa festival taking place in the coastal city. A week of art in which we almost forgot about the protests, and about the death of Fezekile “Fezeka” Kuzwayo happening right outside the theatre doors. But three poets would not let business go on as usual, they came together and performed a poem in honor of Fezeka, known in the media as Khwezi, who was buried in Durban on the same day as the Poetry Africa finale.The poem was written and performed by Maya Wegerif or Maya the Poet who was a family friend of Fezeka, Koleka Putuma, a phenomenal young poet based in Cape Town and renowned Nigerian America poet Bassey Ikpi.  They read it to a standing ovation at the BAT theatre.

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if you were offered a candy coated


would you take it?

or would you ask for something

made of barbed wire

a poison apple, maybe

a death soaked kiss from a stranger

which one?

you who offers nothing

would you pull the wings off another butterfly?

hold an angel by the throat and dare it to scream?

who are you really?

do you know?

if the truth showed it’s face

would you recognize it?

would you lie to keep

it from revealing your secrets?

what of those puzzle pieces hidden in

a chest of drawers behind your bed?

how many hearts?

how many women broken, a river of burgundy

cascading from their throats


Some mothers set their daughters alight to keep their men warm.

And some family members would rather describe the smoke than smell like it.


Last night there was a vigil

A vigil is a time of staying awake during the time usually spent sleeping

Especially to keep watch or to pray


I stopped believing in him the day that devil was sworn in

Hand on the bible saying his vows,

Whole country marrying him openly,

Like he was a stranger.

Like we didn’t know about the wife who left,

About the one who killed herself because of him,

About the one that tried to poison him.

Why did we think we could change him?


How many second chances

third? fourth?

how many bodies buried under your


where is the glass crushed against your rib cage

the gust of wind and sand where your heart should be

where is this closet that holds your soul

Why are you

elevated from the destruction you cause

recreating truth to fit your needs

do you hold any regrets?

the truth reveals itself like

a serpent

like the spark of light before the fire

who will be the next to burn?

and when will it end?

when someone swallows a fistful of pills in your honor?

when there are actual corpses

with your name carved into their wrists?

when the bullet holds only two names?

will you feel it then?

will something then serve as spark to move

your spirit ?

would you even hear it if someone other than you

hurts, aches, dies?

maybe lies help

maybe they serve as balm and lullaby

maybe one day you will find a reason to cry for

someone other than yourself.

until then, who will be next?


Tell me this country was not a battered woman running back to him

Where we could have voted against,

went straight to the ballot box and said we believe him.

If only one woman’s word was enough,

If only dozens didn’t have to be flung to the ends of the earth

And beyond it

If only we didn’t always have to remain here stunned,

saying we knew but did nothing.

If only we stood together before the funerals.

If only we weren’t silent all these years.

Until your death called our bodies and found us on vibrate,



Sometimes [hell] is a penis.

Sometimes [women] repent just to save themselves from encountering the devil.

Sometimes [uncle] is a boyfriend.  a test you will keep taking but always fail.

Sometimes [uncle] is a siren in some living rooms.

Sometimes [uncle] is an aircon everyone is too lazy to adjust or switch off.

Sometimes [the daughters] are not left alone with him.

But he is not banned from family gatherings either.

Sometimes [collateral damage] is another way of saying:

I am a coward.

It’s easier to hold the [woman] accountable for a ‘lie’ than it is to hold the [uncle] accountable for the truth.


I went to your funeral today,

You would have loved it

All your pall bearers were women

All of them gathered around you

Women shouting

Women speaking

Women calling out

And still trying to bottle our water

so as not to spill the one next to us

Am I allowed to say that we were a little relieved for you?

All of us secretly envying you

Finally, someone to carry you

Because Nothing in this country makes sense

Mourning the life, celebrating the death

Everything in this country is upside down

Elect the rapist, exile the woman

Everything in this country is the wrong way round


Fezeka, know that you did not fail anyone

In 2006 they said burn the bitch

And they’ll say other things

A country will call a woman a failure

For only withstanding the fire for ten years before finally glowing


Some of us wouldn’t be able to live with just us knowing.


Most of us couldn’t live with the whole country knowing.


And who could live if they hated you for it?

So fuck the ANC women’s league

The city has been crying all week for you.

We have been crying all week for you

But why must it always be our tears falling?

Why must it always be us falling?

Falling in to graves all the time?

Us on our backs all the time?

Too many women are falling without seeing change

Too many panties have fallen without seeing change.

Let the fees fall for a change

Let the men fall in their rage

There will be no more moments of silence

Vusani abo mama, vusani abo dade benu,

a man has broken into the house and is calling himself father

Lock the doors tonight

We’re going to need more than a prayer to send this devil back to hell

Tonight we are starting a month long vigil

A time of saying enough is enough during the time usually spent sleeping.


Why Zizipho Pae Made You So Uncomfortable

I’m here to rebuke Zizipho Pae who wrote a piece on her own Facebook wall breaking down the various ways in which feminist ideas do not fit with her Christian beliefs. Yes her descriptions of feminism were at times quite simplistic and other times sensationalist. But in fact the bible verses she refers to really do undermine some of the very foundations of feminism. And so faced with these two contradictory ideologies, she chooses the bible over logic and progress. And she warns us ominously, “she who has ears let her hear.”

The feminist Christian apologists did hear. And they were not impressed. But most of the attacks against Pae were empty of reason. Most were fallacy ad hominem (attacking the person and not the idea). Because the fact is that the two ideologies do contradict each other. Or as one Facebook associate put it “Feminism and Christianity are definitely on opposite ends of the spectrum pertaining to women’s rights and equality of the sexes.” But I understand your spluttering my Christian feminist sisters. You were in a bind because you know that feminism is the logical and just approach and yet you cannot fault Pae for choosing patriarchal Christianity because you have not denounced it yourself.

But I am here to defend you. I rebuke Miss Pae on the charge of disturbing your precocious religion-feminism balance. Her views on this are frustrating to all feminists who are still trying to defend Christianity and Islam etc. Good for her if she can choose one, but you’re bent on an in denial balancing act. I wish she could just for one second try to get into your shoes and imagine how difficult it is to hold religious views as a woke and thinking (especially black) feminist. So much of the feminist movement you subscribe to was about rejecting archaic patriarchal ideas that our society would have long abandoned if they weren’t being carried forward in the time capsules of religious doctrines. In fact, much of all the work past and present done to advance human rights has been about undoing barbaric religious beliefs and stopping ludicrous practices condoned by religious doctrines: slavery, LGBTQ rights, ending FGM, child marriage, the list is long. But through his grace or your own, you are still holding on.

Others before Pae have tried to shake you by using the Old Testament to prove that your religion is backwards and has no place in the modern world. But you know that only the New Testament matters. Jesus undid all that old stuff about stoning adulterers and killing people that were not Jewish. Well, to be more specific it’s only the verses you like in the New Testament that matter. You don’t read the whole thing, of course. Goodness no! Otherwise you would come across all the stuff about how a woman should never talk above a man (1 Timothy 2:12), and if you are African you would raise an eyebrow at the line where Jesus turns away a Canaanite woman, says he is only there for Israelites and compares her to a dog (Mathew 15:22-28). That stuff would be inconvenient, so you’ve kind of vaguely argued all this away and managed to come to a strained, but workable agreement in your mind that allows you to hold both religious and progressive views.

But just as you were settling in to your wobbly bed of justifications for still being a Christian, here comes Pae inconveniently pointing out that feminism and Christianity are not compatible. How annoying and uncomfortable for you! Here you are trying to defend Christianity at all costs, mostly by ignoring the reality of what Christianity teaches, and now you can’t because this heffa is actually using quotes from the Bible (the New Testament at that) to prove that Christianity preaches women’s submission to men. Ughhh!  I say she should cut you some slack, because you really are ready to question all manners of dogma, just not the outdated misogynistic texts that sustain those same dogmas.

Why can’t these able-to-choose-a-side people respect that as enlightened as you are, you still desire the comfort of an illogical oppressive ideology brought to your ancestors by white people? (Not by the way because God preferred whites, he just got to them first, you guess. Not because they were white and colonizing everyone either! You’re against all that- except for the bibles they brought. And it’s really just an unfortunate coincidence that what your ancestors were doing to bridge the existential gap, wasn’t quite as good. You know that imperialists say everything your ancestors did wasn’t good enough but in this case they are right. Though you are deeply sorry to all the millions of poor Africans who lived and died before white people brought the religion.) Anyway!! You CAN be a Christian anti-Imperialist feminist. I believe in you. Pay no mind to the fact that the most progressive nations in terms of women’s rights are also the least religious and likewise the most oppressive are steeped deeply in religion. Somehow you can make it work! Sure it will be a compromise and you will be helping to uphold a system of global patriarchy, but at least you can have a nice myth to pray to when you remember to do so. And you are fighting religious intolerance and hate! It’s just that your method is to kill wasps not to take the nest out of the house. In summary, don’t let a silly article like this (is it even an article? It was on the chick’s Facebook status for goodness sake) shake your unsteady grounds. You don’t have to choose between equality and surrendering your life to a god with a male pronoun and his son, you can half-ass both!

Dakar as a light-skinned woman

– Maya Wegerif

When you want to know if a woman is light-skinned or bleached, look at her knuckles, her ankles, her knees. There is something about the leathery skin around joints that refuses to be bereaved of colour. You can also look at her chest, if she is wearing a low-cut boubou, or her arms, if it’s sleeveless. You will see slashes cascading down her inner-arms or towards her breasts. Bleached skin is so thin, burnt and damaged that what would normally be a stretch mark tears into a sagging gorge held together by skin of melting plastic. The skin on this kind of woman’s upper body could tear completely off if she brushed up against a rough surface. Just as well the joints refuse to bleach. Women in Dakar would be falling apart.

Patoranking and olamide made a “freestyle” remix of the song “Loyal” by Chris Brown and his friends. While we are on the topic, why are such songs called freestyles when they are clearly pre-meditated? The song begins:

“Beautiful Sunday sea-side chilling
Looking for a half-caste girl who’s willing”

The story goes that he sees a beautiful “half-caste” girl from the back and he’s into her until she turns around and he realizes that she is not naturally light skinned, she is bleached. The rest of the song goes on about the fact that black girls shouldn’t bleach. “Why you de bleach op your skin o?” he ask-sings, passionately.

Well um let’s see, Patoranking, maybe because you only want light skinned women!! You and many other black men. How in the very same song can he say he’s only interested in someone of a light complexion and then also wonder why a dark-skinned woman would bleach her skin? If she was dark-skinned he would not have noticed her in the first place. At least now there’s a song about her.

Senegal is well-known for its tall, black-skinned population. As a métisse, I stand out like a light skinned girl in a sea of black faces. Yes, a sea. Because almost everyone in Senegal is black-skinned. So if our eyes are trained to look first at colour, then you will not stand out if you are dark like everyone else. And that’s all we want really; to be seen. And then maybe loved for what is seen in us. Our worst fear then is to be invisible.

I think that is why women bleach their skin here; they do not want to be invisible. And I can understand why. I have seen men, my male friends included, look at an entire beach of people and say there is only one pretty person there. And she is invariably the métisse one. When I go to the bank the male teller lets me skip the line. Plus I can get away with smoking on the street and wearing shorts without reprimand because I look foreign enough.

I do get stopped though on my way to Goree Island to pay the tourist fee, even though any number of the black-skinned people in front of me could also be foreigners. But men tell me I am beautiful. So do women, even if I’m not. When I walk down the street I am followed with “miss!” and “rafet na” and “kai” and that kissing sound that you always know is directed at you.

In me, taxi-drivers only see a high-paying customer. Even if I am walking in the opposite direction, and clearly not looking around for a taxi, even if I am jogging, trying to get exercise, taxis will slow down, honk, come to a stop or even pull over waiting for me to come to their windows. When I walk past them, they look at me with scornful eyes. As if I have tricked them into thinking I wanted them to stop. As if my light skin had clearly signaled that I wanted them to pull over and now I have wasted their time.

Unless I am with white people, I am the target of hawkers in the market grabbing my arm and the Talibe boys who follow me down the street hissing “cent, cent.” Everybody wants to teach me wollof. My acquaintances in the hood will accompany me across the road to “make sure I am safe” as if where I’m from there aren’t any roads. At least once a week a stranger takes it upon himself to explain how the local bus system works. I am constantly bombarded and approached by men who often become crass and very loose with their mouths as I walk away.

It is hard to befriend women too because they either look at me with contempt or they treat me like a doll, pulling my hand through the club and speaking on my behalf.

Everyone thinks they know what I want and that I don’t know what I’m doing. I am stared at, I am hassled and I am pointed out. I can never not attract attention. As a result, if a guy says I am beautiful I assume what he means is that I’m light-skinned. I fantasize about being black, because if I was then maybe I would actually be seen. If I was upset or crazy or dumb, people would see that instead of only seeing me as a métisse girl and projecting everything they know about des métisses on me. I am looked at, I am not seen. It is a different kind of invisible.

Maya Wegerif is a South African poet and campaign assistant. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in African studies. She currently works at Niyel in Dakar Senegal. @mayathepoet

Black Lives Matter- Elsewhere

“I was handcuffed, I paid over a thousand dollars in legal fees, I appeared in court three times missing class, because I reacted to a situation that can only be explained as racist. No one from the school has ever acknowledged this.”

I was arrested on the Mount Holyoke College campus on the first of March this year, after losing my cool at campus police officers who I felt were being racist towards me. After several back and forths to court and with legal help, eventually the charge was lowered to a civil one, which I was assured would not leave me with a criminal record. At the same time the school hired an investigator to look into the matter. The whole process was disheartening, as it seemed the school was only interested in absolving itself of any wrongdoing. So that even though the report shows that the dean for instance did the opposite of her job, there is “not enough evidence” to prove that had she mediated the situation properly the results would have been different etc. Cleverly, the investigation report was hell bent on trying to prove that the intentions of the police officers were not racist despite the fact that my grievance was not about the officers’ “intentions,” but rather that the way the officers treated me produced a valid perception of racism, which warranted my anger. Of course it would be near impossible to prove intention unless the police officers came outright and said that they thought of me as more aggressive because I am black and that they are conditioned to see black people as criminals and white people as innocent. Needless to say, they were not going to say any of that.

On the first of March a noise complaint was called on some friends and I in an unassigned room on campus. My friends left but when I tried to leave the room I was told I could not take my belongings from the room, including my laptop. By the end my boyfriend and I remained and a dean was called to “mediate” the situation. She failed and I got very upset which resulted in my being arrested for disturbing the peace.

Despite the MANY problems in the investigation report, the findings did not deny that my boyfriend is a white male, that I am a black woman, that I was ID’d and my boyfriend was not, that I was questioned for smoking weed and my boyfriend was not, that my things were confiscated while my boyfriend was allowed to leave with his, that I was calm until I thought they were treating me with racism and that thereafter I was arrested for refusing to calm down. The investigation stated that the reason I was ID’d and not my boyfriend was because I am a student and he is not. Yet even while not being able to know who he was, my boyfriend was not asked to prove that what he was taking out of the room belonged to him. I was, and even after proving that my laptop had my name on it, they didn’t tell me I could take my things and leave. My argument was that I perceived this treatment as racist and that this is why I got upset. And of course I got more furious when instead of rectifying their unjust treatment of me, the officers and later the dean on call wanted me to calm down. And in a typically sexist “control-your-woman” manner, they then co-opted my boyfriend to assist them in calming me down.

If the intentions of the police officers were not racist, if I was reading the situation incorrectly as so many people of color are accused of doing, if I am simply pulling the race card after acting out for no reason, I want to know how else I could have read it? What else should I have thought could warrant their heightened suspicion of me compared to the trust they granted the white person who was doing exactly what I was doing? How is an unidentified non-student deserving of more trust than me, if not because he is white and I am black? How was I supposed to rationalize that other than with what we all know and see in our everyday lives? Surely there is valid reason for me to perceive this as being racist when it fits directly into the prevalent racist stereotype that black people are criminals. This is the same perception that makes police officers fire at unarmed black men, and the school’s response is the reason they get away with it.

As a defense, the officers responded that the only reason they allowed my boyfriend to leave with his laptop and other belongings was that they didn’t really notice that he was taking his things. That was enough for the investigator and the hearing officer and college Vice President Sharon Gurek to conclude that the officers’ intentions were not racist. But it is racist. It is the exact same prejudice at play. The fact that two officers and a dean “did not notice” one person pack up a laptop and bag and walk out with it, but would not let the other person leave with a laptop that had her name on it is just another sign that they were treating me with more suspicion. My boyfriend left with a more expensive laptop and a whole bag of things and they did not notice? But when I tried to do the same, I was told that they would have to confiscate my things to verify that they were indeed mine, that I was not stealing them. We have joked since then that if I had let my boyfriend carry my things for me, we probably wouldn’t have been in that mess at all. By his whiteness alone, my boyfriend is unquestioned, unsearched and unhindered by the campus police. Even in a woman’s college in which I am enrolled, a white male is treated with more respect and trust than I am as a person of color.

I was handcuffed, I paid over a thousand dollars in legal fees, I appeared in court three times missing class, because I reacted to a situation that can only be explained as racist. No one from the school has ever acknowledged this. After I wrote about my arrest the school became involved in a dodgy game of chess trying to avoid litigation, I am sure. I was urged by the Dean Davis to file a grievance report. An internal investigation was conducted under the guise of coming to the truth and all it did was absolve the school of wrongdoing and give them false legitimacy. Two deans told me that they would come to court and tell the DA that an internal investigation into the behavior of campus police was underway. That probably could have swayed the DA to consider the possibility that my arrested was unnecessary or at least in question. Instead, Dean Davis and Dean Banks came to court late and told the DA that they were investigating me.

My only support and comfort came from the many alumni of color who wrote to me in solidarity, my friends, family and schoolmates and most importantly the students who came together and formed the movement #Mohonest. To them I am eternally grateful, humbled and in awe. I still haven’t found the right words to express my gratitude to all the members of Mohonest for having stood by me and for the rights of all students of color on this campus. The first campaign we did was print and put up our written experiences of racism on campus.

After that, some more students joined the movement. But from outside of Mohonest, the only response I ever saw from other students was that Mohonest was aggressive. Students of color simply putting up their stories and experiences was read as an aggressive act. At one college senate meeting, several white students spoke up saying they felt attacked by the movement, but made sure to clarify that they were not racist, of course. Not seeing that the very fact that they characterized a non-violent movement as aggressive was deeply rooted in the same racist tendency that got me arrested and that gets many other black people harassed and even killed. If queer students posted stories of the homophobia they face, would those “non-racist” students feel attacked? Would that be seen as an aggressive movement? I doubt it. It seems that it’s only people of color who are characterized constantly as aggressors even when we are the victims of aggression.

At the first meeting that Mohonest members had with college president Lynn Pasquerella, the only thing she had to say was that she feared the movement marginalized “the other students.” Just to clarify that statement; her first response to a movement where people of color spoke up about being mistreated was that white students would feel marginalized. Her response was not shock or dismay at the racism perpetuated on her campus, it was not remorse that we have lived these experiences, it was concern about white students’ discomfort, which far outweighs the discomfort of black students, or the perpetual marginalization of students of color. And she saw no irony in this.

Today she sent an email about the various things that would happen on campus in response to the verdict that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. Meanwhile officers on this very campus also get away with racism with her approval. Just like in her convocation speech after a semester of racial tension, she said one thing about race here and then talked about racism in Cambodia before burying it all under the good and sudden news that Mount Holyoke would now accept Trans students. It seems far easier for Mount Holyoke to deal with issues far away from home even if it suffers the same ailments. If you believe black lives really matter, they should matter on this campus also. The admin wants to channel and organize our anger and quieten any discomfort against itself. Go, says Mount Holyoke, change the world. But don’t you dare start here.

Maya Wegerif

A Tyranny of Silence

It is Spring Break! The Mount Holyoke campus is barren of most of its students. I am spending this week within the white walls of my room, still too afraid to play music on my speakers. (I have been reported for playing music just from my laptop when classes are on but campus police has even come to my room for a noise complaint during January break, so I’m not going to risk it.) All the doors in the dorms are shut, the corridors are flushed with fluorescent light and there is dead silence. Then I realize; this is almost exactly how it is when everyone is here. Except now there is the added benefit of not having to awkwardly dance around the other students as we go on our daily back and forth from classes and the bathroom. This school is a massive red-brick body that will stand in its stubborn solemnity with or without us. It is we who must deform ourselves to fit inside it.

Simone De Beauvior visited some of the other Sister Schools in 1947 and wrote: “I spend three days at Smith and Wellesley sleeping in the white guest rooms that remind me of clinics or monasteries.” Later on she describes Smith’s atmosphere as intimate and cheerful. The schools De Beauvoir visited are very similar to Mount Holyoke, but my own visits to the Smith houses have shown a sense of community that Mount Holyoke is devoid of. Here the girl who lives on the other side of the wall is not expected to come to your room to say “could you keep it down please, I’m trying to sleep.” Rather the norm is to call campus police. Here, in the white-walled cubicles where we spend our glory years, the tyranny of silence reigns over sound, over expression, over interaction.

For some time my friends and I used to gather in a sunroom in one of the residential buildings. We turned it into the only room I have seen serving its function as a social space in our dorms. On two occasions at the completion of a new poem I went to that sunroom to share it with whoever was in there. My friends used to draw and colour in flowers and trees and sunsets and put them up on the walls. We had an impressive mural when the office of residential life gave instructions to the cleaning lady to take down the drawings and paintings and throw them away, rendering the walls hospital white again. Why this hostility to colour and life?

If you live in a hospital you will begin to believe that you are sick. So I leave campus on most weekends to keep my soul alive at the nearby Hampshire College where students play instruments with their doors open and other students come in and jam with them. Where new art is made in the spaces outside of class. And where this is encouraged rather than seen as a problem. In its short life, Hampshire College has produced more notable alums, especially in the arts, than Mount Holyoke has done as the oldest women’s institution in the world. These include Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of Men in Black and Lupita Nyong’o who recently won an Oscar. Mount Holyoke still harps on about Emily Dickinson who was here for a year, a hundred years ago, and left probably feeling too suffocated to stay.

Earlier today I visited the greenhouse to look at the flowers. It amazes me how meticulously the plants in there are cared for. Each in a room that has just the right amount of light for that plant species, each plant in its separate little pot getting just the right amount of water. And it occurred to me that we live in a greenhouse.

All of us in our separate little temperature controlled incubators being fed superficial fertilizers. When a student’s existence causes a slight disturbance in what De Beauvoir saw as the “superficial Eden”, that student must be cut down. We are not expected to be tolerant or flexible. That which upholds this muted tyranny does not adjust, our peers must adjust to this sterile obsession. There are quiet floors in two dorms which cater to those whose ears do not want to be burdened with sound waves. There are also quiet hours agreed on in every dorm. And yet even outside of those floors and those hours there is something called “24 hour courtesy” which means that you can be silenced at any time. This courtesy does not extend towards those who want to play loud music or have loud conversations with friends. It is not even democratic. Six people could be having a get-together. Twenty people on their floor might not mind. But if one person decides they don’t like it, that is who this courtesy will be applied to.

The most common rebuttal I have heard is “but this is a college.” My response is; exactly! Where else are we supposed to exchange ideas with our peers? In our beautiful common rooms you won’t find lively discussions, you find one or two people studying across the room from each other in perfect silence. This college does not foster the sharing of ideas outside of class. We don’t learn tolerance or social skills. We are separated clinically from each other by rules that make it difficult to use common spaces, by so-called courtesy to absolute silence and by an institution that enforces those things.

And yet Mount Holyoke, the overbearing gardener, claims to produce women who are fearless, who never fear change and who will go where no one else will go. I wonder, where will these stunted seedlings go from here? Where are these women going to find their artificial incubators outside of this school? In which cities will the police rush over because your neighbour is playing music from her laptop? And say they move to a place where the police are in dire need of wasted time, will they be able to quieten the noise of traffic or the sounds of the café below? Maybe they will all live in the suburbs of small towns, each at a safe distance from one another, avoiding each others eyes when they take out their trash.

Maya Wegerif

Time to Step Up.

I have to begin this post by stating for the record that I am a student of colour at Mount Holyoke College. The implicit assumption that I was safe in this space has been disproved, and I find myself astonished at the blatant lack of protections afforded to coloured students at progressive institutions such as this. Maya’s story is not the first, but it should be the last. It is deeply reflective of the work that is left to be done.

When Maya called me on Saturday morning, I couldn’t find the right words to express how I felt. At that point, I wasn’t absorbing the facts. I wasn’t digesting the reality of the events she was describing to me. In-fact, we were both laughing about it. Shocked, but laughing. Over the next few days, we began to digest the story. Slowly, discussions about Maya’s arrest began to surface, and for many of us students of colour it began to sink in. It spoke to the reality of what many of us have gone through on this campus- although perhaps, never to this extent. Maya’s story, in many ways, has now become our story: the story of young, coloured women who exist in spaces that claim not only to help represent our voices, but amplify our voices.

I cannot speak for the whole Mount Holyoke Community, but I can speak for myself. After four years on this campus, I am finding it very hard to find the love that I initially had for this place. This space, these people, these women have become an intrinsic part of my identity, and their treatment within this space is something I cannot remain voiceless about. The harassment, the racism, the implicit sexism all stand in antithesis to the ideals and values Mount Holyoke claims to uphold. Let us ask ourselves, why a young black international student was allowed to be harassed in front of a Dean and Campus Police? Why was she being accused of stealing – when her only crime was to pick up what belonged to her, and do as the officer told her? Why was Maya never given the benefit of the doubt or allowed to prove her innocence? And most importantly, why is she still being victimized?

I would like to write a rather vocal letter to Mount Holyoke, but I fear it will go nowhere and reap no benefits. For Maya and many of us like her, the feeling of utter helplessness is sometimes worse than the injustice that is projected unto us. Where do we go to tell these stories? Who is willing to listen and hear us? If Mount Holyoke is a place where women are valued for their voices, why does it seem that people of colour are living in some alternate reality?  Are we exempt from the same rights and privileges that are accorded to white women in this same space? Why do we exist outside the system?

On the same weekend of the said incident, one very important event took place- the Women of Colour Conference. In retrospect, this seems rather ironic. At the very same time a group of women were talking about the value of diversity, Maya was spending her weekend in a cell. The truth about racism is that our actions need to speak louder than our words. We can make this space politically correct, we can ask students to take down symbols and signs that are offensive, we can conduct forums and dialogues and speak for the next 177 years about racism, but what it all comes down to eventually is action.

Over the next couple of days students like myself are awaiting an important decision. We want to know what positive action the college will take regarding the charges against Maya. This decision will ultimately reflect where the college truly stands on protecting and supporting students of colour on this campus. Somewhere deep down, my conviction is that the college will stand on the side of justice and truth. It is my hope that the administration and all who are involved in this decision will rise to the occasion and uphold the very valuable ideals that Mary Lyon founded this school upon.

On Friday (the same night of Maya’s arrest), I attended the Arab students Open-Mic Night. A poem read at that event resonated with me (and I am sure, most students of colour). This poem, by Marleny Heredia, forces us to accept that sometimes, even in the most liberal of spaces, there is still much work left to be done.

“Dear Mount Holyoke”

I fell in Love,
When I first met you,
Close to four years ago
your sensible ways
and revolutionary streaks
Melted my soul away

When I first met you
I thought “happily ever after”
I thought you were the one
but you had led me on

Now I am here
and I feel wrong
like that child you thought you wanted
But weren’t ready to have
Like a 16-year-old having a kid
but this is real life and not a MTV-show hit

check your privileges,
You are a white entity
accepting colored beings
as if we are just numbers
you can advertise to your trustees

Every time I complain
about the contemporary whips and lashes
you refrain and remind me that they were once harsher

I walk the halls Mary Lyon once dreamt up
and I just know that she must be convulsing in her grave

See, I once thought she built this school for the likes of me
Till history showed me
that she founded this in 1837
twenty-eight years before slavery had “ended”

you weren’t ready for us then
and you aren’t ready for us now

So don’t advertise to me
that “she saw me coming”
cause if she had seen my color, she would’ve
assumed I was in charge of at least the laundry

you remind me one more time
how far we have come
and the number of students
that walked through the gates
I refute your claim,
and sweetly remind you
of how battered we are inside this cage

What can I say?
The numbers don’t represent shit
if once inside we are treated like specks
only appealing when there is a camera clicking
and a point of diversity begging to be made

Oh, Mount Holyoke,
This isn’t your fault,
but how should I have known
that you weren’t what I thought?

Cause looking back in time
you are still the same
it is me who has grown
and seen that I was wrong

with love, resentment, respect and disgust,

Marleny Heredia

-Anarkalee Perera

Mount Holyoke, A College For White Men?

I am a black student at Mount Holyoke College, the first of the seven sister schools, which was started because no other American colleges accepted women. Mount Holyoke women are taught to be bold, to never fear change, and to speak up against injustice… unless you’re a student of colour. 177 years later white male privilege still reigns supreme here. And it is actively reinforced by campus police.

I spent the early hours of Saturday morning at the South Hadley Police Department having been arrested at Mount Holyoke for “breach of peace.” This is how the story begins.

My boyfriend Sam came to visit me on a whim so I took my blankets and my things to an unoccupied room in the dorm where my friends and I often hang out. I have a roommate who I couldn’t kick out on such short notice so I set up the other room for Sam and I to hangout. On Friday night Sam and I were drinking in that room with some of our friends when suddenly two officers from campus police showed up.

A few of my friends simply disappeared. Sam was in the bathroom and so they only found me and one of my friends in the room. Without telling us what we had done wrong the officer demanded our student IDs which we gave to him and he told us that he was writing us a dean’s referral. I asked him what we were being referred for. He said that he had received a noise complaint, and from what he could see we were drinking and smoking weed. Firstly, there is a lot to be said about the Mount Holyoke “community” when students do not try to talk to their neighbours about noise but immediately resort to calling campus police. Campus police should not come and intervene if there hasn’t been any attempt by the students to come to a solution. Secondly, at the age of 21 drinking is perfectly within the law. As for the weed, the room did not smell like weed at all. I do not smoke weed and my friend and I were asking not be sent to the dean for something we had not done. My friend left soon after seeing that there was no use in talking to the officers, it seemed that their minds were already made up from the moment they walked in. I would have left too except that all my belongings were in the room.

When Sam came back from the bathroom the situation was still calm. One officer asked if we knew each other which I said we did. The officer shook Sam’s hand, introduced himself and apologized that they had to meet in these circumstances. When the officer realized that the room was not assigned to me he asked me to leave. I began to take my pillows and he told me to put them down. Everything was to stay there because he couldn’t confirm that I wasn’t stealing the property. I resigned then to just taking my phone and my laptop. But the officer would not let me take my laptop because he assumed that I was stealing it, they would have to take the laptop with them, he said.

There were very easy ways to check if the laptop was mine. I showed him the user name on the laptop and it obviously matched the name on my student ID, still this was not sufficient. And yet as a white man, although not even a student, Sam was allowed to take his bag and laptop out of the room without having to prove anything to anyone. When he takes stuff he is just taking his things, when I do, I am stealing.

He could have walked out with any number of things and never have been seen or heard of again. He could have even walked out with my laptop and that would have been fine. I am assumed guilty and not given a chance to prove myself innocent. Sam is assumed innocent and has no need to prove anything. The only only thing he needed, to prove that he wasn’t stealing, was to be white. Whereas they know that I am a Mount Holyoke student, they had my ID, they saw the username was mine and they know where I live.

They began to converse with him politely, discussing my situation with him like I wasn’t in the room, like Sam was the student here, like I was not the one being (wrongly) accused, or like Sam was my father and they were discussing with him the actions of his dependent. Or they were just fellow white men discussing the audacity of a black person to not accept racist treatment.

Officer: “She just needs to calm down.”
Sam: “I hear you.”

Then Sam proceeded to come to me to tell me I needed to more cooperative. Cooperative to being accused of smoking weed and stealing? Cooperative to having my things confiscated while he keeps his? He again told me to relax and in a slightly higher voice I explained that he needed to stop telling me that. The officer called the dean on duty.

I was happy to have a dean come to the room. I knew that she would see how ridiculous the situation was. Besides, having a woman in the room would be helpful (it was becoming unclear whether it was my race or my gender that warranted this treatment.) I waited calmly, but Sam kept coming to me, telling me to calm down. I told him to leave me alone about six times in the presence of the officers. They said nothing.

When the dean got there she was the first person who tried to listen to my side of the story. I explained that I was not smoking weed and asked her if she could even smell any weed. “I am not trained to,” she said, because there wasn’t even the faintest trace of weed smell in that room. But if the story got to the dean of students she would say it was my word against campus police’s and she would shrug and say she has to go with campus police’s word. Maybe it would be useful if the deans on duty were equipped to verify the accusations they allow to be passed on us.

The officer interjected on my conversation with the dean to add that I was refusing to leave. I asked him in front of the dean, “Was I or was I not trying to leave when you told me to?” Three times he refused to answer my question. And I pleaded with the dean, to the point where I was in tears, to see how unjust the situation was. I was not refusing to leave I was refusing to leave without my things. I was getting very frustrated that nobody was hearing me.

Sam came up to me yet again, in front of the two officers and the dean, telling to calm down. They all saw me ask him for the seventh time to leave me alone. Even though they could see that it was upsetting me, they did not ask him to respect my wishes and my personal space. At some point I was saying, “Please, please leave me alone” in tears. They watched him continuously come into my face. And then I finally said: “You do not go here, you do not face the same consequences that I am facing right now.”

The whole time I was saying this both Sam and the cops were repeatedly speaking over me saying “Maya, Maya.” And “You need to calm down right now.” I said to Sam, “You can’t be serious. He can introduce himself to you, shake your hand. He had no such courtesy with me.” Again the whole time as I am speaking to him the officers and the dean are in the background repeatedly saying “Maya, Maya.” Sam said “No, you don’t understand.”

Me: “I can’t believe this. I actually cannot believe this.”
Sam: “Let it be done right now!” he says raising his voice. Nobody tells him to calm down.
Me: “Wow, I cannot believe this, I actually cannot believe this.”
All four of them” Maya, Maya”
Officer: “If you don’t calm down, I’m placing you under arrest do you understand that?”

I told him that it would not be the first time white people refused to see their own privilege. Then Sam came and put his hand on me.

I shouted, “Sam if you don’t leave me alone I swear!!”
Sam, in a soft condescending voice: “Maya, Maya you need to listen to me.”
Me: “Sam-“ He tries to grab my arm, I move it away. “Sam-” He grabs my arm. Shouting, “Sam you are aggravating me to a point that I don’t want to get to!”
Officer: “Turn around!” He turns me toward the wall. “Place your hands behind your back.”

I did not fight them off or resist at all.

Officer: “You’re under arrest, ok? Breach of peace…You know I really wish it did not come to this but we have no choice, Maya.”
While I was in handcuffs crying quietly the officer had a conversation with Sam and the dean.
Officer: “We are transporting her down to South Hadley PD. If she has $45 she can probably make bail.”
Sam: “I’ll see her out.”
Officer: “But right now she’s…she’s…she needs to calm down.”
Dean: “I agree.”

I have been quietly crying in the corner.

Officer: “If she doesn’t calm down we can’t bring her back.”

I was transported to the station in handcuffs, I was searched, had mug shots taken, and slept in a cell till the bail clerk arrived. I had refused to pay bail and was ready to spend the weekend in jail. But when the bail clerk heard their accusations he could not see the seriousness of my offense. He told them to drive me back to school and to bring me to court on Monday. Not once were my rights read to me.

I made a voice recording of everything that took place leading up to my arrest, which is how I can quote everyone verbatim. At some point while Sam was conversing with the officers, my laptop started playing “say something I’m giving up on you.” A hilarious moment fit for the big screen. But he did not say something. He failed to act. As loving and kind as Sam is, and as much as he considers himself an ally to people of colour, on that day he stood firmly on the side of white oppression. His whiteness alone guaranteed him their attention, he could have asked them to afford me the same courtesy. On the recording it is clear that every single time I spoke, the dean, the officers and Sam were interrupting, interjecting and talking over me. The best thing he could have done would have been to point out to campus police that they were wrongly accusing me and that they were treating him, a complete stranger, better than they were treating a student. And when Sam saw that I was being arresting for finally reacting to his insistent provocation he needed to tell them that “She did tell me to leave her alone and I kept approaching her.” Because I did repeatedly ask him and at one point begged him to leave me alone, but they watched him and allowed him to ignore my wishes.

A black man in the same context would have never been allowed to keep harassing me. And if he grabbed me, that would have constituted as assault and aggression. And certainly a black man would have never been allowed to leave that room with a laptop without having to prove that it was his. I understand that Sam was not aware of the dynamics at play. But that is what makes white privilege so lethal. So-called allies of people of colour, acknowledging your white privilege means realizing that you are not being treated respectfully because you are a better person, you are being treated differently because you are white.

Mount Holyoke campus police, your job is to protect Mount Holyoke students, even if they are black. You not only wrongly accused me of smoking weed, you accused me of theft and then allowed a man to continuously harass me in front of you. Mount Holyoke campus police and the dean on duty watched a man put his hands on me, and then arrested me for shouting about it. It seems as a black person your only option is to allow yourself to be mistreated. To be wrongly accused and harassed. A white man can go as far as grabbing your body. It is your crime to not allow him to.

– Maya Wegerif

*The names in the story have been changed.