[For the first blog post of the Summer 2018 A&S Research Fellowship, students were tasked with exploring the existing collection of the Race & Racism at UR Project at memory.richmond.edu and reflecting on the materials they encountered there.]
by Catherine Franceski
Catherine Franceski is rising junior from Washington, D.C. majoring in Philosophy, Politics, Economics & Law (PPEL) with concentration in politics and minoring in Rhetoric & Communication Studies. She is the president of Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity, and a member of the Westhampton College Honor Council. This is her second year working on the Race & Racism Project. Last summer, she focused on studying the lives and legacies of “hidden” black figures in Richmond, Virginia’s history.
When I came to the University of Richmond in the fall of 2016, I thought I knew the school very well. My mother had attended UR, my brother was a current student, and other family members had different connections to the school. I had grown up outside of D.C., coming to campus for reunions, family weekends, and other events. Although I knew a bit about the history of the school and the social culture of campus, I did not know anything about the history of the school’s interaction with the city of Richmond, the rocky road to integration, or the black student experience.
I worked on the Race & Racism Project last summer compiling hidden narratives about inspirational figures in the city of Richmond’s history and learning about the history of black students on campus. This included gaining a whole new insight into the isolation and exclusion black students have felt, and continue to feel, on campus. When I returned to school in the fall, I realized my work on the project last summer allowed be to become a more culturally competent and aware student, as well as a better ally for students of color on this campus.
This February, the topic of Ring Dance came up in a conversation with friends. One friend of color said she wasn’t planning on attending Ring Dance when she’s a junior because it is “racist.” Another friend of color agreed with her. My other friend, who is white, became upset and offended that they had characterized a longstanding Westhampton tradition in that way. My white friend talked to me about the other friends’ comments after the group conversation. I could absolutely see why my friends of color had called Ring Dance racist, as it parallels a debutante ball in many ways (the father walks his daughter down the staircase, the daughters wear long formal dresses, and so on.) Moreover, the event is pricey, with tickets selling for over $50 for guests. Many Westhampton juniors also book hotel rooms for that weekend, and have to pay for a long black dress. Because the tradition is that the Westhampton junior’s father walking her down the staircase, the weekend is even more expensive with travel costs for family members. Lastly, Ring Dance is held at the Jefferson Hotel, a hotel known for historic opulence, comfort, and, well, whiteness. I could see why my two friends of color felt discomfort towards the event. Although I could see their viewpoint pretty immediately, and I had considered the problems with Ring Dance before attending the university, I could see why these remarks could be upsetting. Traditions, specifically for Westhampton College, link us to students who have come before. By changing traditions, people fear we are disconnecting with our past.
When I began research again this summer, I wondered if the Race & Racism Project had anything on the topic of Ring Dance. Although we had a few things, The Collegian had quite a few interesting articles about the recent policy changes to the dance, as well as profiles on students who had broken with tradition, or those who did not participate at all. One student wrote a piece in 2015, describing their choice to not attend the event because of its expectations of hyper-femininity, including the long dresses, high heels, hair, and makeup. It reminded me that not only is Ring Dance exclusionary along racial and socioeconomic lines, but also exclusionary to those Westhampton students who do not not conform to gender norms. Although the university did change the policies in 2015, instructing women to wear a black dresses instead of white ones, as well as disallowing escorts (which was subsequently broken and made for a tumultuous event), the changes obviously did not make Ring Dance suddenly an all-inclusive event overnight.
Perhaps it is time to take a look at the event and see how it can become more inclusive so that more of the Westhampton junior women from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds can participate (i.e. holding class fundraisers to lower ticket prices, etc.) By leaving out some groups in the Westhampton college tradition, we exclude them from feeling that they are really part of Westhampton College. Through my work on the Race & Racism Project, I have been able to see campus life in a new light, as well as challenge campus norms and social traditions. Now my hope now is to spread the work of the project to students, faculty, and staff across campus, so as to not leave groups on the fringes and create a community for everyone.