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Web Event 2: Cosmopolitan Canopy of Mawrters

kwilkinson's picture

Cosmopolitan Canopy of Mawrters


I think I was honestly sad to write this paper because I knew that I would be addressing a harsh reality: Bryn Mawr, as an entire entity, is no longer my home.  Throughout the semester I have engaged in course materials, personal conversations, made observations, and MOST importantly met Anne—all of these things have led me to the conclusion that Bryn Mawr is not the cohesive community we advertise ourselves to be.  This is not to be confused with the idea that community does not exist in this space, and that there is the possibility for a more collective coalition to build—however Bryn Mawr as an institution has not been structured to facilitate an actual community where the needs of students are addressed in full.  Of course we have Access Services for academic accommodations, counseling center, dean’s office, the Pensby center, and various other systems of protocol in which standards are somewhat flexible in order to address the “most pressing” or “urgent” needs for students.  However many of these issues are considered to be individualistic, or micro-level, thus stifling communal solidarity amongst students, faculty, staff, and administrators due to student’s respective stigmas, shame, and silence about our ACTUAL discourse. 

Many of these issues come with the “game” of college—as we have all heard “college is a period of growing pains” or hurdles/discovery of the individual—however these tensions/emotions must coexist with (or be arguably submissive to) one’s academic career.  Of course every student experiences this, but as an intersectional identity (black woman) within a predominately white academic institution I would have to say that the constant threat of white person’s actual intent in their language or actions towards me as being SOLELY reflective of my racial identity is exhausting and typically goes unrecognized by the Bryn Mawr “community”.  This is due to the institutionalized “colorblindness” that has defined the college, which I believe is due to the shared legal status as a “woman” necessary to gain entry into the institution.  So for many students they would say that our shared experience of living outside of the “bubble” as “women” is able to universalize our identity allowing for us to build community on common ground.  However consider that Bryn Mawr is a product of first-wave feminism it was a space created for a specific type of woman: white, protestant, and socio-economically privileged.  Although we now promote ideals of diversity, especially racially, there is an essentialist vision of a “Bryn Mawr Woman” promoted by the college: that students are productive, individualistic, and goal-oriented WOMEN.  Although these characteristics are considered to be positive—feminist—they are also utilized as a mask (power?) in order to produce a specific model of “woman” that is unrealistic causing students to feel incompetent, unworthy, and marginalized. 

            When Anne asked us to write this paper, I wanted to come up with a solution to these issues—which I believe begins with discussion and conversation amongst different lived experiences.  I wanted to institutionalize intersectional feminism into the framework of Bryn Mawr, in order to dismantle the first-wave feminist hegemony that continues to define our “community”.  Originally I decided that I was going to re-structure our Wellness curriculum, a first-year class geared to orient students to various college programs and services to accommodate physical, mental, and emotional needs of students.  In theory this class is great and should be able to facilitate a “safe-space” forum, but unfortunately many students just attend to receive the physical education requirement.  Given that this class is a graduation requirement it is the only class at Bryn Mawr that every student will take, so I thought it would be great if I could restructure this program to discuss “wellness” through different and/or multiple lenses of identity.  My reasons for doing this are varied, however I have noticed in much of the racial discourse within our institution there seems to be a fundamental problem of separation between undergraduates, faculty, staff, and administrators (institutional ideology).  Although many students are rather oblivious due to our adamant rhetoric of community and self-governance, the reality is that Bryn Mawr is like any other academic institution in which money, power, and elitism are embedded in our education.

After speaking with Anne about this paper (for maybe the third or fourth time) I decided to write about why I couldn’t propose my idea, I told her it was too fragile and subjective to the “teachers” of the class.  Although that is still true I think it was mainly because I don’t see Bryn Mawr as a collective, cohesive community—where we all have common ground—it is just a space where we pay to “learn”, but really get certified as productive and competent.  I also take issue with calling Bryn Mawr a community given its transient and temporal nature.  Similar to our class discussion of the Book of Salt and love, community also must be coddled in order for it to truly flourish and sustain itself—I believe that this takes time (not normative).  Of course there are traditions, rituals, beliefs, and practices that bring us all together (relatively speaking)—but it is first our master status as “womyn” that gain us entry into this space, then our intellectual ability. 

Towards the end of the semester I read Elijah Anderson’s novel Cosmopolitan Canopies, a sociological study on Center City Philadelphia through ethnographic method and his own narrative as an inhabitant of the city.  Anderson calls himself an “observing participant” as he has spent thirty years of his adult life in Philadelphia, He defines cosmopolitan canopies, as integrated pluralistic spaces in which individuals engage in impersonal and interpersonal interactions, however in order for these places to exist individuals must abide by a code of conduct that requires “good behavior”, civility, and tolerance.  Although these places have emerged in the so-called “post-racial” or “colorblind” era (i.e. post-Civil Rights Act), Anderson’s observations illuminate the color line as the fault line for these space in which racial tensions still exist due to racial stereotyping and embedded prejudice.  Also it is important to discuss his use of Everest Hughes idea of “master statuses”, determining characteristic that stifles individualism or lived experience, as they continue (specifically race) to be the ways in which people are identifying and at times marginalized within cosmopolitan canopies.  In conclusion Anderson is rather optimistic that more canopies will emerge in the city implying more tolerance and diversity for metropolitan areas, but as a minority predominately existing in cosmopolitan canopies I am hesitant to accept his analysis.

After reading the book I immediately saw Bryn Mawr College (as an institution) is an ideal cosmopolitan canopy not only because it fits the criteria provided by Anderson’s framework, but also the ways in which racial tensions emerge within and also threaten (Anderson’s language) our “community” (canopy).  Similar to Anderson I consider myself to be an observing participant with the canopy, as an engaged mawrter, that being said I have experienced both direct and indirect prejudice based on my master status as Black-American.  In addition to this, I have also observed that the undergraduate population is rather segregated—although our first-year housing is institutionally integrated along with classroom settings where “good behavior”, “civility”, and “tolerance” are vital values that enable coexistence.  However once students are in more intimate settings, where they have agency in their spatial locality and company, one’s racial identity/sexuality/socio-economic status/gender expression tends to divide individuals into smaller fragmented micro-communities.  To me these smaller communities are reminiscent of the racial/ethnic distinct neighborhoods that define the geographical landscape of Philadelphia—however at Bryn Mawr there are more impersonal and interpersonal interactions amongst/within the respective groups.  Although community exists here, I believe that it is dangerous to say that we are a community because that would imply understanding, respect, and acceptance of all lived experiences—especially marginalized ones. 

In conclusion Bryn Mawr, like many other higher education institutions, are cosmopolitan canopies that facilitate the opportunity for individuals to participate in both impersonal and interpersonal interactions across multiple “lines” of identity, arguably encompassing intersectional identities.  Although many of these students do not feel that their needs are addressed, by Bryn Mawr’s master status as an elite educational institution, they are able to appear this way due to their ethos of achievement ideology and academic meritocracy.  However as a feminist institution, isn’t it the college’s responsibility to also move with current feminist discourse: feminist disability studies/intersectional feminism/eco-feminism?  This is where we see the different temporalities that coexist simultaneously within canopies, which I believe illuminates their inability to create and sustain the community we are all longing for.  Bryn Mawr, as an institution, is at a crossroads in which they can remain as a canopy by adhering to a façade of normative standards of time and gender expression, or it can restructure itself by dismantling these images and truly illuminating our flawed discourse of difference.  I recognize that my proposition is idealistic and could not exist within a competitive capitalist society, however isn’t this what feminism is all about—engaging the realms of possibility and breaking the glass-ceiling that sought to confine us in the first place?





















Works Cited


Anderson, Elijah. The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &, 2011. Print.