Ah, Ring Dance. Currently one of the most hotly debated issues on the Collegian’s website and surprisingly, I seem to be the centerpiece of some of the comments. One anonymous contributor writes:
“It appears that the administration caved to one self-important drama queen […] who threw another series of tantrums. She certainly has the right to live and enjoy life as she sees fit, but hopefully before she graduates she will learn that her choices and actions have consequences and that those rights stop when they interfere with others.”
After I shared my experience at Ring Dance, Susan James said, “The whole event shouldn’t be changed because of [your] experience. Who are we to assume that a bunch of vulnerable people will be satisfied with black dresses, no dates, and no families? Will that really solve the problem? No, it won’t. But it will make the rest of the community resentful.”
Yet, perhaps the most inflammatory and offensive comment was reserved for after I admittedly lost my cool and posted a couple sarcastic comments.
The previous anonymous commenter writes, addressing me directly, “I think we need to quit making up words like ‘gender binary’ and ‘cisgender’ to make ourselves feel normal. If you reach down your shorts, it’s pretty clear whether an evening gown or a tuxedo is appropriate for a formal event.”
All of these comments and the massive amount of slightly more civil resistance attest to the fact that Dean Landphair and Dean Fankhauser have begun to walk the walk that they have been talking about before I even arrived at the University of Richmond.
However, this resistance also makes it extremely obvious that the university has a very, very long way to go. This is one of the primary reasons that I continue to share my story and will do so again here.
I attended Ring Dance in 2011, but hardly in the traditional fashion of white dresses, fathers, boyfriends and money.
I wore a man’s suit and no make up. My family did not fly down to the River City and we did not rent a hotel room. My girlfriend (clad in a short green dress and also a W’12) and I escorted each other down the staircase.
We stood in the traditional “W” formation with the rest of our class and posed for the picture, but not before the photographer’s voice came over the loud speaker, directing me to leave the group.
Just prior to my friends, a handful of my classmates, and myself roaring our disapproval with booing and expletives, I recall hearing Dean Landphair’s voice sneaking onto the microphone to come to my defense. Regardless, a young man’s hand landed squarely on my shoulder and he repeated the photographer’s directive, while physically pulling on my arm. In return, I told him to get out of the picture just before my friends created a barrier between us.
Somehow, despite all of this, I managed to have a fabulous time at Ring Dance and I, too, would be sad to see this tradition done away with.
That said, my experience with Ring Dance and other Westhampton traditions is not unique. I know a number of students who simply decided that they would rather not attend than have to endure the stares, the comments, the public berating, and the undying vitriol of the Collegian’s editorial and comment boards.
So is this social and institutional culture of ostracization what Westhampton College is really about? Under the daisies and the white dresses are we simply hiding our distain for those who do not measure up to our demands of femininity and womanhood?
Of course the answer to both of these questions is no. Neither Westhampton’s student body nor the administration is hateful and malicious, but somehow both of these entities continue to talk over the voices of those less powerful and more vulnerable, in the name of defending tradition.
So, today we must stand in the mirror and ask ourselves: Is this the kind of tradition we should be defending so vehemently? A tradition that unites cisgender women who are lucky enough to fit into society’s expectation of “female,” their friends, and their families, but at the same time actively excludes gender variant students, low-income students and queer students?
One of the objectives of Westhampton College is to “Foster an environment that promotes respect for diverse identities, experiences, and expressions.” Yet, how can WC foster this theoretically “inclusive” environment when two of the most significant social events unintentionally tell a portion of the students, “You are not welcome here?”
If we take a step back from the passions, rage, and resentfulness and actually listen to the voices of the marginalized and forgotten, we will not necessarily find a condemnation of Ring Dance as a whole (though sometimes we will), but a desire to participate and share equally in a tradition that clearly means so much to Westhampton, its student body, and its alumni.
Landphair and Fankhauser are on the right track, and I would like to express my gratitude and my faith that they will continue to strive toward an inclusive Westhampton College.
However, I want them, the students, and the alumni reading this to understand that we, as the University of Richmond community, have barely even begun to scratch the surface.
Simply changing the color of dresses and putting more emphasis on the class ring still fails to include Westhampton students who do not wear dresses, still fails to include those who cannot afford dresses — not to mention a $300 ring — and still fails to include those who are unsure about bringing the significant other in their non-heterosexual relationship.
In conclusion, we must, as members of Westhampton College, the University of Richmond, and society at large, continually strive towards an environment that is truly inclusive. The next time a person approaches you and tells you that he or she is suffering at the hands of an institution or tradition that you love and cherish, I hope that you can put aside your disbelief, your anger and your confusion and authentically listen to what they tell you. I hope that you and this person can work together to improve, enhance and refine the institution that you both care so much about, creating a better future for those who come after you.