Since its debut in the basement of Greenwich Village's Cornelia Street Café, Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" has become a staple of feminist theater. Women around the world perform renditions of the play every year as a tribute to the feminine experience and as a call to end violence against women. "The Vagina Monologues" uses a series of vignettes to address these experiences, compellingly confronting issues including menstruation, masturbation, and rape from a female perspective. The experience has been praised as empowering and eye-opening, for both the performers and the audience.
And so, when Columbia University V-Day announced that the cast for its 2014 production of "The Vagina Monologues" would exclusively be self-identified women of color, arguments from all sides were heard.
The rationale, according to the V-Day board, was to "center traditionally marginalized identities within the feminist community, creating a space in which the voices, stories, and experiences of women of color can be heard, acknowledged, and addressed." This is, to put it bluntly, mild language. For many decades, feminism was of white women, by white women, and for white women. At times, its goals ended up being harmful to women of color—both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton infamously took issue with the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments.
We agree with this goal: Marginalized groups need a space for their experiences to be heard, acknowledged, and addressed. But we, like much of the community, find ourselves conflicted about the execution of this attempt to address the overlooked.
For some of us on this board, excluding white women from this one venue is not demoting them or implying that their experiences are less worthy of being heard. Rather, it is to concentrate on women of color. Currently on Broadway is David Leveaux's production of "Romeo and Juliet," which has an all-white Montague family and an all-black Capulet family. On stage, the element of race is superficial, but it still carries echoes and reminders of real-world implications. "The Vagina Monologues" will be interpreted differently, and challenge us, because of its performers' races.
Other members of the editorial board feel that the exclusive nature is counterproductive. Even if excluding white women is not the intent, that is the result. This marginalizes white women, effectively informing them that their experiences are not worth being heard this year. This includes experiences of domestic violence. Why do white women need to be excluded for women of color to be heard?
In a response to an op-ed published in Spectator earlier this week, one anonymous commenter incisively asked, "Why does this matter to you? Why do you feel that the messages have been somehow irrevocably altered when they are delivered by women of color?" We agree implicitly; race shouldn't matter, but it does.
These are not easy questions to grapple with, and we remain unable to reach a consensus about the majority of them. Even if we cannot agree, discussion proves a much more valuable vehicle for mutual respect and understanding than silence does.
Columbia V-Day's decision, in its divisiveness, has the potential for good. Though discourse may not bring us to agreement, it can help us gain greater respect for opposing views. A productive, mature dialogue about race with participants from all sides is rare, even at Columbia. But we hope that Columbians will use this decision as an opportunity for substantive discussion.
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