A response to Sophia Nelson’s Keynote
Over the weekend of March 21, I had the pleasure and luck to participate at the Global Status of Women and Girl’s Conference. As a presenter, a volunteer and a guest, I was able to listen and learn as multiple inspiring men and women from all over the globe.
Throughout the whole conference, however, there were two juxtaposing moments that stuck out to me: sitting alongside undergraduate colleagues who presented the most valuable information I heard over the weekend and the Keynote Speaker, Sophia Nelson.
After listening to my peers present for 15 minutes on the topics of ecofeminism, women in Ecuador, and non-U.S. women whose stories have gone untold for centuries, Nelson’s address was disappointing. Although there were some impressive moments, there were many that fell flat in Nelson’s address.
First, her speech felt like an ad for her books sprinkled with nationalist rhetoric. My now friend, and fellow presenter over the weekend, Stephanie Holt from Appalachian State University put it best when she said, “Sophia Nelson’s speech, in more ways than one, felt more like a nationalist feminist speech than an intersectional one.”
It was an irresponsible choice to center an entire hour-long speech around what makes America great at an international conference focused on intersectionality.
At no point in her speech did she address the injustices felt by women globally. While she did do a phenomenal job tackling what it is like to be a black woman in America and calling out the fact that the experience of white and black women are different, to speak at an international conference about how “great” America is felt tone-deaf to the countries represented where America has done more harm than good. The speech was blind to the idea that America has proven time and time again to be mediocre at best. Further, stating America is great is paradoxical to her statements that America is not great for women of color.
Aside from ignoring the intersection of the rest of the world when speaking about America, Nelson also seemed to forget what America was before colonization.
She stated over and over in the front half of her address, “America began here—in Virginia.” With statements like this, Nelson completely ignored that America did not begin when colonizers arrived.
America began with the indigenous tribes that existed long before anyone even thought the world was round. With an education system that already erases the history of indigenous people, it was shocking to hear someone with such a powerful platform to reinforce that erasure.
Even ignoring Nelson’s push of the cis binary and exclusion of LGBTQIA+ bodies (as shown by her only mentioning “women” and their “husbands”), there was a sense of exclusion of deeper, more nuanced intersections.
Her talk was composed of the intersections of black women and white women but failed to mention the injustices done onto people who are transgender, in poverty, disabled and more. Holt comprised a more solid list of every other intersection Nelson could have mentioned to make her argument feel more complete, “[Her comments] ignored the systematic violence, sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, misogynoir, environmental degradation, transphobia, discrimination, and oppression of minority groups.”
The last bit of criticism I have for Nelson is the amount of anti-youth rhetoric.
She addressed millennials directly multiple times, looking and pointing at my table, which was occupied by two Millennials and one Gen-Z’er.
She stated to us that our “culture” of “ghosting and blocking” needed to stop and that we “just need to talk to one another.” She also told us we had to listen to her because she was “wiser” than us. Despite her comments just coming off as an “old man yelling at the clouds” stereotype, I found this sentiment just wrong, especially after listening to what felt like an hour of exclusion of groups that her platform could have helped the most.
As a millenial who presented over the weekend and listened to and made friends with other young women who taught me more than Nelson did in the 15 minutes each allotted to them, I find it atypical and, frankly, annoying that young people were called out at all.
Overall, I want to highlight that this criticism is coming from a place not of combativeness, but of the realization that we are all learning. Not just young people.
Nelson has proven to be extremely successful and had moments and energy that was inspiring. I recognize that having a successful black woman is something that needs to be seen more in popular media. With that being said, Nelson also said that women need to value their work and their voices. So here I am. With the understanding that the most valuable voices I heard over the weekend were the voices of those that will be the bringers of change in the next several decades and the voices who she wanted to ignore the most.
~Cassidy Hill, Staff Writer~