Give Them Something to Look At: Mount Holyoke 2017 Commencement Speech

Kathryn received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters at the 2017 Mount Holyoke Commencement. Here’s the charge she gave to the crowd of over 2000 faculty, students, family, and friends.

Thank you President Stevens, the trustees and faculty of Mount Holyoke College, and the amazing class of 2017 and your friends and family.

This quirky black girl is totally freaking out that, I’m receiving an Honorary Doctorate with two of my personal heroes, Dolores Huerta and Joan E Biren. Thank you Ms. Huerta and JEB for continuing to blaze trails for women and men, like me, to follow.

My favorite things in the world are:

  • My family and friends, who love and support me
  • Filling out forms- there’s nothing I love more than a good form. The excitement I feel at tax time is measurable. A well organized form, with well-sized prompt boxes is nothing but pure joy for me.
  • Fashion- especially big hair. To paraphrase Dolly Parton- The bigger the hair, the closer to the stars.

However, many moons ago, back in the day of grunge music and hammer pants, I went through a time when I felt I had to hide my love of fashion, and in reality hide myself because being a quirky big black girl in 1990s Minnesota was NOT the business.

I was the ONLY black girl in my honors classes. Despite being told that I could not, SHOULD not run against a popular upperclassmen for student government, I did and won.

Sounds good, right? WRONG.

My reward for winning was that I was with faced severe, relentless, bullying for the entire time I was in high school. The. Entire. Time.

For those of you who’ve been bullied, you know the first reaction is to shrink yourself, to try and be invisible in the hope that the bullies will forget about you.

So, I dressed to not be seen. I thought if I de-quirked myself, tucked my big hair under a hat, maybe, just maybe, they would forget about me and leave me alone.

Again, this was during grunge and so no one noticed that I changed the way I dressed…

Except my family.

One day I had a particularly challenging outfit on, not exactly sure what I was wearing, but, trust me, it was not a good look. And, my father, who was a true fashionisto — the guy got his jeans starched — had had enough.

So, he pulled me aside from the kitchen table, where I was probably filling out a form, looked me in the eye, and told me:

“You are a big girl. You have a big personality. You walk into a room and people notice you. AND THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. This is your lot in life, to be noticed, to be looked at. So give them something to look at.”

As women, we’re told to make ourselves small, to shrink, to become invisible so our presence doesn’t offend someone or take up too much space. We think that by being small, by being less than who we truly are, that the very fragile egos of others will be preserved and protected. And they will let us be. That we will be “safe.”

But, as Marianne Williamson says, ”Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

I thought that the bullies targeted me because I didn’t fit in. That I was being punished for daring to challenge the status quo. But, really they were afraid of my power.

There is nothing, NOTHING more powerful than a woman, especially a Black woman, who owns her personhood. Nothing.

You do the world and yourself a great disservice by making yourself small. No matter what you do your true self will shine through and at this moment in history, Mount Holyoke class of 2017, we NEED you to let your true self shine through.

So give them something to look at.

Kathryn Finney