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A person of color, sorority sister in the White House: WKU professor responds to historic inauguration

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Saundra Ardrey is a department head for Political Science and director of WKU's African American Studies department. Ardrey has received a Fulbright Scholars award, and will be teaching and conducting research at the University of Limpopo in South Africa for one academic year. She will teach courses on Women and Gender studies and coordinate a service learning project between WKU and University of Limpopo students. The research she will be conducting is on the political behavior of women in South Africa. "I'm excited, I'm nervous, I'm scared, I'm a little bit of everything," Ardrey said.

When Kamala Harris became the vice president on Jan. 20, Saundra Ardrey felt a sense of enthusiasm, optimism and hope.

Ardrey, an associate professor of political science, teaches classes on political behavior, American government, and minority and women’s politics. Ardrey is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., a historically Black organization, of which Harris is also a member.

Ardrey was disappointed she couldn’t physically attend the inauguration, especially to see the first woman, woman of color, and woman in her sorority inaugurated.

Ardrey’s excitement on Inauguration Day was almost the same as when she saw former President Barack Obama elected, she said.

“It was quite unexpected, but welcome,” Ardrey said.

The election of Harris is something to celebrate, Ardrey said, but it is “not the end point.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What does it mean to have a member of your sorority in the White House?

As a sorority, we are an international organization, but we also have rules and regulations and guidelines as to what we can do under the name of the sorority, because we are nonpartisan. But (some) individuals [...] were able to go out and work in her campaign to raise funds. 

There was an energy within the sisters of the sorority to make sure that we got her in and help as much as possible. When we eventually were able to be successful in getting her and Joe Biden elected, that was a special treat for us. 

She's the first African American woman, woman of color. But she shows what sisterhood and coming together can do. Not only were we as Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters doing that individually, but all of the sororities and fraternities in the Black community were also bonding together and working together to get this done. 

It was really good to see how — we call ourselves the Divine Nine — the nine sororities and fraternities, in the community all work together to make this happen.

You teach women in politics and minority politics here at WKU. Harris represents so many different identities for many Americans. Why is this kind of representation important?

Isn't it wonderful that Kamala Harris brings so many identities to this position? She is a woman. She is of Asian descent, she's of African American descent. She brings so much to us that she can speak to many identities.

She can speak to the marginalization of a lot of these people, so her intersectionality informs her decisions about policies that cut across all of these ethnicities and genders. That's really, really good. 

It also offers an opportunity for us as marginalized groups and historically excluded groups to work together, to look at what we can do. We recognize that we all have some of the same kinds of issues, the same kinds of obstacles or challenges, and what can be achieved if we work together. It is our hope that Kamala Harris represents and is a symbol of all of that.

How do you respond to critics of identity politics, to those people who don’t think those demographics matter?

That is somewhat controversial, but our history of the United States has almost always been about identity politics.

We identify, or we feel an affinity to, to those characteristics that mostly define our lives. For those groups that have been historically left out of the political process, we have been defined by those ethnicities, by those identities. 

It's only natural that if we are defined that way, in larger society, that they come together, and we coalesce, and we ask for resources based on that identity.

Identity politics for Black Americans, for Asian Americans, for Hispanics, for the LGBTQ community, is whatever that identity (is) that makes you part of a group.

Also, you have been discriminated against because of that. That causes you to have identity. We see that among a lot of (people) in the white community. You don't usually want to call it that, but that's white identity. That cuts across the board, and it helps define us.

I think it’s important to note that some in the Black community have voiced their opposition to Harris, specifically those who find her record as a prosecutor questionable.

We have to get away from this idea that we are a homogeneous community. We are not. We have different opinions. We have different ideas, just like other organizations, just like other groups, just like other identities. 

For us to expect that 100% in the Black community — the people of color community — will agree on any one idea, one policy or even one candidate or decision maker is sort of unrealistic. 

What we've got to realize is that we are influenced by all of our life experiences, and those life experiences differ. That is actually something to welcome.

The role of Kamala Harris in the White House is a very broad topic, but beyond things we’ve already spoken about, what else do you think is important to remember?

During this time, the inauguration, there was euphoria, and there was happiness, and it should be celebrated. 

Without a doubt, what we have achieved with Kamala Harris, with the elections down in Georgia in the Senate races, what we have accomplished across the board, is to be celebrated. But that is not the end point.

If anything, that is simply the beginning. Let us not go home, sit back and say, ‘Oh, she's there now.’ [...] That is just the beginning. What we need to do is keep this same type of enthusiasm, this same type of pressure on our decision makers to now deliver on some of the promises that were made. 

Too often, especially within the Democratic Party, they use our vote. We give them 90%, 95% of our vote, when we like them. We give them 80% when we don't like them. So we are wedded to this Democratic Party, and so often, we're not getting what we need back from them. 

It is incumbent upon us to keep that kind of pressure. The Divine Nine came out and participated during the election, let's keep that up so that we get some policy that's really gonna make some differences. 

We've got some issues in the Black community, the people of color community. The COVID-19 pandemic hits us brown bodies and black bodies harder than the other communities. 

We've got some social justice issues that we need addressed, so let us not sort of congratulate ourselves and pat ourselves on the back too much, because there's still work — lots of work, to be done.

Laurel Deppen can be reached at laurel.deppen774@topper.wku.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @laurel_deppen.

Laurel Deppen is the editor in chief of the College Heights Herald. She was previously a reporter, section editor and managing editor. She has interned at TechRepublic, the Louisville Courier Journal and the Charlotte Observer.