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Shelly-Ann Richmond
Junior Shelly-Ann Richmond has worked hard to increase diversity on campus. Photo by Gary Samson

See Me, Hear Me

By Laura Pappano

See also:
Standing Up by Sitting Down

Dhelly-Ann Richmond sees a problem.

In the conference room that's serving as a women's dressing room, amid the fully-coifed, half-dressed women, she spots Marjorie Narcisse's black hair, hair that has been smoothed down, pulled back and twirled tight, or nearly tight.

"I need to fix that bun," she says, drawing Narcisse into a chair. "It looks like a tornado hit you." Richmond is overstating the case. But tonight, every stray hair matters. Richmond has shaped an event that, while billed as an "Afrocentric-chic fashion show," is about far more than showing off clothes. It is about being visible.

With students of color comprising only 3.5 percent of the student body at the University of New Hampshire, being visible usually means sticking out in a sea of white faces. There are, after all, only 324 minority baccalaureate students, including 69 black undergraduates, on a campus of more than 9,700.

But this March evening in the Memorial Union Building, these black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students want to be seen -- and seen on their terms. A few feet from Richmond, Kunle Ade, a representative from the New York design house Moshood, wraps, knots and winds fabrics of saturated colors -- turquoise, red and copper -- into body-hugging (and body revealing) expressions of beauty, eroticism and power. Women with corn-rowed, dread-locked and straightened hair peer into mirrors, pleased by the vision. They rub oil on themselves to turn dull winter skin dark and lustrous. The men prepare next door.

As the show begins, anticipation rises in the Granite State Room. Richmond, a tall young woman with strong features and a stronger personality, strides past the African drummers to center stage. She could be dressed for a New York Saturday night, all in black, with faux-tiger-fur, sling-back heels.

But this is a New Hampshire Saturday night. That fact stares her in the face as it has so many times, presenting both opportunity and obstacle. The question is: How can she make Afrocentric high fashion matter to a crowd that favors polar fleece, jeans and running shoes?

The question, put another way, cuts to the heart of a pressing issue: How can a campus that isn't very diverse come to value -- even embrace -- diversity? It may seem obvious that New Hampshire is an overwhelmingly white state and, not surprisingly, the University of New Hampshire is an overwhelmingly white campus. But whether that fact stands as an endpoint or a starting point is an open challenge.

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