Silent No MoreReligion and Psychology Senior Luchauna Smith Finds Her Voice Surveying the Silenced
Luchauna Smith was in the third grade lining up for recess the first time someone made her feel bad about being different. "Why is your nose so big?" the boy asked. With the instincts of a shy, self-conscious child, she shrunk inside herself and silently bought his premise. "Why is my nose so big?" she asked herself in front of the mirror that night. "And why are my
gums purple when theirs are pink? Is there something wrong with me? Are my gums dirty?"
Fast-forward to a different classroom and another comment about the shape of another part of her body. We all saw your belly, someone mocked. "It was big."
"I knew I was different, but I thought everyone was different. For someone to hone in on a single feature and to judge me because of it - I just stood there," Smith recalls. "I didn't know what to say."
Today, the only thing big about Smith is her intellect, her ideas and her will to empower the silenced. And that day in third grade was the beginning of her awakening, not only to the chasm that exists across difference, but also to the power of individual voice to either widen or bridge the gap. Smith has been learning to speak ever since.
She grew up in Fostoria, Ohio, a small, predominantly white manufacturing town about two hours north of Columbus. The only child of her mother, Smith is the oldest of her three siblings who share her father, and she has several cousins who are like siblings. It was by way of her other cousins who went to Capital that Smith found her path here.
She had seen herself as a counselor early in her high school career – the voice of reason and analysis among her peers. She was the trusted friend, confidant and advisor. So, she set her sights early on a psychology major. As she matured and became more aware of social realities, injustices and bias dynamics, her interest deepened.
"You know when you're a child, you're naïve and you think everyone loves everyone. But they don't. So that was very shattering. And then I started noticing all the lighter-skin girls were getting all of the attention, and I thought, ‘Is something wrong with me?,' and that's when all of these issues came up."
The issues Smith refers to are more societal than personal, which made them all the more maddening and seemingly out of her control. As she progressed through high school, her sensitivity to racial and social inequality, stereotypes and colorism was awakened, but Smith hadn't yet found the vocabulary or the courage to speak to social injustice. So, she silently carried the burden, its weight heavier at each brush with bias, each display of light-skin preference, each presumption someone made about her character.
Her silence made her uncomfortable. She would find her voice at Capital.
Drawn to CapFam by family connections and the strong sense of belonging she feels here, Smith transitioned easily into the Capital life and settled comfortably into the major she had been planning since her freshman year in high school.
"Capital felt like home, and psych was a natural fit," she says. All was smooth sailing. Then she met Professor Sally Stamper, a scholar of religion and theologian, in her first-year seminar. Before she knew it, Smith's path to psychology began to converge with the unexpected: Religion.
"I just knew I had something to learn from her," Smith recalls about her early interactions with Dr. Stamper. "She was very refreshing and honest. She wasn't afraid to speak up if someone was being disrespectful, and I really admired that. She's strong. She's different. I knew I wanted to take more of her classes. I started taking more and more, and then I was only two courses short of a major. So I said, ‘OK, Dr. Stamper, I'll major in religion.'"
Smith's is a common path to religious studies, Stamper explains.
"Most of our majors come in after they've taken the required religion course because people don't think about what religious studies is about. There's a preconception that the religion major is ministry studies. But that's only one part of what we do. More broadly, the religion major is religious studies. It's not intended to support people's personal religious beliefs, or to convert. The academic study of religion is much more about how people, in religious communities and in communities and circumstances we wouldn't traditionally think of as religious, use religious practice and belief in their lives. It's about how people think, and how they behave. Of course, this overlaps tremendously with the other humanities – philosophy, history, anthropology, literature, and also with the social sciences."
Growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal church, which was founded by an emancipated slave and still enjoys many African and ancestral influences and traditions, Smith is comfortable identifying as a person of faith, even as she has chosen a new, nondenominational church as her home. It was through her study of religion that she discovered the freedom to question the beliefs of her childhood, to consider other perspectives, and come to see and embrace her faith through her own lens.
"My mind just opened up so much, and I realized it's OK to question religion – all religion. I used to think, I can't do that or people are going to think I'm not a believer. I'm going to get shunned. But, there are so many likeminded individuals. Even my Nana is a really open-minded believer, and I never knew that."
She just did really good work, Stamper recalls. She noticed early on Smith's potential, even in the context of her internal struggle with being away from home and from her mother, and her clear desire to do well.
"I'm always drawn to students who are very thoughtful and who are very interested in reflecting on human experience because that's so much at the heart of what religious studies does," Stamper reflects. "I encouraged her to take a class called Life Stories, which is about personal narrative – memoir and autobiography, spiritual and other biography. And she really came alive in that class."
It was for an assignment in that course that Smith began exploring and articulating the ideas about the persistence of stereotypes, colorism, difference and post-slavery bondage of Black people, and particularly women, that were seeded way back in that third-grade lineup for recess. It was a simple report on Toni Morrison's Beloved, and a group research project in her experimental psychology class that liberated Smith to give voice to her observations – to question, observe and conclude; to construct, articulate and defend her arguments. To honor them. Out loud. Among her peers, her professors. And, uncomfortably, among her friends.
The paper, Faces Change but the Standards Remain the Same: Parallels of Black Women's Struggles, would become the magnum opus of her Capital career thus far – an oratory that would become her entrée to scholarly gatherings, presentations and perhaps even graduate school.
Using Her Inside Voice
In Morrison's acclaimed novel, Beloved, protagonist Sethe is born a slave and escapes to Ohio only to find there is no liberation from the bondage of being owned by someone else, objectified, abused, marginalized and claimed as property. Smith, in her analysis, draws provocative connections between the experiences Sethe survives and the inequities and characterizations that continue to plague Black women in modern-day culture.
"I just thought Sethe was so courageous, and the way Toni Morrison illustrates her journey, how she figures out who she is, her reasoning for killing her child – I just thought it was so intriguing. As I was reading it and reflecting on my own experiences and the experiences I've observed in other Black women, I thought, they're really not that different, unfortunately, even though they're centuries apart." So, Smith says, she gave voice to her revelation by repeating her ideas, conveying connections, and drawing parallels between Sethe and what Smith observes and learns from her own experiences and those of other Black women she encounters – in real life and in traditional and social media.
Accompanied by Stamper, Smith attended the Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities at Simpson College in Iowa to present her paper and was remarkably well-received. It was another step in Smith's development, and another nudge in her self-confidence, Stamper says.
"I know Lu worked incredibly hard on that paper and on presenting it. And she was celebrated – I mean she was the belle of the ball. She's increasingly confident when she participates in class discussion, and in presenting marginalized and underrepresented population experiences publicly – that's not easy to do," Stamper elaborates. "It's a remarkable achievement, and I think that has developed in her psychology coursework, and in her mentorships that she's had from psychology faculty, and I think that being a double major in religion has enhanced that because we're a different faculty, and it's different expertise."
Smith chose another assignment to exercise her voice, this time in psychology class. She and her classmates, tasked with an experimental psychology assignment, probed some of their observations about minority groups on campus, and about a just-beneath-the-surface tension on campus after the 2016 presidential election. They knew a dialog needed to take place. Shared understanding needed to be reached. But no one was speaking up. No one was communicating. And that couldn't lead anywhere good.
In Chilling the Majority on Minority Rights, Smith and peers Anne Picardi, Allison Hael, Kassie Pierre and Marina Vasquez embarked on a study that "questioned the role of group-level conformity factors on the act of speaking out."
The students administered an anonymous survey to discover how group membership affects college students' decision to act or speak out on behalf of minority groups.
"We decided we would take an anonymous survey so people felt free to truly express themselves," Smith explains. "And sure enough, people felt they could not speak out because they were more conservative, or they didn't feel they could express themselves because they were afraid of being labeled a racist or sexist. And aside from just having them agree or strongly disagree with certain statements, we asked them to explain themselves and their views. And while it wasn't necessarily eye-opening because I knew there was tension there, it made me feel bad because we're in America. This is a democracy, and people should be able to express themselves as long as they're not being harmful or hateful. If you don't agree with an issue, fine; if you have the backing for your views, fine; if you have respect for someone who has a different viewpoint, that's even better."
Drawing such connections across a wide range of areas of study is a prime example of the strength of Capital's Signature Learning and representative of the breadth and depth of learning Capital students are afforded, says Stamper.
"That's a great example of how the two disciplines – religious studies and psychology – overlap, because both of them are looking at how people think and how they act. That's what they both do," Stamper explains. "And in addition to cross-disciplinary learning, what our Signature Learning does is force students to be educated broadly. There's certainly a need for specialization in higher education so that students are deeply trained in a particular discipline that allows them to go deeply into a certain area. That develops the intellect and ability in a way that is very important. But equally important is that there be a breadth of experience. We believe and we have research that shows that people who are educated broadly and deeply emerge as better citizens, as better employees and as more successful employees."
Lifting a Voice of Hope
For her summer research project, funded by a grant from Capital's Religion Department, with support from the Gerhold Chair in the Humanities, Smith is completing a survey of literary voices of Black women from the 19th century to contemporary times. Her analysis of Alice Walker's The Color Purple; Cheryl Townsend Gilke's collection of essays, If It Wasn't for the Women; Deloris Phillips' The Darkest Child; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an 1861 autobiography by Harriet Ann Jacobs; Emilie Townes' A Troubling in My Soul; and a host of other articles on motherhood and slavery, confronts Smith again with persistent themes of struggle; inherited, generational and personal trauma; colorism within and outside communities of color; and poverty of Black women. It weighs on her, she admits. It's burdensome. She can't close her eyes to the lack of progress. Different names; same story.
"It was saddening that no matter which book I picked, there was a traumatic event. Black women endure a lot of trauma. Seeing all these connections and realizing nothing's changed, I was very upset," she admits. "But it also gives me hope because things have changed a little bit. I have hope that in the next couple of decades, something will break through. In all of these women's stories, there is always a breakthrough."
Smith chooses hope. She has come to find beauty in the resilient-Black-woman narrative, and even connects that resilience often to religion and spiritual practice. Her research has helped her recast what she once considered a stereotype into a source a pride.
Yeah, Black women are resilient, Smith says. "We have to be, and that's very admirable that we can endure so much struggle and still make what we want out of life." It's more a proclamation than an academic thesis or observation.
She also finds hope in her community – her CapFam friends and mentors, and the community she's cultivated on social media. They come from all different backgrounds and walks of life. And they're not perfect, by any stretch. But they're growing. They're asking. They're gracious and trying. Together.
"Just from freshman year to now, seeing how they've blossomed on the social awareness spectrum; how open they are; how they're not afraid to ask questions anymore, that gives me hope," Smith reflects. "We can sit down and have this dialog. Even if we don't agree with each other, it doesn't change the love between us. Even if someone has views I disagree with or someone encounters misperceptions based on ignorance, if we can talk through it, then we can understand what's feeding those ideas. Maybe you were raised with those ideas, and it's so deeply engrained you don't know any better. Then, OK. Let's talk about this. And we do. So I find hope in the little things."
It's an observation that demonstrates Smith has claimed every bit of the holistic education Capital offers, as described by Stamper. The education Capital enables its students to claim, if they choose to claim it, equips them to be in a more thoughtful, engaged and constructive community, she says.
"So when Lu sees me speak up about something a student says that's offensive or disrespectful, oftentimes, that student doesn't know it's offensive. So, we strive to create an environment in which they can develop an awareness and sensitivity to things they've never known about before," Stamper continues. "If we can do that, we accomplish two things: 1 – we teach a student about that particular instance of sensitivity, but 2 – we also teach them about how to be sensitive more broadly. Because they learn that when they don't know about something, they are vulnerable to misunderstanding and misapprehension, and that's critically important."
A Voice that Carries
Looking toward her final year at Capital, Smith also finds hope in the future she plans to help shape as a counselor specializing in empowering immigrant and marginalized communities, especially the young, around the country. She hasn't decided yet on the setting. It could be inner city. It could be rural. It could be border towns, prisons or Native American reservations. People are marginalized, silenced and misunderstood everywhere, she says. So, Smith will go to them. "Wherever the Lord takes me."
She plans to apply to graduate school to pursue her Doctor of Psychology and become a clinical psychologist or school counselor. Wherever she lands, she will use the voice she has uncovered here to help others discover their own. So that when someone makes them feel different, or worse, makes them feel bad about their difference, they won't remain silent. Unlike Smith's third-grade self, they will know exactly what to say. Their difference is beautiful. And they will know it because Smith has told them so.
In doing that, her voice will continue to carry.
"I don't think I've completely found my voice. At least, I'm not at full projection yet," she says. "I'm still figuring out who I am as a person and finding ways to reach out to people. But with every person I reach out to, and engage in this racial dialogue with, I feel my voice grow." .... Read more