Opinion submission: The Wally awards speech and what we are scared to talk about

By Rebecca Howard | April 18, 2018 4:17pm


Rebecca Howard. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Howard. 

My name is Rebecca Howard and I’m a grad student on the cross country and track and field teams at the University of Portland. The annual Wally Awards was held on Sunday April 15th to recognize and celebrate the athletic success of the 14 sports teams here at UP, and has remained the topic of every conversation I have had since. 

Senior men’s tennis player, Goutham Sundaram emcee’d the event, delivering a controversial speech that included jokes about his college goal of "making it mainstream for white women to hook up with brown men". Opening up by stating he was going to "make the stage his locker room", this ongoing theme interwove the story of his family immigrating to America, and the difficulties of being a young Indian in a team amongst French and Spanish men. As the night drew to a close, many were left angry and confused by the content of Sundaram’s speech.

Olivia Sanchez, a senior on the women’s rowing team and managing editor of UP’s news bulletin The Beacon, was quick to publish her powerful and moving opinion to the site the following morning. The piece primarily criticized Sundaram for his content, categorizing the speech as misogynistic and racist and further criticizing the school’s administration for not stepping in to stop the speech as it continued. Sanchez’s article has since been quoted in reports by many media publications including USA today and the U.K.’s Daily Mail. 

The piece was written from an emotional place, an angry place, it is biased and extreme. Sanchez herself stated that she left the awards during Sundaram’s speech and began writing as soon as she got home, making it both impossible and unfair for her to accurately document the events of the night. I respect that each individual in the room had a different emotional reaction to the speech, but as the university has not issued an official, non-biased report of the night I feel compelled to provide my own take on the events.

At first, I felt genuinely confused as to why I didn’t feel as offended as Olivia and those who commended her article. Is it that being British has given me a high tolerance to what constitutes as unacceptable humour? One only has to watch Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais’ Netflix specials to understand how offensive Brits can be. Maybe I’m incapable of feeling empathy? One of my teammates told me Sundaram’s comments would have affected me differently if I had been subjected to sexual assault myself, but here’s something wild… #metoo. 

When I was five years old, playing on a field with my friend near my house, I was sexually assaulted by an adult male who I did not know. He told me we were playing a game and it was only when my horrified mother, who happened to be walking our dog, saw us that I realized what had just happened was not okay. In due course I was required to give my account of the events in court via a live stream whilst being questioned by the defending attorney as to whether or not I instigated the event. It is only in the last five years or so that I have come to understand just how messed up that is. 

What happened to me was bad but I am not traumatized, I am not damaged goods, I don’t need a label, I am in a healthy and loving relationship. Although it is hard for me to share this and some may not believe me, I’m not saying this for attention; I could have chosen to be upset by Sundaram’s words but I didn’t. I feel therefore, like my personal position allows me to present an opinion that many of my friends feel but are too afraid to say.

My controversial opinion is that the response to this speech has been extreme and an overreaction. What has failed to have been addressed throughout all reports of the night is that Sundaram was joking. Yes, the humor was distasteful, offensive to women of color and wildly inappropriate for a Catholic school event, but it was never meant to cause harm. I am not trying to defend Sundaram, I have never met him but he made what I expect will be one of the biggest misjudgements of his life. 

What was misquoted as “Gandhi didn’t fast for twenty days so I could get to America and not sleep with white women” was actually “Gandhi didn’t fast for twenty days so I could be put in a box like that.” Sundaram was poking fun at himself for fulfilling the stereotype of being an Indian computer science major after a girl asked him for help with her computer. 

Whilst I agree Sundaram took it too far and made many uncomfortable, I have to disagree that it was violent. Throughout the anecdotes told by the speaker, Sundaram detailed his pursuit of women and his rejection, he never indicated that in these cases he would persist with the pursuit – let us not confuse sex with rape. However, when Sundaram detailed his thought process as to whether he should help a female with her computer SO that she would hook up with him, that is 100% perpetuating rape culture. 

I know that many will argue rape culture is not ever a topic to be made light of, but if some ill-themed jokes are all we have to make us feel unsafe then what a privileged society we live in. How lucky we are not to live in a society where female genital mutilation is common practice. How thankful we should be that we would not be disowned by our families if raped by another man. How privileged we are to live in a society where I, as a female, am educated enough to even be able to write this. I'm not saying that because some have it worse than others we cannot want change, we can and we should, but perspective is a very important thing.

Rightly so, there is a greater feminist movement than ever before – gender inequality exists and so does rape culture. Perhaps what we need is more education and clarification so mistakes like the Wallys never happen again. Unlike other crimes, a spectrum for sexual assault does not exist. If a female says it to be true, there is often no argument to be had. When I speak to male friends, they tell me they are scared to approach women in social settings, they are scared to speak out when they disagree with something on this topic for fear of being tarred with the same ‘misogynist’ brush as Sundaram.

I agree, everyone should be a feminist, but this movement doesn’t feel like equality to me.

Rebecca Howard is a graduate student studying business administration and can be reached at howardrebecca@hotmail.co.uk