Lessons of ‘Whose Responsibility Is It?’

Thanks to “Whose Responsibility Is It?” for making me more proud of Williams than I have ever been in the past couple months. The “Responsibility” project was a dream come true – a sizeable group of intelligent, concerned Williams students breaking through the malaise of apathy that has so characterized this place since my first days in 1998. It was a well-organized bout of political activism that jarred the campus.

As a tour guide, I swelled with pride as I took groups of prospective students and parents to the Sawyer Library and asked them to take a moment and look at the pictures and read the comments on the “Responsibility” display in the central stairwell. I was proud to show a Williams that was not complacent and insular – rather, this was a new face of Williams: a politically active, socially aware, aggressively tolerant and forward-thinking Williams.

At the same time, I was never more disgusted with Williams. I had never seen or heard of more hate in my life than in the last few weeks: The “f—king dildos” incident, the “dragged out and shot” e-mail, the constant comments of “F—k responsibility, f—k the world!” and so on. There was a segment of Williams that was put off by this project, one that viewed it as an assault on its bland, white, domestic world. It did not want to see images of starving black children; it did not want to think of a world beyond cheap beer, summer jobs on Wall Street and Abercrombie. Many reacted violently and angrily to the stark realities that the project brought to light. The provincialism of these objectors was shocking, but not surprising; in fact, it was probably a good experience, because it proved to many at Williams something that we’ve known for all too long. For many on campus, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As I was leaving the Amadou Diallo candlelight vigil a while ago, I remember hearing a group of students walking from the Frosh Quad, chuckling. I remember one saying, “They should’ve given the police officers a medal for shooting that Diallo guy. I wish I could’ve been there and done their business.” Since hearing that disturbing conversation, I have kept my ears pealed and heard many a disturbing comment – bordering on the offensive, racist, misogynist and homophobic – many of them in reaction to the Responsibility project.

What has this taught me? That the lingering fraternity culture must finally go, and that years of backwards, misguided admissions policies must end–they have taken a damaging toll on Williams. It is this segment of the community that reacted violently to the Responsibility project. (I hesitate from stereotyping a certain group, however, I refer to a vociferous minority that, by in large, has shown a consistent disregard and lack of respect for many in the Williams community. I am not refering to “athletes;” many of my good friends are athletes and are extremely capable students and add to our diversity. Instead, I am refering to a nebelous element, one that is hard to define in writing with out relying on an offensive, yet pervasive, stereotype.)

Williams has historically been a bastion of the white, wealthy, northeastern, racist male. In the past 30 years, we’ve made wonderful strides in order to change this –eliminating the Greek system, admitting women, increasing our racial/ethnic/international diversity and institutionally accepting queer students. However, we have a lot more to do.

The College should not stand for any acts of intolerance at all – when someone tears down a Responsibility sign, drunk or not, he or she should be punished; when a student makes a homophobic comment, harsh action should be taken. Acts of intolerance should be met with expulsion. There is no excuse for such behavior at America’s finest undergraduate institution. Punishment, though, is just a short-term solution. We need a long-term plan.

People who come to Williams must realize that they are here to learn in an open, tolerant community where all feel safe. They are not here just to play a sport. They are not here to just drink beer and sexually assault women. They are not here to just to get a high-paying job. In our admissions policies, we should stress this – we should never accept those students who would detract from the diversity, tolerance and safety of our community. Our highly-selective admissions criteria should never be compromised to admit students that could be potentially harmful to the community’s health. We should weed out those who we think would damage and hinder a tolerant, open community. We should stress that Williams does not accept the intolerant or the homophobic, the racist or sexist. Our fraternities used to have slogans such as “black, Jew or gay need not apply.” Williams should update this and adopt the admissions policy, “sexist, racist, homophobe or reactionary need not apply. If you are not going to add to our tolerant, open community, we do not want you.” We should just come out and say this in our literature and on our tours.

A front page New York Times article last week profiled a Latino student who turned down a generous financial aid package at Williams for Wesleyan, because it was more “liberal and diverse.” I’ve heard that this is a commonplace event. Many politically active, “liberal” or minority students turn down Williams for other colleges. This should tell the people at Hopkins Hall (and admissions) something – we need an administration that is more active in promoting the social health of the College community; we need more aggressive diversity goals, including strengthening and enhancing our affirmative action and minority recruitment programs.

During First Days, all incoming students should attend a sort of über-SPARC workshop. In the spirit of professor Robert Gaudino and his doctrine of “uncomfortable learning,” all first-years should be forced to genuinely confront issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and culture. Right then and there, those that cannot properly handle these issues should be educated by their JAs and College administrators. From the beginning, we need to actively break the enduring “WASP” culture that stifles us so much and makes many groups on campus uncomfortable.

It is that culture, which the “Whose Responsibility Is It?” project indirectly and unintentionally revealed as so pervasive and dangerous – a provincial, heterosexist, misogynistic, predominantly white culture. That culture must end, but it can only end with the active involvement of the College – a coordinated effort including the deans, the faculty, the Committee on Diversity and Community (of which I am a member), the Multicultural Center and especially the Admissions Office.

On a more positive note, I’d like to point out that the “Responsibility” project was an accomplished endeavor. It appropriately jarred many in the College community and it organized hundreds of politically active students. Also, it made Williams a much less apathetic place. Frankly, it made us interesting – hearkening back to the activism of generations past, a very large segment of the Williams population was able to finally express itself. As I said earlier, I was never more proud to be a Williams student. For that, I’d like to offer my personal thanks to the organizers of the project for pushing us to think, forcing us to debate, and making us realize how lucky we are to be at such a wonderful place like Williams, despite its many problems.