As Tuesday morning’s events unfolded, hundreds of passers-by in Baxter mailroom stood mouths agape, transfixed by the surreal images of destruction on television. Everyone who knew anyone in New York City tried to reach them, often in vain, running up most often against busy phone lines. For some students, the threat was even closer, even though they had not left the Williams College campus, which had until now provided a safe haven for students.
Hitesh Walia ’03, co-chair of the South Asian Students Association (SASA), canceled a trip to Sangeet, an Indian restaurant in Pittsfield, that the group had planned for Sunday.
Citing attacks on Muslims and even people mistaken for Muslims in cities across the country, Walia said, “It would be stupid and irresponsible to send a group of South Asians to Pittsfield. That is asking for trouble.”
Walia, a Sikh from the Middle Eastern country of Oman, said he feels threatened himself. “I am in danger simply because Americans think I’m Afghani even though I’m not. My turban makes me a conspicuous target,” he said.
“Thus, I confine myself to this campus by day, and at night I don’t go out of my room. You never know what can happen.”
Others reacted with similar caution. Tom Powers, director of the Center for Developmental Economics (CDE), interrupted Peter Montiel’s Economics 509 class on Tuesday to warn CDE fellows about the risk of leaving campus.
Aamir Wyne ’03, a Muslim whose father is Pakistani, said, “I’ve always felt really safe here, but for five minutes or half an hour on Tuesday I didn’t.” But Wyne said that he has been encouraged by the community reaction, citing the multiple forums and prayer services. Wyne said he is more afraid for his family in Virginia than for himself.
But even those students who say the feel safe on campus have not forgotten what happened here last spring. As George W. Bush negotiated with China over the return of a captured spy plane, Asians and Asian-Americans on campus bore the brunt of people’s anger over the issue. A group of young men in a car yelled, “Give us back our plane” to a Korean and a Korean-American walking along Route 2. During that same time, a student reported a young man with his daughter shouted “Nuke China” to him in front of Jesup.
Caroline Fan ’03, said that she herself was the victim of two such incidents this summer, once when an individual leaned out of a car window in the mid-afternoon and attempted to imitate Chinese, the second when drunk students yelled epithets at her and a friend, including, “Go home, Chinks.”
“The fact that I was harassed twice in eight days is really unbelievable to me,” said Fan, who is working with students, faculty and staff to address harassment of Asians on and around campus. “Even once is unacceptable. These aren’t even necessarily all the incidents that have occurred, just the ones that people have been brave enough to come forth and talk about.”
Nancy Roseman, dean of the College, encourages any students who experience a problem to contact the local police as well as Security. “Even if we don’t hear anything,” she added, “those students are under a tremendous amount of pressure, stress and pain. I hope we all remain sensitive to them.”
Michael Ebell ’03 said the prospect of attacks on certain groups of students was one of the first things to cross his mind. Wanting to tell Arab-Americans that the slurs they might hear in the aftermath of the attacks were not “the aftermath of the attacks were not the “voice of America,” Ebell contacted the Arab-American Institute in Washington, D.C. to find out how to write to communities.
But the Institute could not help as many community leaders had gone into hiding. Ebell then decided on a letter-writing campaign asking politicians and news outlets to condemn violence against ethnic targets. “I hope at least this brings some sort of awareness to the campus,” he said
Last Friday, a tired Roseman expressed her appreciation for this type of community response and her wish that more would join in. “I’ve heard nothing, and I hope it stays that way,” said Roseman.
Unfortunately, the weekend would not oblige her.
On Thursday afternoon, Rizvana Braxton ’04, a student of South Asian and African-American origin, went to the Newsroom on Spring Street to pick up some school supplies.
Inside, two white men she believes were students raised their voices for her to hear.
“It’s these people,” one said, as he stood in front of the newspaper rack, “these Arab niggers that come to this country to use us for our. . . like this one here.” As they left the store, she said, they brought up the subject again.
Braxton described herself as “humiliated and embarrassed,” and planned on filing a formal complaint with the Dean’s office.
In addition, a Muslim student was harassed at Perry on Saturday night, said Walia, who could not give further details. The Dean’s office could not be reached for comment by press time.
CNN added to the ferment by showing footage of Palestinians spontaneously celebrating the death and destruction in New York.
For many, the threat of students acting out their geopolitical aggressions on their classmates looms large, especially in light of possible U.S. government plans to retaliate.
Even so, Walia said that he does not want students to get paranoid. He said, “The message is, ‘just be careful.’”