Greater effort needed to bring circles together

In setting out to look at diversity in our community here at Williams, we decided it was important to leave the very term “diversity” broadly defined. That is, when individual members of our community talk abut diversity, it means very different things to each person. It would be impossible to adequately address the topic of diversity in our community, therefore, if we only looked at the types of diversity that are interesting to us, or commonly accepted as “diversity.” Race, gender, religion, socio-economic background, sexual orientation and political belief are only some of the types of diversity in our community and if the entire community chooses to engage the topic of diversity, it should look at all of those and many more – not just the obvious or popular forms of diversity.

Yet this is, ultimately, where many of the problems with discussions on diversity in the past have failed. In our front-page explanation of the series last week, we asked “Why is it that honest dialogue about issues surrounding diversity and community happens so rarely?” Of course, as has been pointed out, these discussions do in fact happen – and, in some circles, with regularity. What is missing is a discussion of these issues in front of the full community. Occasionally, these discussions will start – look at the controversy over the Queer Pride chalkings, allegedly racist comments in The Mad Cow or the uproar over religious students protesting abortion in past years – but they are rarely discussed outside of the context of “how can we make this issue go away?”

In our lead article last week on affirmative action, Richard Nesbitt, director of Admissions at the College, described the Williams community as composed of many “circles that intersect.” Insofar as we all interact as Williams students, Nesbitt is right. But an important question for the community to address is exactly how much these circles intersect. An interesting and productive discussion within MinCo accomplishes very little if the rest of the community is not forced to grapple with the same issues.

The very way Williams is set-up naturally leads to this fracture in campus – this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a reality that should be acknowledged. For example, insofar as the QSU exists as a forum to discuss issues of sexuality, it will naturally be the case that the bulk of discussion of queer issues will happen inside that comfortable zone rather than in the community at large. Further, the administrative structure at the College also promotes a narrow discussion of issues of “diversity” rather than a broader one. As Nancy McIntire, the assistant to the president for affirmative action and government relations, told us last week, her job is “talking about race and gender.”

The student support groups on campus are important – the vital role MinCo, the QSU, religious groups and many other organizations play in providing a support structure for students who desire one should not be minimized. Students themselves, however, have to make an effort to make sure that issues are not buried within these individual groups. Bringing Williams’ “circles” closer together is a two-way street that requires effort from all members of the communities.

In many ways, these efforts are already being made: MinCo groups put on many events that, though open to the entire community, are rarely attended and the same is true of many events put on by religious groups. The broader community should – recognizing that, ultimately, a primary reason to come to a liberal arts college is to learn from other, different, people – attend these events and engage the ideas being presented.

Yet, even seemingly simple trivialities, such as the sponsor listed at the bottom of a flier advertising an event, or the location of the event, can radically alter who actually shows up. The fact that a speaker sponsored by the QSU, Newman Catholicism or a host of other groups elicits negative comments from a significant portion of the student body is indicative of just how far we have to go. With outside speakers, we are not even talking about members of our community; yet, in such an insular world, new ideas are lost upon many students.

There are no easy solutions to moving the circles closer together, nor will the shift necessarily ever be a comfortable one to make. Yet, whether through the Record, in class or in the dorm, students must be willing to go out on a limb – to risk criticism for their beliefs or thoughts – and let others hear what they have to say.

No statement anybody ever makes is wrong or right, too simple or overly complex, threatening or too supportive, until an opposite opinion is presented to refute or agree with it; this is what dialogue is all about. One must only look at the opinions page in this week’s paper to realize that students do have strong beliefs and that these beliefs are often in conflict.

Yet, a sustained discussion about our community is not heard frequently enough; in this instance, it has been the hope of the Record board that this series broadens said discussion. Without an open conversation, however, in which one hopes these opposite sides merge towards a common understanding of one another, the growth of our diverse community will remain stagnant. By being more proactive, instead of reactive, perhaps a more sustained and valuable discussion can occur on our campus.