Reform by another route

The racial slurs written in Williams Hall were completely offensive. Their message was simple and hateful. Whoever wrote the slurs is, at best, a pathetic and disturbed moron; at worst a contemptible bigot. This attack on our core values should have prompted a swift campus-wide condemnation followed by a commitment to embracing our differences through friendships, conversations and greater sensitivity. But that hasn’t happened.

Instead, there has been a series of gatherings that have served a dual purpose: on the one hand, students have shared their pain and frustration with bigotry at Williams; on the other, they have sought to hammer out several concrete policy initiatives aimed at rooting out these problems, including a Social Honor Code (which students would sign like the Academic Honor Code), diversity orientations for student groups like sports teams, and a discussion day about diversity issues.

On the surface, these gatherings and their results sound pretty good. After all, it’s important for us to confront campus bigotry, and it seems only natural that we would then take steps to curb it. But there is a real danger in parlaying anger and pain about a single incident into actual policies.

For one thing, the attitude emerging from the meetings has been overly combative and self-righteous. Many students at the meetings have taken an unmistakable “With Us or Against Us” tone, and implied that most of their peers on campus are not truly opposed to bigotry. In one meeting, a member of the College staff argued that initiatives should be aimed at getting “rich, straight, white males” to shape up and be more sensitive. This barbed and unprofessional generalization about a group of students was simplistic and counterproductive; resorting to stereotypes and generalizations can only create alienation and resentment.

More importantly, the policy initiatives are based on the belief that the Williams Hall incident was not an isolated instance of hate, but was, rather, symptomatic of an epidemic of bigotry on campus. But if this incident is symptomatic, why is it the only such incident that’s been publicly reported all year? At the meetings, students spoke of other moments where they felt uncomfortable or offended, but the level of hate and intolerance expressed in Williams Hall was uniquely extreme – which is why the incident prompted meetings in the first place.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the other incidents were unimportant or insignificant; it just means they were different. Yet the policy proposals assume that they are the same. A Social Code with any clout would leave little gray area in an area of American culture that is uniquely complex.

Can we, as a campus, learn from mistakes based on misunderstandings, or will we be too worried about getting punished to even engage the subject of race? Will the code apply equally for all students, or only white males? Can students joke about race or laugh at Dave Chappelle’s stand-up? Can we use the n-word when we sing along with Lil’ Wayne or say the name of Nas’ upcoming album out loud?

No speech code can prevent hateful actions of true bigots; more likely, it will just muzzle discussion about diversity. Williams is a small school; we should handle incidents on a case-by-case basis, exploring their nuances and complexities in constructive, rather than draconian, ways.

Orientation sessions about diversity sound more promising than the speech code, but should be geared toward introducing students of different backgrounds to each other—not ramming politically correct doctrines down their throats. A discussion day, on the other hand, sounds dubious because of its singularity. Having one designated day to talk about diversity is a recipe for token student engagement instead of sustained commitment.

What, then, should we do? I think the first step is to focus on unity rather than division, acceptance instead of punishment. Most Williams students are intelligent, accepting and respectful; we should appeal to the campus’s overwhelmingly good nature by emphasizing community values like respect and decency – not self-righteousness and militancy.

Secondly, we need to acknowledge the complexities of this issue. There will be moments when people are ignorant about differences, but these should be opportunities for growth, not punishment. Remember: working out differences and misunderstandings is the reason that we value diversity in education in the first place.

If anything, it is the College administration, not the student body, which should be looking inward and making changes where they count: staff and admissions. It seems quite hypocritical, for example, that the College professes to support diversity orientation for sports teams when we have no black head coaches, and our basketball and football teams look like they came out of the segregated South.

As individual students, the best thing we can do is to create relationships with each other, regardless of external differences. Only through personal friendships and conversations can we hope to make our campus a better place. This suggestion may sound cliché, but, like most clichés, it actually works when you put it into practice.

Matthew Roach is a history and English major from Middletown, Del.

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