The ’N-word’ was not a surprise

I would like to begin by saying that I do not belong to the two-pronged coalition – composed of the Williams administration and the College Council – that seems to have formed in response to the “nigger” incident. Nor do I belong to any arm of MinCo. In fact, I am in vehement opposition to the way in which each of these bodies has gone about responding to the matter. E-mails sent out with the headings of “race discussion” or “racial incident on campus” are, while to the point, deterrents – especially for fringe members of this discussion. Me? I’m just a black dude who unfortunately had to wake up one morning to hear that his suite had been verbally crapped on.

I am almost certainly the wrong person for this to have happened to. This incident has served to confirm many fears that I’ve had about Williams for some time now. Of those, one is that my presence, as is suggested by the recent events, may be generally unwanted. I can see the discomfort I generate in the eyes of some of my white peers when I impose my presence on them. Unsure of whether or not to welcome me, or how to do so, they casually raise their heads in greeting only when I’ve become entrenched in their social spheres, thus making avoidance . . . awkward. To truly befriend a black person at Williams and treat them as fully equal is to commit an incredibly philanthropic act. I provide you with no added social currency. This is why I privately commend my close, loyal friends.

I am also concerned that I, myself, cause fear in others. Believe it or not, you’d more easily find James Taylor than NWA on any of my playlists. How about this: if you promise to stop looking over your shoulder when I’m behind you, I promise not to jump you. Excuse my humor. These situations are never comfortable; they make you sweat. Is this because our true selves and the true nature of our community are being revealed? Possibly, but I can only guess.

A favored term in one of my more liberal friends’ lexicon for incidents such as these is “tolerance.” John Amaechi, the first openly gay NBA player, recently raised an interesting point in a discussion on ESPN. Paraphrasing his argument, to tolerate is to suggest some inherent bothersome, negative quality in that which is being tolerated. You tolerate your roommate’s body odor, or uncomfortable Williamstown winters; you don’t tolerate me. I’ve danced around this issue for a while, but here it is. There exists an unfortunate duplicity on the Williams College campus: the issue of the difference between what is visible and what lies beneath. As far as what is visible from outside the purple bubble, Williams is a passionately liberal institution. Much like an alien visiting the United States and getting a look at only our very superficial constitution, your average black pre-frosh is warmly invited by the many smiling, multicolored faces of www.williams.edu. These faces may belong to people cooperating in some community service effort, or simply chilling in Dennett 3. The faces of our institutions are also evermore diverse. Women, blacks and Jews head many of this nation’s foremost colleges and universities. Swimming quietly beneath the surface, however, is an ugly monster which surfaces only when things seem most idyllic, comfortable or just plain stable.

But, wait! Please don’t misunderstand me. I am supremely thankful and forever indebted to Williams, for the degree that will ostensibly be conferred to me is a document that will provide me with some tangible sense of happiness – four-ply instead of two-ply toilet paper. Whatever comedy you may find here, I actually appreciate the luxuries that studying here will help me to obtain.

But let’s return to the issue at hand. This incident may make people slightly more cautious with their choice of words; however, if we’re being honest, Chip Worthington III has more pressing issues on his mind, like finishing his Goldman Sachs application or deciding which hottie he’d like to “slay” this weekend. The reality is that he and others like him have privileges that they can take for granted. Wrestling with ideas as troublesome as these requires ATP he’d be better off spending on that last squat. By no means do I fault him in his actions. In fact, I envy him for having the dignity and privileges that accompany his having won the genetic lottery. It’s actually quite possible that our friend Chip is not one of our problem guys. And let’s not allow this to be misconstrued as an indictment of any members of the College community – I am no moral authority.

I initially recognized this issue as a moral problem with implications for all minorities; however, it is especially serious for individuals of African descent. This recurring tragedy is the enduring black problem: to be born into a world that isn’t your own. Some may see this as sad fatalism. I see it as sad realism. The history of the United States has been one of an ugly and violent racism since its conception. It must be understood that this reality is endemic to the black experience, but is not the problem of blacks exclusively. Even so, as words go, neither “spic,” “kike,” “chink” nor “fag” is as resonant in Americans’ hearts and minds as “nigger.” The word elicits images of lynchings and Klansmen, but on some more basic level it is bound up with black man himself. How divorced am I from that word – how far is this word from being my popular descriptor? I have no idea. But I don’t care, so long as I get my 4-ply.

Abiy Hailemichael ’11 is from New York, N.Y. He lives in Williams Hall.