A basis for informed dialogue: How a web site for reporting discrimination can revitalize discussions on racism

We know it was not intended, but the first line of the Stand With Us pact already divides the campus. Asserting that, “We are Williams students and we see hate and indifference here and now,” presupposes both a certain experience and insight. Along with the Jason Ren ’08, with whom I served as Minority Coalition (MinCo) co-chair, I am in the position to know that identity-based discrimination and marginalization are surprisingly common occurrences on this campus. However, for a large number of students these forms of hatred and indifference to hatred are not part of their daily experience.

In the days following the racist graffiti in Williams E, this natural difference became a line of division. We were all rightly appalled. But half the campus was shocked that this happened while the other half was shocked that this happened again. Through all the discussions we had on WSO blogs, in classrooms and in dining halls one thing became painfully obvious: it is nigh impossible to have a substantive discussion about discrimination on campus with someone who thinks this was an isolated event. It is equally infuriating to defend the normal level of inclusiveness on campus against someone who thinks racism happens everyday.

If we are going to move beyond this impasse, we must first realize that these positions do not reflect a wilful ignorance or inflamed paranoia; nor are they merely functions of “privilege,” “indifference” and “oversensitivity.” It shows that we the Williams community – students, faculty and administrators alike – really don’t know what’s happening on our own campus. Though we each have our own impressions, no one really knows exactly how often discrimination happens here. Most of us don’t know where, when or to whom. Very few are unlucky enough to know the severity. We just have to admit that we don’t know and move on from there, because this admission is a powerful starting point for honest discussion and real self-analysis. Our cluelessness is a fact we can use.

The lack of both qualitative and quantitative information about discrimination at Williams highlights the broken lines of communication between subsets of this community. It alarms us to the possibility of massive underreporting of incidents of sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination of all kinds on this campus. It reiterates a lack of transparency in the way the administration records and deals with them. In the days after the “Willy E incident,” even as we are lulled back into our normal rhythms, we should not allow the community to regress to a divisive, albeit comfortable, lack of self-awareness. This cannot be staved off to a single discussion day, a social honor code or a rally. We cannot relegate this to a College Council committee. All of these initiatives do important work, but a solution to a lack of self-knowledge must involve a serious and continual effort to deeply and openly look at ourselves as the Williams community.

We have therefore created a bias-reporting section of the Williams Web site. Inspired by the Wesleyan version, the “Williams Speaks Up” will serve as a streamlined way for victimized students and faculty to confidentially report their grievances to Campus Safety and Security, Health Services, the Dean’s Office and the Office of Institutional Diversity. The moderators of the Web site also include student representatives from College Council, the JAs and MinCo. Unless otherwise requested, each submission is completely confidential, except when they describe a particularly egregious event at which point the administration is legally obligated to follow up. Students can report directly to the Web site or through Security, the MCC, the chaplain’s office, etc., but all incidents will end up going through to the Web site and its moderators. This is a way to patch the broken and scattered reporting system for identity-based discrimination on campus.

These submissions will be edited only to maintain anonymity and then will be reposted – providing only links to particularly offensive language – for campus viewing in the form of a “living archive.” This “living archive” will be accompanied by an ever-growing back-log of incidents reported to Security or the MCC, covered by the Record, or submitted from alums. This will allow us all to finally understand the history and witness the current reality of discrimination on campus.

The concept of this Web site is controversial, and its operation is bound to be imperfect. However, it will evolve according to feedback as well as Williams’ future needs. No one can foresee what this Web site will show us about our institution. It provides us, however, with our first crude tool to look. With all of us on the same page, perhaps we will finally have a foundation for truly productive discussion.

Haydee Lindo ’08 is a math and political science major from St. James, Jamaica.