Dean deems writing on dry-erase board ”racially offensive”

Last Wednesday, Dean Merrill sent an e-mail informing the campus of “racially offensive” writing that had been discovered on a first-year’s dry-erase board on Oct. 19. A Junior Advisor (JA) reported the graffiti on the board, which read, “You’re a huge s—tty Asian.” There is no official consensus on whether the second adjective was “slutty” or “shitty.”

Earlier that morning, the JA had found graffiti of male genitalia drawn with permanent marker on both that Asian-American student’s door and on another door in the entry.

At the JA’s urging, two students came forward to Campus Safety and Security about the phallic graffiti, but “vehemently denied” responsibility for the dry-erase board, according to Merrill. “There are reasons to believe that we cannot link the two,” she said. “The discovery of the whiteboard came quite a few hours after the JA talked to the students about the graffiti.”

The Dean’s Office initiated an investigation into the incident when they were informed of it the following day. The two students connected to drawing male genitalia will receive disciplinary sanctions.

Although the writing on the dry-erase board is not categorized as graffiti, Merrill noted that the College’s code of conduct considers such language, when directed at another student, a violation of community standards. “We recognize that the language may not be as upsetting and as fraught as the racist slur used in Willy E last spring, but we don’t think it has a place here,” Merrill said. “We also wanted to be clear in making people aware that what I would call racially offensive behavior doesn’t simply happen to African-American students.”

In such cases, students “might feel racially pinpointed,” Merrill said. “Another dean has spoken with that student directly, and I’m not going to speak from their perspective, and whatever that student might have felt, other Asian students might be offended.”

In addition to providing a brief summary of the incident, Wednesday’s e-mail included a link to Williams Speaks Up, an online bias reporting portal launched last spring, for the full report. The site can be visited at www.williams.edu/go/williamsspeaksup. “Such juvenile and noxious behavior falls well below the College’s community standards.  We should all have no tolerance for it,” Merrill wrote in the e-mail.

According to Merrill, the e-mail was sent out after deliberation among senior staff. “We wanted to figure out the best way to inform community and decided it was a good way to reactivate Williams Speaks Up,” she said, noting that the site has lacked technical support this year as it lost much of the pioneering team that graduated last spring.

In the future, only egregious instances will be similarly broadcasted. “Not every instance where we have such behavior will warrant an all-campus e-mail,” Merrill said. “We felt in this case, yes, because we wanted to alert people that Williams Speaks Up was there.” She added that one reason for the e-mail, and for the publishing images of the door on Williams Speaks Up, was to prevent the frustration resulting from the vague language of the Williams Hall E graffiti incident notification.

Little concerted student reaction, frustration or otherwise, has emerged. The Williams Students Online discussion on the incident only began Friday and was active for roughly a day. Merrill cited a number of possible explanations, including “all-campus e-mail fatigue” and preoccupation with work midway through the semester.

Fostering inclusiveness

“Rather than deter such efforts, this incident makes even more urgent all of the College’s work toward attaining true inclusion,” Merrill said in her e-mail.
As a member of the Williams Speaks Up review board, Merrill said that the board is trying to convene in the very near future to go through some of the reports received, as well as to consider other issues such as promoting it to faculty and staff.

Meanwhile, College Council recently granted the Committee on Community Interactions (CCI) an extension of the original Oct. 15 deadline for the investigative phase of their mandate. CCI plans to present their findings at the end of Winter Study if things go as planned. “We have altered our process a bit to focus more on data that has already been made available through Chris Winters, director of institutional research,” said Emily Spine ’11, CCI member.

The CCI will hold an all-campus open forum next Wednesday at 7 p.m. “We are planning to use at least part of the all-campus forum to ask questions and fill in some gaps left by the survey data,” said Mac Stone ’09, CCI chairman. “The more people who attend, the more likely we will be able to get useful answers to our questions.”

Claiming Williams organizers are similarly optimistic. “Planning for Claiming Williams has been very active and the steering committee is really excited about our progress,” said Shayla Williams ‘09, Claiming Williams co-chair. She added that the group has confirmed several speakers for the Feb. 5 Claiming Williams Day and are working together with Let Me Tell You a Story and Lehman Council on other proposals for that day.

The second Claiming Williams event, a performance by artist/poet/playwright/activist, Lenelle Moise, will be held at 8 p.m. in Goodrich House today. On Nov. 9, they will be hosting an event to inform the College community about the origins of and plans for Claiming Williams, and invite faculty, staff and students to participate in planning Claiming Williams Day.