Speaking up

A little over two weeks ago, the words “You are a huge shitty (slutty) Asian” were scrawled across a first-year’s whiteboard in Mission. A drawing of male genitalia accompanied the writing on the student’s door. As concerned students, we write in response to the incident and what has followed it.

Discussions that have taken place in College Council, the Minority Coalition,and among students in general in the past two weeks have shown two things: first, that the incident has sparked interesting dialogue, and second, that individual opinions have truly spanned the gamut of possible reactions. What is also clear is that the actual text and meaning of the incident are up for interpretation. It is only natural to attempt to determine the intended meaning of the graffiti before taking a stance on the incident. But determining intent is impossible and also, to a degree, irrelevant.

The term “Asian” is not inherently neutral. Though Asian is obviously employed “neutrally” in many contexts (if neutral translates into the simple notation of race), in some contexts, the word Asian can and has been used in racist language. While acknowledging the difficulty of attributing one particular meaning to the graffiti, we denounce the incident as damaging to the sense of trust and community at the College. Even if the graffiti was not intended as a racial attack on Asian-Americans, we are aware of how that phrase can offend and pain Asian-American students, faculty and staff at Williams.

Similarly, even if the drawing was not intended as a sexist message, we realize how it can create a chilled atmosphere not only for the women in that particular entry but also for the general female population on campus. An important lesson from the dialogue last spring was that an action can be innocuous in one person’s eyes and symptomatic of a pattern of discrimination in another’s.

Aware of the many voices on campus that have condemned the recent incident, we write because we recognize the need to explicitly articulate that this incident is damaging to the inclusive and welcoming environment our community strives to achieve. Moreover, we write because we also recognize the danger of not speaking up. By remaining silent, we can inadvertently send a message of our complicity in the matter. Much has been said and written about how the administration did or should have responded to the incident. Little has been said and written about how the student body should and did respond to the incident. This is our community. It is up to us to make this community what we want it to be.

That does not mean we need to seek to punish anyone who does or says something we do not like. However, it does mean that we cannot stay silent. It is our responsibility to speak up when we hear or see something that makes us uncomfortable. More importantly, it is up to us to speak up when we hear or see something that makes someone else uncomfortable but we know that person cannot or will not speak up for him or herself. Silently standing on the sidelines sends the message that statements and behavior like this are acceptable. They are not. Regardless of how this and future incidents are handled by the administration, it is up to the student body to make that message loud and clear. Ultimately, Williams is a community dedicated to learning. If we stay silent, no one learns and nothing will ever change.

Liz Jun ’09 is a history and political science major from Los Angeles, Calif. and co-chair of the Minority Coalition. Peter Nurnberg ’09 is an economics and mathematics major from New York, N.Y. and co-president of College Council. Jeremy Goldstein ’09 is a history and political science major from Palo Alto, Calif. and co-president of College Council.