An auspicious stepping stone

According to the U.S. World and News Report, Williams College is one of the top-ranked liberal arts schools in the nation. To those who know what the College stands for and strives for, the image that the words “Williams College” evokes is far more significant than that of just an academic or even an athletic powerhouse. To them, the image of Williams College is that of a diverse, thriving community of intellectuals who are deeply passionate about their identities and their interests. This is an image and a reputation that the College has come to embrace and endeavored to realize with a large measure of success.

For many, this is Williams’ promise: the ideal college setting, a place populated by one of the most diverse collections of students in the world, where the cliques or whatever other socially, academically or even racially predetermined groups one would encounter elsewhere don’t exist. As a first-year student, I can’t say that I’ve explored Williams to any measure of completeness in the semester that I’ve been here, but I can say beyond a doubt that there are more students from more geographical, social and cultural backgrounds here than I’ve ever met at any one place in my life.

What makes Williams unique, however, is that beyond fostering such diversity, it attempts to promote an understanding and acceptance of the diversity it embodies. But despite the myriad speakers, presentations and cultural events the College sponsors, despite the fact that it often achieves the understanding it seeks to bring about, there are times when it seems like all of it is just posturing, an effort to propagate the reputation of perfect understanding it is so well renowned for.

In this light, to many skeptics – myself included – Claiming Williams Day was bound for failure. As the biggest and most publicized of any diversity event in the history of the College, Claiming Williams seemed to radiate potential for a massive, insincere PR stunt, an event that would solidify Williams’ rep to the public without really achieving anything on campus. After witnessing the day myself, I would be remiss to say my view hasn’t changed. While the day certainly hasn’t erased my skepticism, I think it was a solid step in the right direction – a step towards the fulfillment of the Williams image.

The thought that Williams’ various initiatives – the cosmopolitan curriculum, the diversity requirement or the guest lecturers – lack something in terms of sincerity isn’t restricted to one particular group, and that thought leads to a general apathy or disdain that results in the oftentimes poor showings at public events such as Claiming Williams.

As a first-generation American and someone who has spent multiple years in another country, I can relate to the issues some might take with the College’s seemingly over-the-top list of programs to promote understanding. The years I spent in India were simultaneously the most trying and most valuable years of my life in that I forged my identity from both my experiences and my heritage, and I don’t believe that this is an experience that can just be “claimed” or “understood.”

As the single day in which every student could claim Williams and his or her place in it, a day punctuated with presentations on denial, privilege, identity and life at the College and beyond, Claiming Williams Day struck me as a unique event, but also as one that was bound to reek of the same insincerity that the other initiatives did in my mind.

The reality was about as far from my expectations as could be imagined; while not all of the reviews on the day I heard from fellow students were 100 percent positive, an overwhelming amount were very encouraging. For while Peggy McIntosh’s presentation on privilege systems didn’t eliminate the existence of privilege systems, and while Tim Wise’s lecture on white denial didn’t do away with racism as a whole, both presentations and all of the others on the day brought new ideas to the table, ideas that aid in the understanding that is, ultimately, the College’s goal.

Though I can’t say that the reality of Claiming Williams has made me a believer in all of the College’s diversity initiatives, I can say that it has changed my perspective on the College’s intentions. The image of Williams College is one of incredible potential, one that shows what can be in a community as diverse and open-minded as Williams, not necessarily what is, and though the College’s initiatives may seem at times like they are at best naïve and idealistic, we as a community have to recognize that they are only the stepping stones to open-mindedness and true understanding – the rest is on us.

Tom Kuriakose ’12 is from Paramus, N.J. He lives in Mills.