Spurring discussion, Claiming Williams

Last Thursday droves of students, staff and faculty converged for a series of talks, performances and discussions in place of classes for Claiming Williams Day. From the athletic teams that filed from practice into Brooks-Rogers for a 9:30 a.m. lecture by sports guru Peter Roby, to the capacity crowd at activist writer Tim Wise’s talk at the ’62 Center and the lively audience at the culminating Claiming Williams critique in Paresky, members of the College community participated in a total of eight main presentations and 18 forums with the broad theme “Examining privilege, building community.”

This interruption of the typical campus schedule for a day of discussion was the most recent in a chain of events that began a year ago. On Feb. 2 last winter, a student discovered derogatory graffiti – the N-word and drawings of male genitalia – in Williams Hall E. This led to a number of student-led gatherings in Paresky, which in turn sparked a community movement called Stand With Us as well as a 600-strong rally and march across campus on Feb. 13, 2008.

“This was a radical departure from what has happened before in response to problems on campus, insofar as the entire college was committed to it – from senior staff and trustees onwards,” said Gail Newman, professor of German. “Nothing similar has happened for a long time.” Newman, who formerly chaired the Committee on Diversity and Community and has served as interim director of the Multicultural Center (MCC), compared last year’s student response to the successful campaign for a Latina/o studies concentration in 2001.

The throngs at the events took many by surprise. “We had a tremendous turnout for the Claiming Williams events,” said Randal Fippinger, performance and events manager for the ’62 Center. The Tim Wise lecture, which saw high staff attendance, was only the second performance this season to fill the 550-seat MainStage. He added that Thursday’s events at the ’62 Center averaged 80 percent capacity, “which is excellent considering all these events had competition.” Of those who were present at the ’62, 700 individuals, or 60 percent of the day’s total, were students.

In addition to the sheer number of participants, the day was unique in the unified boldness of community forums throughout the day. At “The Culture of the Williams Classroom,” held by Karen Swann, professor of English, students and professors discussed common fears of approaching controversial topics and expressing passion in class. At a forum on queer life at the College, students said they were “overwhelmed” by the number of supportive faculty members present. At a panel hosted by the Williams International Relations Council, one faculty member and three students – two of whom were from India and two from Pakistan – shared the stage in a discussion on the global campus.

At what College Chaplain Rick Spalding called a “circular community conversation” on alcohol at Williams, 150 drinkers and non-drinkers alike spoke of feeling judged for their choices. “The fact that this many people came says to me that this is an important conversation,” Spalding said in closing the discussion at Goodrich Hall. “One thing to carry away is that this is something people want to listen to each other about.”

Dean Merrill also voiced strong support for the events. “I thought Claiming Williams was a remarkable day,” she said. “The turnout was great, and the events I saw and participated in were excellent.  What impressed me most was how directly the outside speakers spoke to our campus, to our specific concerns that made this day happen.”

Nevertheless, this landmark occasion had its flaws. “I think the day itself was successful and got a lot of people talking, even those who didn’t come,” said Claire Schwartz ’10, student co-chair of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee. “We accept that it’s our first time doing this, so it wasn’t perfect and we made mistakes. But hopefully it’s a platform we can build on.”

Criticisms

One area that proved contentious was choosing “privilege” as the day’s theme. At the closing critique, Jeff Kaplan ’09 noted that the phrase “Examining privilege, building community” on pre-event publicity may have alienated students who self-identify as privileged. “Some of the events I attended were excellent, and a larger number of students would have been more likely to come had the advertising been different,” he said. “We shouldn’t simply write them off.”

According to Shayla Williams ‘09, the other student co-chair, the Steering Committee noted that they chose the day’s theme intending “privilege” to be an inclusive term, but aware that the word had certain connotations. “At some point you just have to be comfortable with the fact that people were going take to it the way they wanted to, and if the productive part of the conversation was from criticizing the tagline, that’s fine too.”

While affirming the importance of an official Claiming Williams Day, Dorothy Wang, professor of American studies, reiterated the significance of the catalyzing Willy E incident. “Although ‘privilege’ includes race, the idea of privilege can become generic and abstract,” she said in an interview. “Since Claiming Williams came about as a response to racial hate speech, one must not allow those origins to be erased.”

Newman, on the other hand, said she was thrilled that the Committee chose privilege as a topic. “As a straight white woman whose parents and grandparents went to college, I’m hyper-aware that I’m privileged in many ways. I’m like everyone else and hate feeling guilty,” she said. “What I’ve learned working with the MCC and the summer humanities program is that there’s a third way between outrage and indignation from one group, and defensiveness from the other. I think Claiming Williams was an attempt to find such a third way. If you talk to Ed Epping [current director of the MCC], for example, he doesn’t have a simplistic notion of privilege.”

To Ana Morron ’09, however, Claiming Williams largely failed to transcend such simplistic notions. “It’s crucial to examine privilege, and stop considering it a universal truth because it’s context-dependent,” she said. “Although they said they wanted to create debate, they invited very famous people, like Tim Wise, who promote very set assumptions white, male, class privilege.” Morron pointed to issues such as minority privilege in academia amidst affirmative action policies.

Another thread raised at the final critique by Robyn Marasco, professor of political science, revolved around the transition from an organic, impassioned student movement to an organized, institutional event. Again, responses varied. While Schwartz spoke about the loss of the “productive anger” that originally drove the movement, others questioned power dynamics. “We took something that was really personal for a lot of people, and turned into a normative way to approach this issue,” George Carstocea ’10 said during the discussion. “A lot of people were put off because it felt like the institution was taking over the entire spectrum of issues. I felt I was giving up my agency.”

Morron also expressed uneasiness about the day being led by “literally a handful of students and faculty,” without consequential input from the student body as a whole. “I’m concerned that the school just does many things to present an image, an abstract image of promoting tolerance and embracing community life, rather than focusing on real issues that people are experiencing,” she said, citing the Eco Café employee who spoke at November’s Claiming Williams launch event about her love for Williams and needing to hold two jobs to support her family. “The massive institutional support made it feel like the school was saying shut up, accept our ideologies, stop debating.”

Some were more positive. “Like SPARC workshops at the beginning of the year, Claiming Williams forces us to listen to diverse perspectives on race, class, gender, sexuality,” Oscar Calzada ‘12 said after the event. “But this process is important because it helps us, first, form a sense of community and, second, establish a set of values for that community.” Calzada noted, however, that the day had lacked discussion on religious differences.

The campus also appeared ambivalent about the Lehman Council initiative to have student volunteers prepare and serve dinner in all dining halls, allowing staff to attend the Tim Wise talk, then dine and mingle with students. According to Janna Gordon ’11, who coordinated the dinner, 120 students signed up for just over 90 volunteering slots. “A lot of them later told me how much they enjoyed working side-by-side with dining hall staff,” Gordon said. “It let them gain appreciation of what the job is like, meet new people and have a lot of fun.”

While the Williams Students Online discussion on this dinner has some posts lauding the initiative, many more bemoaned the limited selection of food, particularly the cheese manicotti entrée. Other students echoed the complaints. “After practice I need dinner with carbs and protein to help myself recover,” said men’s varsity crew member Dan Costanza ’11, adding that he resorted to drinking several packs of soy milk.

Gordon noted that the menu choice was out of her hands. “There certainly were negative aspects to the dinner, but it was a first-time effort, and focusing on those negatives discounts the positive effects,” she said, recounting dinner with her custodian, a dining services staff and their family members. “Even if the degree of mingling was low, that’s still at least 90 students who were able to do something completely out of the ordinary and chat with people they wouldn’t normally speak with.”

Dan Levering, first cook for Greylock, commended the student volunteers. “The Claiming Williams event was an enormous project to tackle, but I think the numerous people in charge of coordinating this did a tremendous job,” he said. “I don’t know if Claiming Williams will change anything, but it would be nice if it did.”

Michelle Larabee, custodian for Gladden House, expressed similar uncertainty about the day. “Honestly, I don’t know what Claiming Williams means,” Larabee said. “I went for the Dorothy Allison talk, though, and she was really intelligent and could be serious – I got teary-eyed at one point – but she definitely had a comical side too.” Larabee added that although she had wanted to go for the dinner in Greylock, she had to return home to care for her 10-year-old. Other dining services staff members noted the difficulty of having to reschedule their work shifts as venues like the ’82 Grill and the Lee Snack Bar closed early on Thursday.

Logistically, Costanza also criticized the closure of trainer facilities at the gym for Claiming Williams: “It was a big problem because I have a shoulder injury and couldn’t get help with it after practice.” In contrast, on Mountain Day fall trainers had been available despite canceled classes, allowing him to receive immediate attention for a sprained ankle. “I actually really like the idea of Claiming Williams and thought it was relatively successful, because there was a lot of discourse even between those who didn’t go for talks,” he said. “But athletic practices will go on whether or not the administration wants them to, and proper support should be in place.”

Looking ahead

The Claiming Williams Steering Committee is in the process of reviewing evaluations of the day to consider how to move forward. Williams and Schwartz agreed that Claiming Williams should only continue if the community agrees that it is effective. “Just as Claiming Williams came out of Stand With Us, the next move won’t necessarily look like Claiming Williams,” Schwartz said. “One hesitation about having it next year is that if we regularize it, it might become a constant excuse to channel all impetus for these issues to one day.”

Schwartz expressed a desire to work on structural change, even within the organization of Claiming Williams. “The Steering Committee itself was a testament to a lot of problems about the institution – everyone brought to the Steering Committee everything they’d been socialized to think,” she said. “We only had one faculty of color and two students of color.” She noted that untenured faculty of color are frequently called upon to lead such efforts. “Workload wise, that’s unfair.” Schwartz also named first-generation student programs, faculty advising, faculty training and curricular issues as areas for possible action.

Similarly, Williams underscored the need for a broader outlook. “The aim of Claiming Williams is to point out that each of us has responsibility for each other person, so Claiming Williams itself shouldn’t be the organization to take responsibility for all community issues,” she said. “Twenty people can’t do that. Three thousand people can.”

Claiming Williams is sponsoring a talk by John L. Jackson Jr. tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. Titled “Racism, Post-Raciality, and the Hidden Injuries of Colorblindness: A lecture on race relations, contemporary popular culture and political correctness,” it will be held in Bronfman Auditorium.