Across campus on Claiming Williams Day, students, faculty, staff and community members gathered to hear speakers from all over the country discuss issues of privilege, leadership and what it means to build a community.
“So much of what makes us different is not obvious – it’s below the water line,” said Peter Roby, Northeastern University’s athletics director. Roby gave his presentation on “Diversity and the Appreciation of Difference in 21st Century Leadership” in front of a packed Brooks-Rogers auditorium at 9:30 a.m.
Roby began by talking about what diversity really means, trying to convey the idea that most differences are not necessarily physical or readily visible. At a college as small as Williams, where it is possible to get to know a large proportion of the student body, Roby believes it is each person’s responsibility to find out who their neighbors really are in order to become a part of “the mechanism of imbedding the culture of appreciating difference at Williams College.”
Roby proceeded to persuade the audience to understand that “we can lead from whatever seat we are in.” He explained that people’s values often can have a small but significant impact on those around them. According to Roby, leadership is not just the responsibility of the president of the college or the captain of an athletic team, but can occur on many different levels. ”A community made up of leaders can move forward,” he said. “It will be enriched by communication, empathy, fairness, consistency, openness and kindness.”
He closed by saying that the College’s community must join together and be proactive by learning to appreciate differences rather than judging diversity by only what can be seen. Roby expressed a belief that a strong community is one in which all students hold themselves and the entire community to a high standard.” If there is an incident inconsistent with your values, the community will come together and sort it out – if you are committed and willing to lead,” he said.
“Goddamn! You people are strange!” said Dorothy Allison, acclaimed writer, poet, feminist activist and sex radical. Her lecture, “Making Home Among Strangers,” began the day for the students, faculty, staff, and community members at the MainStage of ’62 Center at 9:30 a.m. “You must have screwed up real bad to be cleaning up after yourselves this thoroughly,” she remarked, and her humor remained a continual presence, even as she began to share her difficult personal experiences of poverty, abuse and discrimination. Allison used her own history to argue for the importance of claiming a home on campus.
Allison was frank about the differences she felt had made her a stranger throughout her college experience and her adult life, from tastes in music to poverty and sexuality. After telling her own story, she turned the question to the audience. “What is the thing you are afraid they will discover?” she asked. Allison illuminated the fact that every person feels like a stranger because everyone has his or her differences.
The main advice she then gave was that since everyone is a stranger, it is worth the risk to reveal one’s true self. Allison explained that it is only by taking such risks that it might be possible to discover a common cause with the rest of the individuals living in the world. It is only by bringing the differences and strengths each individual possesses as a result of his or her upbringing that it might be possible to make a home among strangers. “There are things we are all ashamed of, and they must become things we are proud of,” she said.
Allison insisted that moments of radical change in society can only come about when people are able to discover a common cause; it is the risks of doing so that are the challenge of the current generation. Ending her address, she implored the audience to “Claim not only Williams. Claim your real self.”
At the Adams Memorial Theatre at the ’62 Center, Peggy McIntosh delivered her speech “Coming to See Privilege Systems: The Surprising Journey” in the effort to open her audience’s eyes to the unearned advantages and disadvantages in each person’s life. Building from her own experiences, she highlighted the fact that if a person is benefiting from one of the privilege systems, he or she probably does not notice it.
During research conducted at Wellesley College, McIntosh was exposed to men who veiled their oppressive attitudes with kindness. She believes, though, that society taught men that knowledge is a male asset.
McIntosh felt this oppression, but did not yet realize that she herself was an oppressor in a different way. Upon first recognizing black women’s resentment over the lack of black history and culture included in women’s studies, her first response was, “I don’t see how they can say that about us. We’re so nice.” After consideration, however, she realized that her reaction to the black women was identical to male attitudes she had experienced.
According to McIntosh, both female and male whites are caught in a world of unearned privilege. She spoke about realizing that she had the knowledge system and the money system on her side and began to question what else she held unearned over her African American colleagues. She spoke about the list she had developed of 46 realizations that gave her unearned advantage above African Americans. The list included, “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time,” and, “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.”
McIntosh pushed the people at her lecture to ask themselves, “Are we obligated to share power?” and, “What legacy do we want to leave?” She told the audience that her moral code tells her that anyone in a system of unfair advantage should work to weaken it, and wished everyone well on “moving forward with inclusiveness.”
Dr. Steven Spencer, chair of the social psychology division at the University of Waterloo, delivered a lecture discussing the psychological phenomenon termed “stereotype threat.” He laid the foundation for presenting his findings by first pointing out group differences in academic performance, noting that, on average, men are better than women in math and that Caucasians score higher on the SAT and have higher GPAs than African-Americans and Hispanics.
Spencer’s thesis is that these disparities in academic performance are caused by stereotype threat. He explained the concept through an analogy of two runners competing in the same race where one runner is experiencing a 10 mph tailwind and the other is running into a 40 mph headwind.
The latter runner, he said, is representative of women, African Americans and Hispanics. The headwind is the sociopsychological effect of a mentally negative and unsafe environment. An environment with high stereotype threat leads to underperformance due to the increased “headwind.”
When that same environment is made into one without stereotype threat, groups that previously underperformed improve. According to Spencer, “The stereotyped student will get better grades than the non-stereotyped student, on average, if we create the right environment.”
This theory has been tested through a wide range of interventions that have attempted to reduce the achievement gap between Caucasians and African Americans. Some of these interventions, Spencer explained, have been as simple as showing a group of African American college students a film about stereotypes or instructing seventh graders in Connecticut to write down their values three times during the year. Through these interventions, Spencer and other social psychologists are attempting to create “identity safe environments” that eliminate the headwind faced by stereotyped groups and, in a sense, level the playing field.
The election of Barack Obama means many things for America, Tim Wise told an overflowing MainStage at the ’62 Center, but it is not necessarily an indication that our country has transcended racism. Through witty hyperbole and at times facetious mockery, Wise countered what has become a popular assertion of a post-racial nation. “It’s good to know we’re living in a post-racial world, and the black folk in the audience will be happy to note that their assets underwent a 1200 percent increase between November third and fourth,” he said, citing continued economic disparities between racial groups.
To illustrate that “the mere fact that a particular head of state is elected does not prove systemic opportunity,” Wise referred to the election of Benazir Bhutto, the first female Pakistani prime minister. Just as Bhutto’s election did not ensure that girls and women in Pakistan do not face discriminatory barriers, Wise said, neither does the election of Obama substantiate the claim that the U.S. has reached a post-racial era.
According to Wise, racism in America has “shape-shifted from Racism 1.0,” characterized by the obvious and blatant refusal to accept as equal those of different ethnic backgrounds, “to a more modern context.” This new racism, dubbed Racism 2.0 by Wise, is different because “although many whites still hold stereotypical and negative ideas about the majority of black Americans, they carve out an exception for those who pander to white needs.” Wise believes that an example of such an exception is Barack Obama.
An important problem now, Wise said, is denial. He pointed out that majority groups have historically been largely unaware of their own privileged status. “One of the greatest privileges of being in the majority is that of remaining oblivious to inequalities,” Wise said. He asserted that the election itself was made possible because Obama “studiously avoided issues of race inequality in the U.S.”
Wise concluded his lecture with the message that it is not for Obama alone to solve America’s problems. Rather, if it is justice, change and hope that Americans want, then Americans must be the agents of change themselves, and that “this change must come not from the top down, but from the bottom up.”