The privileged many

The program of 26 events under the rubric “Examining Privilege, Building Community” motivated over 1000 people to participate in Claiming Williams Day on Feb. 5. Those who emerged from their rooms, offices or workplaces on that day were able to gain new understandings of our community by sharing a really, really fast story, or discussing classroom culture or examining the Williams alcohol scene. Some skeptics were wowed by encounters with students, staff and faculty. Some so-called “members of the choir” or “usual suspects” learned more about themselves in one day than they had in years of “being in the room.” I regret that these interactions did not include those who interpreted the relationship between “examining privilege” and “building community” as oppositional. It would have been great to hear your voices, and it is unfortunate that building community did not pull you into the conversation.

“Privilege” is not a term of blame. It describes a situation that is often unearned, not asked for (think “tall” or “white”), and sometimes, not even wanted. What we do with our privileges can perpetuate or create societal opportunities and interactions. We may “do” nothing and exclaim that the results of our unearned privileges are “not our fault!” But it is important to realize that immobilization based on the truth of “my privilege is not my fault!” is an active choice, a choice that seems at odds with the values of a community devoted to learning, questioning, connecting and creating.

Examining privilege has been an integral part of the Williams way for 40 years, during which the doors of this privileged institution have opened to students spanning the gender, racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and country-of-origin diversity of our world. Building a Williams community that achieves widespread senses of belonging and inclusive academic excellence has lagged behind, but these goals continue to motivate many individual, grass-roots and College efforts.

Williams College views “examining privilege” and “building community” as integrally related, rather than oppositional. Yet neither the examination nor the building is complete. These are works very much in progress, and we each have opportunities to contribute.

To “claim” Williams, I personally must be convinced that it is an institution continuing to transform its history and some of its practices from exclusive to inclusive. Many people – students, staff, administrators, faculty members – are working to realize this transformation, seeking not just representational inclusion (i.e. numbers), but functional inclusion (i.e. power-sharing). For example, we seek inclusion of staff, faculty and students when we think of “Williams” rather than a more limited, self-centered notion of the place. We seek interactions and practices that support risk-taking and creative conversations, commitments and collaborations. We seek opportunities to “make home among strangers,” as Dorothy Allison exhorted on Claiming Williams Day.

I do see Williams as capable of growing a culture of functional inclusion, and that is why I claim this place. But this transformation will not happen without me. I have a part in that which I wish to claim. Thus, for me to claim Williams, I must first claim my own responsibility in giving it the best that I’ve got. And so I do claim this place, a place where I can thrive as an educator, scientist, activist, colleague, mentor, collaborator and friend.

I brought many privileges to Williams, and more have been conferred upon me here. Unlike my grandparents, my mother and some of my siblings, I didn’t inherit our family traits of depression and alcoholism, and I earned a college degree. I derive significant unearned privilege from my academic credentials, benefiting from society’s prejudices about certain places and traditions. My gender has both opened and closed doors in the worlds of science and academia, while my white skin entrenched me firmly in the familiar at the four traditionally white institutions listed on my resume. My status as a faculty member grants me opportunities to serve on governing committees and to have my voice heard before or above voices of staff and students.

At Williams, it is a privilege to work with smart, creative students, staff and faculty at an institution where barriers to implementing good ideas are low. In examining my privileges, I am keenly aware of the many doors they open and that these doors remain closed to others. These doors open onto intellectual joy and satisfaction, onto lifelong relationships with amazing individuals, onto new ways of teaching to stimulate creative engagement. For me, walking through these doors opened by privilege triggers my own recognition of a responsibility to use this privilege for the betterment of this community we wish to claim as home.

Wendy Raymond is a professor of biology, associate dean of Institutional Diversity and a member of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee.