Stick it to me

Why do most white people like activities in the outdoors? Do most black people like hot sauce? These common stereotypes attached to different races carry with them a sense of ignorance that, at a place like Williams, is not just negative, but surprising as well.

Here at the College, where we were chosen largely for our intelligence, it seems that experiences with different types of people are in short supply. Ignorance, on the other hand, is not. Learning should not just come from books but, to solve this problem, we must force ourselves to learn both from and about the diverse array of people on campus. It might not help our test scores, but it will help us navigate the diversity of the world outside of Williams.

One of the benefits of attending an institution like Williams is the access we have to people of varying backgrounds. People travel far and wide to study here and bring with them different languages, cultures and ideas. As an institution, we are constantly striving for diversity because it is beneficial to us as individuals to learn how to interact with different kinds of people, especially when we leave the College after graduation. Diversity is not limited to just race but can be expanded to include a plethora of factors, such as socioeconomic status, upbringing, language, culture and sports. However, what is missing is the appropriate forum for that diversity to be discussed. It’s great to have diversity, but if we are not engaging each other in open dialogue, then what’s the point?

The nature of the College is one of political correctness. Most people are afraid of offending each other and are very wary of appearing ignorant or racist. When I participate in discussions about race, most people just shut down because the topic makes them uncomfortable. They quickly change the topic or examine it from an outside perspective as opposed to using their own experiences or trying to find the deeper meaning behind what was said.

Ignorance is somewhat responsible for incidents that have partially spurred the need to form Claiming Williams, a movement to address indifference and hate on campus by fostering dialogue about difference. On more than one occasion, for example, I have overheard students making stereotypical comments about the Black Student Union (BSU), yet they have neither attended a BSU meeting nor have they bothered to ask any of its members about the group’s functions.

Claiming Williams is a great start in that it provides a forum for discussion, but it is a very formal structure. Conversations should be held more frequently and in more informal settings. There are people who need the intimacy of a one-on-one conversation in a common room as opposed to one with a large group in the classroom, but we need to get to the level of comfort where we can just say what we mean without fear of being judged. Claiming Williams attempts to address broad issues of diversity, but let’s get down to the day-to-day questions to address ignorance. You have to feel comfortable enough to ask me why I perm my hair before we can truly have a meaningful conversation on the politics of black hair.
To ask questions, we have to allow ourselves to make mistakes. We are so insulated in this purple bubble that having the forum to engage our peers in informal dialogues can only benefit us. We should be able and willing not only to ask questions that make us uncomfortable, but also be open-minded in answering the uncomfortable questions that are posed to us. We are naturally curious people, but the idea that we cannot openly ask members of a different group about their culture and background for informational purposes only serves to create a wider gap within the community.

Let’s start narrowing this gap by putting ourselves in situations that would make us uncomfortable. We already have Claiming Williams, but what about a day of sharing where we would all wear a common sticker that would signify that we are open to those uncomfortable questions so that people could ask us questions without fear of causing offense? We should be able to ask these questions on any given day, but something – stickers or otherwise – is necessary to get it started. By sheer numbers, minorities are outnumbered. But rather than denouncing their differences by ignoring them, let’s embrace difference in a manner that will allow for knowledge to be shared. Let’s put ourselves out there and learn from each other. Let the conversations begin.

Nordia Savage ’10 is an American studies major from Hartford, Conn.