Recognizing difference

It has come to my attention throughout the past two years, as a result of conversations with community members and leaders of student organizations as well as members of the faculty and staff, that Williams has not yet fully embraced a liberal arts ethos grounded in diversity and a tolerance of difference. At this juncture, with Claiming Williams only days behind us and the petitioning for a Muslim chaplain under way, we must reflect on the recognizability of differences at the College, by which I mean Williams’ ability to provide the resources for a culture wherein differences are not only conferred the right to exist but also appreciated and valued.

Involvement at the College has exposed me to a variety of issues that can be, for intelligibility’s sake, collapsed under the categories of intellectualism, religiosity, art, ethnicity, literariness, sexuality and humanitarianism, although these categories are, in reality, intertwined and sometimes indiscernible. What followed from my exposure to, and subsequent engagement with, these issues was my realization of the striking need that many students have for appropriate, proportional and safe modes of recognizability, which the College, considering its particular history and past exclusivist admissions process, has yet to offer. After reflecting on conversations with students, I realized that the College’s efforts to create a culture of tolerance, through events and structures like the diversity requirement, the entry system and Claiming Williams, were viewed as problematic. This space does not allow an explanation of the complex reasons behind those sentiments, but the most relevant to my purpose can be introduced: With the advent of “solutions” to the above characterization of the problem, “tolerance” and “recognition of difference” became capacities to be taken care of by a particular Hopkins Hall-inspired event or structure and not capacities that must come about as a result of constant effort on the part of students. Put simply, the mistaken rhetoric revolved around statements like: The entry system creates diversity and tolerance, de jure, and I feel no need to take care of that which is already taken care of. This type of rhetoric has allowed many responsible entities to find some illusory relief while issues continue to transpire.

Consider, for example, the percentage of students who attended a critical mass of events that would satisfy the goal of Claiming Williams. Evidently, a significant number of students – mostly those for whom the day was created – did not attend events and were subsequently disconnected from the spirit of the day.

There are important benefits to empowering marginalized groups, but we must be aware of the extent to which these benefits are allowed to transpire outside of the rooms and theater spaces occupied by a minority of students. In the past two months alone (including the day after Claiming Williams), I have heard of four racial incidents from the afflicted students themselves, none of which were formally acknowledged by College Council or the College administration, and there is a plethora of similarly disconcerting incidents that have revolved around cultural heritage, sexuality and religiosity, many of which remain undisclosed.

I am suggesting that Williams, as constituted by a relatively diverse student body, has not yet provided recognizability for the majority of students on the margin, and that this has led to phobic incidents and what appears to me to be a remarkable desire among students in the first-year class to transfer. Granted, Williams is small and its resources are limited; it asks us to acknowledge, understandably, that ideal and case-specific recognizability is impossible. Yet, there are highly viable and pragmatic steps the College can take toward such an ideal. There have been milestones in Williams’ past (e.g. the establishment of the Multicultural Center, the hiring of a Queer Life Coordinator) that continue to be more than simply convenient “structures” and “events” and which benefit not just a categorized group of students, but the community at large. The hiring of a Muslim Chaplain may prove to be the next such milestone and undermine the current culture of conformity – one in which members with a particular propensity mold themselves against the normative horizon, and all those with no such propensity are left at the cruel end of this otherwise unlikely social experiment we call Williams College.

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