Silenced by fear

The “Usual Suspects”: A Minority Coalition representative, a couple of Black Student Union members, some people from the Queer Student Union and a large constituency of past BRIDGES participants. These groups lead most of the discussions regarding diversity and racism on campus, and this past Claiming Williams Day was no exception.

Last Thursday, I attended The Color of Fear, a movie and discussion on Claiming Williams Day about racism. One student astutely pointed out that members of these minority groups were the primary attendees at the event, to which another student sarcastically responded that everyone else was at Yard by Yard (another event that focused on the role of athletics at Williams).

People agree that fear begets racism, but here at Williams fear also prevents us from talking about it. Fear deters us from engaging in honest, productive dialogue on diversity and racism: fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of seeming ignorant, fear of being perceived as racist. Such fear deters many people from even entering the discussion.

The Color of Fear chronicles a two-day discussion on race between eight men of various ethnic backgrounds. One character, a middle-aged Caucasian man named David, continually makes politically incorrect and patronizing remarks. David throws around pejorative phrases like “you people” in reference to minorities and refuses to believe the stories of racism shared by his fellow discussants.

I cringed and groaned with disdain as I watched David typify the well-intentioned but ignorant and insensitive white man. At Williams, if someone espoused politically incorrect opinions, they would most likely be chastised and characterized as ignorant, or worse – racist.

The characters in the film share my revulsion and frustration towards David. But, despite their emotional tension and contempt, they continue on with the discussion. Ironically, David’s frank (albeit offensive) comments reveal the root cause of his cavalier attitude towards racism, which leads to progress. Once the other characters identify David’s true motives, they are able to address his specific concerns and enter a productive dialogue. The movie ends with everyone hugging and expressing appreciation for their newfound understanding of racism.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in the movies. The scene depicted in The Color of Fear is foreign to the Williams campus. Most Ephs would never dare make any remark that could be construed as racist. We berate the “Davids” on campus without regard to their intent. As a result, frozen by fear, we regurgitate bland, politically correct, already accepted beliefs. But we will never make progress if we suppress our true thoughts and questions.

Changing the scope of dialogue will be neither pleasant nor easy, but it is necessary. Just as studying the material you already know for a midterm is ineffective, asking the questions you already know the answers to or discussing community issues with a homogeneous audience is futile.

At Williams, people bring a variety of experiences to the discussion on race and diversity. However, the conversation should be open to everyone, regardless of the background that they were born into. We don’t control our economic class or skin color or ethnic community and we should not alter our involvement in discussions based on those factors. Rather, we all need to recognize the power we have and do our part to expand the dialogue.

For those who feel excluded from the conversation: Ask questions and risk sounding like an idiot. Break out of your comfort zone and explore the various resources available. Seek out opportunities to learn and share your own experiences and thoughts – as a member of the Williams community you are entitled to the discussion, even if you have never been a minority or a victim in your life.

For those who have a substantial claim to the conversation: Invite and encourage greater involvement. To do so, you must at times tolerate ignorance and have the strength to delay judgment. Instead of immediately condemning someone for an insensitive or ignorant remark, listen. Doing so will encourage people to share their true feelings and questions without being silenced by fear. Educate, share your feelings, disagree, but do so without judging the person – address their beliefs, not their character.

If we wish to claim all of Williams, not just Morley Circle, we must expand the discussion to include everyone, not just the usual suspects. We can emulate the success depicted in The Color of Fear, but we must expand the conversation to include the unusual suspects in order to do so, because race and diversity concern the entire Williams community.