Death threat incites manifold campus reactions

In light of the events of the past few days, originating with the racist hate crime perpetrated in Prospect House late Friday night, student and faculty response has been both powerful and divided. 

Student responses

Jordan Mickens ’12, tri-captain of the men’s basketball team, expressed feelings of support. “We decided as a team that this was really important to support, and as athletes who are visible on campus we wanted to let people know that this is an issue we care about,” he said. Mickens also spoke in the open mic event on Monday.

“I’m here because I’m intensely curious,” said Ford Smith ’12, a member of the men’s cross-country team who attended the march and meeting on Chapin Lawn on Monday morning. “I’m not a minority. I’m here to support my friends who are minorities.” Smith explained that while the team was encouraged to attend the Monday events, team members came on their own individual agenda.

For Maya Hawkins-Nelson ’14, Minority Coalition representative and Black Student Union secretary, racism and discrimination on campus were not things with which she was unfamiliar. “A lot of my friends have these stories that I hear every day about micro-aggressions, flat out racism around their dorms and in their classrooms – even sometimes by their professors,” she said.

In witnessing the turnout for the various events on Monday, Hawkins-Nelson was “pleasantly surprised with the outcomes.” “I remember that I was at the front of the line [during the march] and I couldn’t see the end of the line. I was absolutely overjoyed,” she said. “When Falk was speaking [on Paresky stairs], you could turn around and see a sea of people surrounding the lawn.”

Hawkins-Nelson said that her fear going into Monday’s events was one shared by many involved: that they would be simply “preaching to the choir.” However, Hawkins-Nelson said that she saw many people present during the events that she “didn’t expect to care” about these issues.

However, not all students agree that the events were a beneficial use of time. “Was today constructive? I wouldn’t know,” Jordan Freking ’12 said. “I did not attend any of the events. Sure, maybe a few more people opened their minds, maybe. Or maybe they will just know that they can’t say their racist/sexist/homophobic comments around certain people without being judged for it. How many people were initially affected by the writing? My guess is that very few if any were immediately affected by it. But then, after everyone was able to find out that something happened, everyone was able to jump on the bandwagon and claim that they felt personally attacked and that Williams needs to fix it because they were offended,” he said.

“Just because we live in the bubble doesn’t mean that we aren’t part of a larger society, and in that larger society, people hate people. People love people. People kill people, and people say mean things,” Freking added.

Additionally, while many classes yesterday consisted of discussion of the previous day’s events, not every student felt comfortable in the discussions. “As much as I understand that we can’t completely separate the events of this weekend from our everyday life at Williams, I don’t think that it is appropriate or fair to have these discussions during classes,” Fanny Mlawer ’14 said. “The classroom is supposed to be a safe space, not only for those who want to talk about this weekend and Monday’s events, but also for those who don’t want to talk about it. Attendance at Monday’s events wasn’t mandatory, but attendance in classes generally is; it seems unfair to force discussions of the hate crime and the campus reaction to it on people who, for whatever reason, are not ready or willing to talk about it,” she said.

Students have carried the conversation outside of the forums and classroom and onto the Internet as several Williams Students Online (WSO) threads and Facebook discussions have appeared concerning both the hate crime itself and the collective campus reaction and mobilization. Students who either attended or chose not to participate in the activities on Monday posted their opinions on whether or not the decision to cancel classes was appropriate.

College Council (CC) co-president Francesca Barrett ’12 and CC all-campus community and diversity representative Zach Evans ’12 have begun spearheading conversations about how to direct students away from the more divisive attitudes that surrounded the Stand With Us campaign, which grew out of an instance of racial graffiti in a dorm in the spring of 2008.

“We are already isolating certain students, which detracts from the cause,” Barrett said regarding student comments from the open mic that have alienated certain members of the community in relation to their attendance at Monday’s events. “This is a historic moment for Williams,” she added.

Faculty responses

Many faculty members came out to support the student movement, with over a dozen attending the Sunday afternoon meeting in Goodrich and many more at Monday’s events. Katie Kent ’88, professor of English and chair of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, was one of the first professors to stand up and speak at the Goodrich meeting. “Once I found out [about the crime], I was very upset because of its violent content, as well as its racist intentions, and went immediately to the conversation at Goodrich. Then I went to strategize with other faculty as to what our response might be,” said “None of us knew what was going on, and sending out an e-mail that was vague was much more problematic.”

Other faculty members expressed their support for students dealing with the aftermath of the horrific incident. “I first want students to know that they are not alone in their wrestling [with this issue],” said Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Rhon Manigault-Bryant, who also spoke at the Goodrich meeting on Sunday. “Many of us who address issues concerning race and ethnicity in our daily lives … also have to and will continue to deal with the larger implications of such targeted hatred,” she said.

Reflecting on his personal opinion on canceling classes, Associate Professor of English Gage McWeeny, who serves on the Faculty Steering Committee, saw the proposal as a powerful way to process the event and mobilize for going forward. “Canceling classes would mean disrupting the usual rhythms of our lives here at Williams, giving us an important moment to pause, to take a few deep breaths and try, hard as it is, to think through what happened, as well as what we as a community can do going forward,” he said.

On Monday, the presence of faculty throughout the march, as well as the later speech by members of the administration and students, was sizable. “I’m here today because I have to be here today,” Professor of German Gail Newman said. “I can’t let something like this stand without speaking against it.”

“We have made great strides on this campus since I was a student,” Kent said. “That the administration responded so rapidly to the students’ demands to me represents a welcome and momentous change. But the real thing to applaud here is the courage and determination of so many students, who have worked so hard to organize an amazing set of events. It is up to all of us, faculty, students and staff, to keep that energy going.”

Muslim Chaplain Bilal Ansari spoke at the Goodrich meeting on Sunday, drawing on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. to remind students of the powerful statement of fighting hate with love. “I wanted to remind us that during our most trying times is when love, not hate, will get us through,” he said. In an interview yesterday, Ansari wanted to reinforce his office as a safe space to discuss the incident and any issues and/or questions arising from the crime. “The perpetrator has a room in my office, and has a room with me off campus if they want to talk,” he said. “We need to allow a space for human beings to be forgiven.”

Ansari leaves students with a powerful statement regarding the relationship between students and faculty at the College. “From a political position, I know that the administration’s response was red, in that it was conservative. They are always going to err on the side of caution. The student’s response was blue, meaning liberal ‘we need this’ and ‘we need that,’” he said. “But we live in the Purple Valley, and out of those two colors comes the result of our identity at Williams. We are neither blue nor red, but we are both. And that’s what the world means.”

“The Williams response as a community, the purple response, was what we saw yesterday,” he said. “And yesterday, I learned what it was like to be a part of this beautiful place.”

 

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