In the wake of hatred, hope for change

In the earliest hour of Saturday morning, a hate crime was perpetrated and later discovered on a bathroom wall in Prospect House. The community has since united in a manner unseen in over 30 years. What became clear, though, was that the hateful words scrawled on that wall were not the root of the student action that led to Monday’s cancellation of classes. Instead, this action was a response to a culture of silence surrounding all forms of discrimination at the College; the words in Prospect were simply the last straw. Monday helped to break that silence, and it is important that we engage with the day’s implications. Going forward, we believe that the College community must concentrate on two questions: how discrimination can be addressed on campus effectively, and how we can endow all students with the tools to wrestle with these issues effectively when they leave campus.

Though the administration’s response on Saturday morning and afternoon was inadequate, faculty and administrators listened to student demands on Sunday and cancelled classes – a decision that allowed the community to engage in forums of unprecedented emotional power.

Monday’s events were revelatory for a vast range of students, including many who have traditionally avoided discussions of diversity and acceptance. Students of all backgrounds heard their classmates and many, for the first time, listened. While Monday gave many victims of discrimination an outlet for their fear, frustration and anger, the events of that day also  impressed upon students the power of their words and their ability to harm in myriad and often invisible ways.

If we are committed to the ideals we have identified as a community in the last few days and to preventing our campus response from becoming a divisive movement, we must remember to consider the range of opinions that have emerged.

Perhaps stopping our lives for a day gave the perpetrator power – but it also empowered the community to share, to listen, to learn, to grow. Perhaps we cannot do so in the “real world” – but that is the very point. Of course students cannot always expect entire communities outside the College to drop their normal schedules to address hate crimes or cultures of discrimination. But this day was necessary for our community, and it was filled with opportunities to learn and reflect in ways that no classroom can provide. We realize that the purple bubble we are so fond of is as real a world as any, complete with pain, discomfort and fear. That so many students came to recognize this reality demonstrates the unrivaled potency of Monday’s events.

Additionally, the courage to stand in front of a crowd, to tell people that the words they use are wrong, to listen when people voice what they feel and to organize powerful public events are all skills that are highly relevant and applicable to the lives we will continue to live away from the College. In the events of the past few days, these were skills that were undoubtedly on display – and for many, learned.

For the campus as a whole, Monday provided us with a crash course in the discriminatory landscape of the College. We at the Record are grateful for and supportive of the decision to cancel classes. We applaud all of the students who contributed on Monday. What they have done is remarkable. Most impressive of all, though, was the organic, community-oriented nature of the event. From the morning march to the 7 p.m. Goodrich meeting about proposals for proceeding, Monday was the product of heavy, messy, student-driven discussion. Students spoke and listened who never planned on speaking and listening before Monday – and consequently, people felt things they never planned on feeling. It was this organic, thoughtful-but-open planning that allowed us to break through the culture of silence on Monday.

In the coming days and months, we must continue to allow organic growth while also improving our institutional response. The administration, the Multicultural Center, the forthcoming ad hoc committee and other groups should consider concrete ways to address the proposals that students generate, and should work equally hard to come up with their own proposals. At the same time, we need students to remain creative and open-minded about how to generate change on this campus. It was an important part of the healing process for our community that something unfathomable like a hate crime led to a response that was uncontained, a response that was the product of hours of student-led, highly emotional and highly ambitious conversation.

In this vein, we would like to support a concept that does not require the kind of nuanced discussion as many of the other highly impressive ideas that the community is considering. The implementation of an effective peer counselor and diversity training program, mandatory for leaders of all student groups and available to all students, will ensure the following crucial result: that by the nature of the way this campus operates, every single person will have access to the skills needed to listen to victims of discrimination and respond to acts of hatred.

This campus is not the same place it was on Friday. It is by no means a different enough campus, however, and perhaps it never will be. But it is both our greatest challenge and our most sincere duty not to let the incomprehensible nature of this hate crime – and the ongoing, perpetual hatred that we are discovering is a reality – immobilize us in our efforts to enact change. The events of the last few days have demonstrated how powerful this community truly is. In this time of upheaval, it is important that we harness that power.

Comments (2)

  1. 11/18/11
    To the Editor

    I have read in the Record with great interest the campus reaction to the disgusting graffiti posted on campus. My reaction frankly is that I had no idea discrimination was such a serious and rampant situation at Williams. Accordingly the letter I wrote to President Falk below may put me in the category of “you just don’t understand the situation”. If so I apologize

    Dear President Falk’

    As a loyal Eph and as a Liberal and strong supporter of racial equality, I have mixed feelings about the recent racial incident at Williams.

    On the one hand It was a heinous thing to have happen on your campus, in your dorm, causing deadly serious concern among those living there. The perpetrator should indeed be found and punished. If he/she’s a student he/she should be immediately expelled.

    While I partially agree with the dramatic and swift proactive response of the college, on the other hand, should the entire college be punished for this crime? Is there not some other way to show the college’s disgust for this act? With the Penn State situation fresh in our minds, I agree it is important to show forcibly, widely, and visibly that the college does not, in even the slightest way, tolerate bigotry of any form. But I also feel it is important not to let such acts detract anyone from their responsibilities as students, teachers, coaches, maintenance people, administrators etc.

    I just wish there had been some other less damaging way to express the college’s outrage

    William K. Paton, Williams, class of 1951

  2. To someone who attended Williams years ago, the campus-wide reaction to this incident seems somewhat one-sided and strange. Could it be that the person who perpetrated this was not in fact part of “our community?” Could it be that the person who wrote the racist remark desired to discredit Williams and knew exactly how to accomplish it? Might that person have been an over-heated Amherst student about to attend the football game the next day, someone wearing a tee-shirt with a negative message about Williams (unknown in our day) while doing so? Is anyone aware of the numerous incidents across the country where racially charged messages have been planted at educational institutions to do exactly this? Finally is it not a possibility that in the desire to eradicate racism and “fear” from every human heart ( an impossible task even at Williams) that real dialog and debate will be crushed instead of empowered and the atmosphere of fear made worse? And finally, why after all the years of “diversity training” must Williams heed the implications of President Falk’s remarks, namely that Williams as a community must start all over again? Something isn’t working. Perhaps there is an incentive in it not working. I am not staying someone should have called a custodian and simply wiped the wall clean and forgotten about it. I am saying that as long as we continue reward the attention-getters by a huge reaction, these kinds of incidents will continue to happen.

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