In pursuit of empathy: The College’s hate crime problem is not just rooted in hate

I am a hate crime, and I won’t go away. I am Williams.

Following the events of Homecoming weekend, how can we narrow the disconnection between outrage and action that has betrayed our community time and again? Do we need a hate crime hotline a la RASAN? Gender-neutral bathrooms in all campus buildings? More conversations about respect and diversity? Trial and expulsion of students who exhibit racist and homophobic tendencies? That last one is not sarcastic.

Maybe we need all of this, but our hate crimes still will not go away as a result.

We have a diverse student body. We have a Multicultural Center with dedicated, talented staff, several buildings and funding for student identity groups. We have Claiming Williams.

Our hate crimes do not go away because, while there are racists and homophobes and anti-Semites in our community, you needn’t be some such villain to commit a hate crime. You don’t need to sympathize with the Ku Klux Klan. To commit a hate crime, you don’t need to hate. You don’t need to care really, one way or the other.

All it takes to commit a hate crime is an absence of feeling and empathy for fellow humans. If you lack this basic perspective, it might only take one rough night to write a death threat on the wall. If you aren’t used to thinking about other people, you might not take a friend seriously when she is put off by your words. You might tell her to “chill out” or to “stop being so sensitive.” It’s not easy to eat your words when you’re highly conditioned to success and praise, as are most Ephs. And why would a parade of students march around yelling about something that doesn’t seem to affect you? What a waste of time.

We are right to demonstrate against acts of intolerance and hate. But to truly heal our community, we need to shift our focus to an even more fundamental issue – a chilling indifference to the feelings and perspectives of others. While some in our community discriminate, others disrespect everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, hairstyle, whatever. We see it every day, and we do little to stop it. We are too busy or uncomfortable to say anything. We regret that someone has been hurt, but we briskly move on to other matters: a problem set, a rehearsal, a workout.

Addressing this challenge is a monumental task, perhaps unlike any the College has faced before. How do we teach people how to care?

To this end, we must assess our very purpose as an institution. Some will surely argue that the College should not foist upon students any particular set of moral values – even those values inextricable from respect and sensitivity. And it is fair to consider whether any college should be meddling in the realm of interpersonal relationships and imposing rigid views of morality.

But the fact remains that the character of our community, with all due respect to its strengths, continues to fail us. We have come to expect these incidents, and when they happen, we are disgusted, but not shocked. The College needs more than annual diversity workshops, which people who feel immune to bigotry will simply tune out. Rather, we could learn and grow from something, in simple terms, not unlike kindergarten, where students learn to think about how hurtful words and actions can be, whomever the target. This is a skill that requires practice, and we shouldn’t give up after one lackluster attempt, as my entry did.

The most challenging aspect of our response will also be crucial to its success; we need to reckon with the notion that none of us is perfectly respectful or sensitive, nor will we ever be. Disregard for this fact crippled the Stand With Us campaign of 2008, which operated under the assumption that one portion of campus was enlightened while the rest needed a kick in the pants. While Stand With Us accomplished a great deal, including the creation of Claiming Williams, we can do better. It is easy to find flaws in others, but we risk our entire purpose by assuming that we can do no wrong. We all make mistakes, either while lounging in the common room or organizing an impassioned response. A sense of invincibility and righteous indignation can lead to hurtful, callous actions with frightening speed.

Rather than organizing a witch hunt and calling it a day, we will make a bigger, lasting difference by carefully considering our own actions, by resisting willful ignorance and by speaking out against tiny, subtle acts of hate and not just the most extreme instances. This will require bravery and strength, and at first, it will feel awkward. But to finally elevate our community beyond hatred and apathy, we need to reach within ourselves. We cannot move forward by posting death threats of our own, shouting at President Falk and Dean Bolton or clinging to blame and anger. This journey is without an end, and we will do well to carry on with dignity.


Leo Brown ’11 is living in Novosibirsk, Russia, where he is serving as a Fulbright Scholar in education.  

Comments (3)

  1. Thoughtfully conceived. Brilliantly articulated. Thank you, Leo.

  2. Good article. Points well taken.
    Peter Fessenden ’59

  3. These comments go to the heart of what a Williams education- and a global education- should be about. Empathy, the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives, and moral courage are values and skills that are imperative for both a life well lived and navigating the modern world.

    Paul Miller ’70

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