Courageous discourse

There are a lot of ways students can be leaders at Williams, and one of the most underappreciated ones is to be an activist. Activists make us uncomfortable by shaking our community out of its collective contentment with the status quo. They demand that Williams be more inclusive and fair. They were activists who took over Hopkins Hall in 1969; they said “stand with us” as they marched through the libraries in 2009, and formed a group called “Students Against Silence” in 2011. Two weeks ago, activists wrote an open letter to the community, and ever since there have been heated late-night conversations in entry common rooms and in dining halls as Williams tries to make sense of it all.

The letter written by Cinnamon Williams ’16 and Ahmad Greene-Hayes ’16 has a base of support, although most students object to parts (if not most) of it. Troubling for both its inaccuracy and offensiveness is the accusation that Williams is currently complicit in “white supremacy.” While white privilege exists at Williams, the “white supremacist” accusation – which came up in the letter, the comments on the Record’s Facebook page and in the All Campus Entertainment (ACE) moderated forum in Griffin 3 – cannot be part of any reasonable dialogue.

So too is the claim that the Williams administration is not committed to addressing institutionalized bias and discrimination. The collective work of student activists and administrators in the 1960s to dismantle fraternities and recruit more minority students and faculty bears evidence to the contrary. More recently, the College set up a bias incident reporting website and hired Meg Bossong ’05 to improve sexual assault prevention and response at Williams.

Also present in the letter was their protest of Bloomberg’s imminent arrival in Williamstown for Commencement. While I admire Bloomberg’s overall tenure as mayor of New York and am thrilled he’s coming to campus, Cinnamon and Ahmad’s letter reveals an uncomfortable truth that will rattle me as I await my diploma on June 8. Some of my classmates will have the person who sends them off into the world be someone that has come to represent an unjust, possibly unconstitutional policy that systematically oppresses people of color: stop-and-frisk. I have no idea how I would feel in their shoes and as a community, we should empathize with their Commencement day ordeal.

So I’m glad Cinnamon and Ahmad wrote the letter, and you should be too. You don’t have to agree with all (or most) of it to appreciate the courage it takes to challenge your community to improve. For most of its history Williams was an all white male institution, and the letter slipped under the Record’s door illustrates that we still have a long way to go to make Williams a place where every student feels safe and included.

But there’s another type of activism that’s just as important: being a change agent within the institutions that need to improve. I’ve seen some students reject this version of activism in the last few weeks. At the ACE forum, some students shot down the idea of joining ACE to help it better represent all students. Check out the barrage of comments on the Record’s Facebook page, and you’ll see ridicule of writing op-eds or joining the Record staff.

I hope these students change their minds because student leadership organizations at Williams like the Record, College Council (CC), ACE and the JA system need those voices. Obviously, this is easier said than done. All of those institutions tend to be whiter than the student body as a whole. As anyone who has ever had to represent his or her entire race, gender or sexual orientation in a classroom can tell you, constantly being the dissenting voice is challenging. So I do not suggest this form of activism lightly or propose that it will be easy. Williams needs activists in CC who will speak up and explain why a policy or budget may marginalize low-income students. We need activists in the Record who will call out language in an article that is too flippant about sexual assault.

Being that type of person is courageous, and that’s what activism is. It was courageous of Cinnamon and Ahmad to put their name on something they knew the majority of their classmates would disagree with.

We need more of that, because there is still work to be done to make Williams a more inclusive place where we all feel at home. The entry system enjoys the support of about 90 percent of the student body, but the 10 percent who did not have a good entry experience tend to be overwhelmingly first-generation and students of color. Williams’ varsity sports teams tend to be whiter and wealthier than the student body as a whole. Fortunately, there is also progress. Low-income students can now get financial support to buy their gear so they will not be priced off the field.

We may not all be able to claim Williams equally, but we’re all here together. This wonderful school will continue to improve, and both types of activists have a role to play.

Max Heninger ’14 is a political science major from Lake Oswego, Ore. He lives on Park St.

Comments (17)

  1. You don’t speak for me. What is this majority of students that disagrees? I, and everyone I’ve spoken to (which is not just some political fringe) about this has found Cinnamon and Ahmad’s thesis compelling. Any faults that have been discussed have been minor faults or things that the entire community should think about.

    A resistance to changing institutions that privilege white men is part of what is meant by white supremacy. It reveals a feeling that what works for the privileged is fine and that those who benefit from it need not submit to change. I agree that joining institutions and making demands of them is a good way to change them, but what on earth is this patronizing dismissal of the letter doing here?

    1. To the author and Tony,
      Although I agree we should not dismiss the letter and that one person does not speak for us all, I have to say that I like seeing push back against Ahmad’s and Cinnamon’s letter. As a non-white person, I felt that, although the letter makes some good points, it was unfair in some ways.
      For example, the part of the letter that states that the person complainning against Chance the Rapper was a white male. Yes, this individual was white and male, but he was also queer. Now I am not a queer person myself (so please correct me if I am mistaken or say things the wrong way), but I do understand that people who identify as queer are often discriminated against and in some cases physically assaulted. Trying to play this game of who has been hurt more by our system gets us no where.
      I know what it feels like to be put down because of your identity, and I stand by anyone who has suffered the same, regardless of the color of their skin, sexual preferrence, and/or gender.
      So back to the Cinnamon letter, I appreciate that you speak up, but this letter does not speak for me.

      1. first off, tony go in and go awf! secondly, I hear what you’re saying Ted, but the point Cinnamon and Ahmad were making by pointing out his status as a white male, was to show the privilege of priority given to him that was not afforded to students of color. Yes, the student is queer, but that doesn’t negate his status as a white male. Just because you’re marginalized/oppressed in one area of life, doesn’t mean you don’t hold privilege in another. You state that you don’t want to play oppression olympics, but you did just that with your statement.

        Lastly, going back to the article and in regards to what Tony said, Max you do not have any authority to dictate how students should promote their cause/how to be agents of change. That right there is your privilege peaking through, it’s all about what’s comfortable for you to see. There is no change without conflict. Conflict is neither nice nor calm. So you’re right, these students are shaking things up because this college has been rendered immobile, stuck in time because of it’s pandering to white male students.
        You mention that you’ve seen students reject the form of activism you’re proposing, don’t you think there’s a reason for that? Change from the inside is possible, but slow and at times ineffective. One voice amid 20 won’t do enough. It’s just simply not enough. Not when these voices are silenced continuously through non-published letters in the record and various council meetings.
        This is not supposed to be comfortable for you, it’s not supposed to be comfortable for anyone. Change is difficult, radical, and necessary. In order for it to happen you and our fellow students need to cast away the notion that things are aggressive are wrong. Change is conflict.

        1. Arielle, you begin your critique of the Record article by claiming that the author does “not have any authority to dictate how students should promote their cause/how to be agents of change.” You then spend the rest of your comment detailing how students should promote their cause and how to be agents of change. What, exactly, gives you the right to do so? Don’t students have the right to choose between the options offered by Max and those described in your comment?

          1. i actually in my previous comment i detailed WHY his proposed method of activism MAY not work or WHY students have rejected it. i never said “this is the way you should do it”. however i did say that “change is conflict”. i do believe that in order for a powerful and radical change some “aggressive” tactics are needed, tactics that max and the rest of the student body is shying away from.
            this is not to say that change from the inside does not work, because it definitely does. you’re right, students do have the right to choose how they go about activism. but my broader point was that we shouldn’t be looking down on students who choose a more aggressive mode of protest. max brought up the occupation of hopkins,a protest that students today would consider that abrasive and belligerent. these students were courageous and in the end achieved their goal to some degree. Other modes of activism may not be as swift. That is all that i’m saying.
            You’re trying to find holes in what i said, and deem my comment invalid the same way i did max, but here’s the fault with that: i’m not white, nor am i male. I am privileged in being a cis-gendered heterosexual woman who attends this institution, but i am not of the dominant power dictating what people should or should not do to make me more comfortable, both at williams and in america. I explicitly said that change is uncomfortable for everyone. SO while I admire the fact that you’re trying to keep power balances in check, i think you need to know who you’re speaking to and who you’re responding to. I still have no authority to tell students “this is the proper mode of activism”, but i can say that there is a pattern. when conflict happens, a change comes. evidenced by hopkins ’69, and the civil rights movement.

  2. Although I admire Greene-Hayes and Williams’ letter on the whole, the bits (three, by my count) describing Williams’ role in perpetuating “white supremacy” reminded me of Inigo Montoya’s line in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” White supremacy is a phrase with a very specific meaning in American history, and I don’t think it should be tossed around lightly. Williams is an institution with a lot of problems, but it certainly does not support anti-miscegenation laws, lynch mobs, or other hallmarks of the white supremacist movement. I’m sure I’ll be accused of tone policing, but we at the very least need to be careful with our language.

    Bottom line: Is Williams a racist institution? Probably. Is it a white supremacist institution? Absolutely not. Accusing Williams of such is simply ludicrous.

    1. Actually, the term “white supremacy,” while it certainly encompasses the events you discuss, is not as anachronistic as you imply. It is used in academic circles today to describe a system of structural racism, regardless of whether racial hatred is present. Here is a definition from Legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley:

      “By “white supremacy” I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.[11][12]””

      This definition of ‘white supremacy’ is certainly applicable at Williams. It seems to me that Green-Hayes and Williams chose their words with care– they are not simply using terms for dramatic effect.

  3. What Williams needs is not for marginalized peoples to occupy roles in systems that have been used to make them feel silenced, but for those who already occupy these positions of power to shift their concerns to include those of ALL students– students of color, women, LGBTQ students, disabled students, students of low income backgrounds, religious students, the list goes on. Some groups do a better job than others of doing this work. What Williams needs is a commitment to intersectionality and allyship. Just because you don’t carry a particular oppressed identity doesn’t mean the struggle of people who do is irrelevant to you. Stop asking other people to do your work for you and actually take a step to learn, to join in a courageous discourse. Please.

    1. ^ The two (student activists making their voices heard by joining institutions and institutional change via existing members) do not seem to be mutually exclusive imperatives.

  4. ^ The two (student activists making their voices heard by joining institutions and institutional change via existing members) do not seem to be mutually exclusive imperatives.

  5. Fact racism comes in all different forms and is a different experience for each individual. Each generation will continue to do the same as long as the mind set is the same. (Setting some parts of the country back in time.) Its like you wanting my brain but not my input on any matters. America will never progress like this.ALWAYS TREAT PEOPLE LIKE YOU WANT TO BE TREATED! No matter where they come from or there skin color.

  6. Carolina, thank you for defining white-supremacy. What you defined is a widely accepted definition.

    Adam, it’s funny that you tried to point out the misuse of a word you didn’t know the meaning of. This seems to happen a lot at Williams: privileged people trying to pick apart the arguments of POC who undoubtedly have thought about these issue more and are better acquainted with the subjects they’re talking about.

  7. FLAGRANT. If you want to have a reasonable discussion, you can’t dictate the discourse. I see that you are well-intentioned, but parts of your argument are problematic. For instance, it is possible for Williams College to make progress in some areas while still neglecting the demands and struggles of certain groups of students. The continued efforts to prevent and deal with sexual assault and rape culture on campus do not negate the lack of progress and commitment to change in other areas. The institution can still reinforce the white supremacy and many systems of oppression while making progress in some areas. The claim that Williams is doing so is neither an inaccurate nor offensive claim–the only offensiveness lies in the fact that these white supremacist tendencies still exist. The fact that you took offense echoes Malcolm’s offense at MFC’s means of dealing with sexual assault, and I wonder why it is that so many op-eds the Record have published recently REEK of white male privilege who want to take part in activism but only in a way that caters to their emotions and needs.

    Discourse cannot be “courageous” if you police it by banning language that makes you feel guilty or uncomfortable.

  8. ***a small addendum to my reply– as a heterosexual I do have privilege because i’m a part of the group that has the dominant power

  9. It is odd to see people from the most elite college on earth debate privilege in a setting where the entity they belong to controls the vast majority of capital resources in a town. Williams currently dominates the economic landscape from Pittsfield, to Pownal, to North Adams. If there was not a mountain range to the west, that area would be dominated too.

    My point is that you are all arguing inside the bubble. Something to think about. How do you think the college has treated working poor and impoverished people in Northern Berkshire county? Has it been beneficial to have a single entity control so much wealth? The American Legion and the Williams Inn- the most recent examples of Williams’ expansion beyond the limitations of academic vision. The demographics of the town has been gentrified because of Williams. Williams is a tax free institution that also happens to be a powerhouse that controls the narrative, resources and development in the surrounding towns. Is it right for such an institution to take such a massive economic position and dominate an area?

    No one inside the bubble publically raised an eyebrow when the school settled with food services for ‘mishandling’ their tips. If this kind of behavior is accepted within the elite institution- aren’t you really all just focusing on insular subjects? You are losing the bigger picture. It is very convenient to deny your own entitlement.

    Bloomberg is a terrible choice. Although the policy specifically targets minorities- Stop and Frisk should be equally offensive to us all. You should protest during commencement in support of each other if you believe that such a man does not deserve the honor of giving a final message for your class, the honor of a degree. But as you do, be aware that in many ways Williams supports what he stands for- greed.

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