In pursuit of progress

December 9, 2015 by Tyrone Scafe

Last Thursday, Penny Sun ’16 and Bushra Ali ’17 sent an email to the student body responding to their proposed capacity to help choose student representatives to serve on the newly formed Committee to Consider Historical Representation on Campus. Their decision to refuse this invitation is momentous, and deserves its own wave of student responses. Whereas their action rests on pillars responding to the decentering of collective input, the efficacy of cosmetic approaches and the oft-undemocratic nature of appointed committees, their gesture evokes rhetoric that is not indicative of any one group’s position, but rather is critical to bridging dialogues occurring across the entirety of campus. In many ways, their letter is positioned to serve as an impetus toward long-term, substantive dialogues about the trajectory of our institution’s values and core pillars and the possibility of reshaping that trajectory, if we want it to serve that purpose.

For one, Sun and Ali’s letter is principled by commitments to community, through their willingness to engage both the broad public realm and community life, which our institution holds to the same level as our commitment toward promoting academic virtue. In the same way that academics here at the College push at the fringes of their established boundaries, our civic realm should push in a direction that fosters the organic evolution of our community. These two ideals are not distinct and exist to evolve together. While the hub of the Committee to Consider Historical Representation on Campus is located around its meditations on the mural depicting Mohawk Chief Hendrick and founder of the College Ephraim Williams, its broader potential to consider and contextualize the College’s colonial legacy in conjunction with violent accumulation and dispossession prove most valuable.

Despite its potential, the committee does have its limits. The vagueness of this committee offers little insight into its actual employment; I am curious as to how this committee would differ from the already established Committee on Diversity and Community. What holes would it fill specifically? And, if none, then why do we need it? In many ways, it also seems to serve as a proactive step to avoid the protests occurring at institutions such as Princeton, Yale, Amherst and the University of Missouri and internationally at the University of Cape Town. Although noble, one could easily imagine this action as an attempt to avoid the conversations that these institutions are forced to have because of student action. If this notion is correct, I can only predict this state of calm persisting until an administrative oversight surfaces. All of this is indicative of a necessary, deeper-seeded conversation this letter could generate. However, if you are unaware of this conversation, I invite you to push deeper for the undercurrent, for I can only show you the way. Malcolm X once said: “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound.” This articulation of progress is inviting and goes against the grain of the dominant idea of progress because it does not just call for the abolition of debilitating obstructions, but it also gestures toward the possibility of having a transformative community.

Let me explain what I am referring to by “transformative community.” It is not merely a gesture toward utopian visions or an escape from the current moment. Students nationally seem to be preoccupied with a desire for quick solutions for problems with systemic roots, but I am urging our campus to remove these blinders for a quick solution in favor of the praxis of process. Dialogue and its fruits suture this very praxis of process.

Now to those who criticize the political correctness of our College and nation as a whole, I want to acknowledge your claims. At times, this culture may detract from what may be constructive dialogue, but I invite you to push your analysis further. Where are we in our historic moment? Why are students across the nation identifying similar structures and raising similar concerns with little to no communication? In the North, South, East, West and Midwest, students are identifying structures and cultures that are deep-seeded in the day-to-day operation of their institutions. Why is it that the student presence at the Diversity and Equity forum last Sunday nearly increased by 700 percent from the first meeting in some part because of Sun and Ali’s letter, yet the letter itself received no formal or informal acknowledgement from the administration that it addressed?

There are people who will read this op-ed and not comprehend what I am alluding to, and that is okay. However, there is a larger contingent that will read this op-ed and that will refuse to engage with the intellectual fruit provided because they view it as poison. It is time that we as a community acknowledge the truth sitting in the room, or at least acknowledge we may not be capable of talking about it. While there is no such thing as a perfect community, I am calling on my intelligent, passionate, otherworldly Williams community to reflect on what exactly makes my words so repugnant. Students are trying to find ways to transform the institution so that it no longer thinks about the daily encounters with the embedded racism – in addition to its classism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, its ableism – as isolated events, but part of a wider system. I am merely talking about ideas.

In closing, I call on our administration to reconsider this committee. In lieu of this committee, I urge them to organize proactively with students, faculty and staff to build organic coalitions that effectively confront issues germane to our college, our country and our world.

Tyrone Scafe ’17 is an American studies and political science double major from Waukegan, Ill. He lives in Sage.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

hc January 14, 2016 at 6:53 pm

“Students nationally seem to be preoccupied with a desire for quick solutions for problems with systemic roots, but I am urging our campus to remove these blinders for a quick solution in favor of the praxis of process. Dialogue and its fruits suture this very praxis of process.”

Thank you for this well written perspective.

The attempts to capture elements of BLM and “trap” the movement entirely in an argument about free speech miss the point.

That said, you can have a conversation about the importance of maintaining historical representation- such as the Haystack Monument, the mural in the log, and even the flying of the American Flag at Paresky; while discussing such objects as a part of contemporary oppression.

The current segment of this narrative that focuses on history and the censorship of historical production runs the risk of being exploited by those who
“refuse to engage with the intellectual fruit provided, because they view it as poison.”

The assumption seems to be that this generation of elite academics believes that it is not bound within the confines of its own cultural production, which is a false assumption. However, I refuse to accept that our generation should have the power to banish representations of the past. If we do so, we not only change what we see, we assume to know what is correct for future generations to see. We need to come together and build our own design, our own monuments- which can then be scrutinized by “more enlightened” generations to come.

It is also hard for some of us locals (me included), to get a sense of oppression from students who are members of the academic elite- at places like Williams College. To some of us the college represents authority. An authority that uses its power (big money) in ways we often disagree with. At times a bully. Perhaps we have that in common, in some way?

Still, the use of “micro-aggressions” as an excuse to cover art, banish journalists from “safe spaces”, and to berate leaders/ have them fired for any mistake- is draconian. It does not lead to understanding or unity- it leads to things like the formation of this committee- which I believe both you and I suspect “could be” a bogus distraction. Please correct me if I am misrepresenting that part of your opinion.

As you identified, this is distraction away from the larger systemic problem of bias-racism, sexism, classism etc. A very real and proven problem.

A focus on “suspicious methods” creates negative visibility. Perhaps such negative visibility is better than less visibility? Any press is good press when struggling to find a voice. That may be true, but as you suggest, this design runs the risk of distortion if it is allowed to grow past the point of gained media coverage, and reactionary formations.

Such methods are conflated with the thinly veiled fallacy of a new cultural revolution. What comes next- the denial of any other monument which depicts another Ephs service in war? A berating of the World War Two generation that designed the Williams narrative for a generation? Removal of town monuments that honor my, and others, service in war? This only creates division- and will be exploited to ruin visibility of the systemic problems that exist. Those are some fears.

The covering of the mural at the log needs to be explained. Banishing such a historical representation not only denies the fact the of the event- the death of Ephraim Williams and Mohawk Chief Hendrick (who died in combat together in the same battle as allies) but also the representation of it by past Ephs. It seems to be taken for granted that most of us simply understand that such a representation is “wrong”- that such a depiction of Native American heritage at Williams and in Colonial America is evil.

Why is it evil? Why is it wrong?

How does covering up or banishing such historical representation to a museum “pull the knife out?”

And again- I am stuck inside a side narrative about speech and representation, rather than the crux of the issue- unity and equality. Equal treatment for all to the best of our ability.

Does this represent progress? I don’t think so.

You are calling on your “intelligent, passionate, otherworldly Williams community to reflect on what exactly makes my words so repugnant.”

That is fair. Some people will refuse to accept the passion you have for the issue. I’d like to see some response to your concerns in this letter. I am not a “Williams person”, but I do not think the design of your editorial represents a division of “Williams as other/ smarter” in any way.

Again, thank you for this well written and insightful piece.

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