Bleaching our shirts: Beginning a dialogue on the JA system

Today, over 45 Junior Advisors (JAs) from two different JA classes are wearing bleached JA shirts to initiate a dialogue about how the JA system can provide support for JAs and first-year students of color. We write this on behalf of all the JAs who bleached their JA shirts. This action is one of unity; it represents the need to talk about race, socioeconomic class, first-generation status, immigration status and other intersectional identities as barriers to full participation in one of the most central institutions to life at the College.

The action was born from a group of low-income minority JAs seeking a way to resist the problematic practices of the JA system and inspire conversation about these issues. The JA system has been inherently white. It is a system that helps those who need it the least and abandons those who need the most support. We are bleaching our shirts to acknowledge the historic and present whiteness of the JA system. Every single student at the College is affected by the JA system but, unfortunately, it is one that often leaves students of color feeling tokenized and used.

Although progress has been made, the JA system was created during a period when the institution existed exclusively for wealthy, white, male students. For JAs of color, this concern is nothing new. The entry has, and always has been, a space for the majority; a space for those who can “learn” from diversity put around them and crawl back to their own privileged worlds at the end of the night. When we who are marginalized by socioeconomic status, race, religion, nationality, sexuality and sex are quota-ed up into “wholesome” entry units, it is not for our own benefit. There exists great value in the JA system, but to become one that will support all students, these foundational issues must be explicitly addressed. As one current JA of color shared with us, “I believe it’s time for the JA system to take on a new form – stop being proud of purple. Purple is just yet another coded way of saying white. The whitewashed JA shirts are simply a message for those of you who have not been following along.” 

White JAs are no stranger to this dynamic either. “As a white JA, there are so many ways in which I’m privileged […] When I have a chance to stand in solidarity with my fellow JAs and start a conversation […] I want to do so.” JAs are well-respected on this campus and in this community; this action allows us to flex our privilege a bit in order to draw attention to an issue that many of us care deeply about. Today, we are unified in our commitment to continue to improve the JA and entry system.

A study conducted by the Record (“JAs more likely to be white, varsity athletes,” April 20, 2016) about the JAs to the Classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020 found that “students who were not on financial aid, who were varsity athletes and were white were significantly overrepresented in the JA classes relative to the student body.” We are excited that the JAs to the Class of 2021 are more representative of the student body. We want our action today to celebrate this progress while also acknowledging that this is not just about statistics or numbers. It’s about changing a system that hasn’t really changed since this school was entirely white men. We need to think about how the role of a JA has shifted while our school’s definition hasn’t and how that puts a huge burden on marginalized JAs.

One example is that minority JAs disproportionately provide emotional support to minority first-year students who are not in their own entry because these students are not able to seek this support from their own JAs who do not understand the complexities of their identity politics. Furthermore, as Brian Benitez ’18, the co-president of the current JA class, shares, “Diversity and representation within the JA system, without comprehensive support for JAs and first-years from minority backgrounds, is not enough.” There is no institutionalized support for low-income and minority JAs for the unique challenges they will face due to their identities.

This action is in no way an attack on the College, the JA system or other JAs. Rather, it reflects the deep commitment and care that we, as JAs, have for the Williams community and our fellow JAs. It is because we care about this system, and the people within it, that we want it to support and represent every member of the student body. It is because we care about this system, and its people, that we want to improve it.

All of the authors currently serve as JAs to the Class of 2020. Between the five of them, they are pursuing majors in History, Environmental Science, Math, Theatre, Political Science, Biology, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Darla Torres ’18 has served as co-president of the JA class this year.