Continuing the dialogue about the purple shirt: Personal accounts from JAs to the class of 2021

Last spring, the Record published an op-ed written by Junior Advisors to the Class of 2020 (“Bleaching our Shirts: Beginning a Dialogue on the JA System,” April 19, 2017). We, the current co-presidents of the JA class, want to continue that conversation by explaining our choices regarding our JA shirts. Several members of the previous JA class bleached their shirts in the spring to highlight the underrepresentation and lack of support given to minority and low-income students in the entry system.

In the spring of 2017, the JAs to the Class of 2021 discussed what the color of our shirts – purple – meant to us. For some, the shirt represented the historical injustices of the entry system. Others wanted a better way to express their individuality or thought changing the shirt would be a medium to support certain causes. Ultimately, we voted to keep the shirt purple.

Due to the range of motivations, we included the voices of two JAs on this topic. JAs welcome questions about their shirts, but we ask that you also respect if they do not want to justify their decision.We are 52 people, united in being JAs to the Class of 2021. Most importantly, our diversity of backgrounds and ideas is what allows us to be so intentional about the progress we make.

“For my JA shirt, I decided to write my Chinese name on the back with puffy paint. Chinese characters have meaning of their own, and my name means ‘as spacious as the Universe.’ I appreciate this name deeply because it has taught me spaciousness – in the sense of exploring more parts of the world and also in the sense of being open to different opinions and experiences.

When I first came to Williams, I could not imagine myself becoming a JA because I felt like I did not fit the ‘JA type.’ For me that meant someone who is extremely visible on campus, extroverted, outspoken and good at entertaining people. I’m putting my cultural identity on the back of my shirt to individualize my JA experience and to deconstruct the notion of an ideal JA. My shirt is also a way to encourage my frosh to express their personal identities and not feel the pressure to ‘fit in’ to the Williams culture.”

-Julie Geng, Shanghai City, China, economics major and Arabic certificate

“This summer, I voted [to change the purple JA shirts to] tie-dye shirts. Forcing people to wear something they’re uncomfortable with – restricting that freedom – felt immoral. Tie-dye would express our individuality and allow us to choose our clothing. Most importantly, tie-dye would let all JAs be comfortable with their bodies.

But then, for various reasons, the JAs voted to keep the shirts purple. With that vote, the rhetoric surrounding the JA shirts changed. I’ve been called callous – that my purple shirt ‘could be interpreted as a lack of empathy.’ I’ve been called a bad ally – that I should ‘listen when disenfranchised groups ask for help.’ But I’ve also been called resolute – that ‘too many JAs felt uncomfortable with this change.’

The JA shirt is not a static symbol. For me, and for many others, it represents something positive. It represents leadership, inclusivity and community. The purple is something I look up to. Someone else’s interpretation of this symbol should not be imposed on my beliefs. Moreover, if the catalyst for this change was to let people choose what goes on their bodies, then allyship should not necessitate a loss of that choice.

Though it was largely missed, I did write something on my shirt. I wrote, in small lettering on the back, ‘Changing a shirt is easy. Changing an institution is hard.’ It is undemanding to think, ‘I’ve performed my part. I’ve done my duty. I’ve changed my shirt, and I will stop here.’ But this is not enough. Personally, I want to join SelCom [the JA Selection Committee], and I want to join JAAB [the JA Advisory Board]. I want to make substantive change. I truly want – as we all should – to make this community a better place.”

-Zach Ottati, Walnut Creek, CA, philosophy and English double major

These are only two perspectives on this issue; there are 50 other JAs who each have their own understanding of this change. Another JA will write an opinion next week. Lastly, we want to reiterate that personalizing our JA shirts is in no way meant to be an attack on anyone specific within the Williams community. Our intent in personalizing our shirts was only to reintroduce and explicitly demonstrate our commitment to dialogue about the JA system.

Carol Almonte is an American studies major and Latino studies concentrator from Jackson Heights, N.Y.  She lives in Williams Hall. Jesse Facey is an Arabic studies and Spanish double major from North Kingstown, R.I. She lives in Sage Hall.